I’ve seen many films about amnesia… but can’t remember all of them. Memory-loss became a fashionable plot device in the cinema of the 1940s and ’50s, for a combination of war-related reasons. Psychoanalysis had generated public interest during the interwar era, when institutions founded on the theories of its pioneer, Sigmund Freud, began springing up internationally. One of his early collaborators, Carl Gustav Jung, had also given a series of influential academic lectures in the US during the late-1930s. This interest peaked when Freud became a refugee from the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938 and died the following year in Britain.
The demand for psychological understanding and psychiatric treatment had been fuelled by the sheer number of men returning from war with physical brain injuries, and the invisible mental scars of what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was increasingly likely for the average person to know of someone in need of psychiatric care, so it seems trauma-induced amnesia captured the imagination of several writers who leapt on the idea as a potential narrative element.
The resulting batch of noir thrillers featured protagonists who were just as ‘in the dark’ as the audience: films like Street of Chance (1942), Somewhere in the Night (1946), The October Man (1947), The Crooked Way (1949), and Man in the Dark (1953)—which was the first venture into 3D for Columbia Pictures and a remake of The Man Who Lived Twice (1936).
The psychological thriller was a fast-emerging genre, with Alfred Hitchcock at the vanguard. His film Spellbound (1945), with its famous Dali-designed dream sequence, was probably the most interesting of those early amnesia-themed films, because it focused on the Freudian theory of repressed memories from childhood trauma, rather than the more usual head-injury explanation. It’s perhaps the only film that significantly pre-empts Screaming Mimi (1958), directed by Gerd Oswald and based on Fredric Brown’s influential 1949 novel, which was also the source material that Dario Argento reworked into the screenplay for his seminal giallo, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
The opening scenes of Screaming Mimi were pretty strong stuff, for its time, and influenced many a grindhouse and slasher movie in the following few decades. A voluptuous blonde (Anita Ekberg) emerges from the surf and bounces cheerily across the sands of an idyllic beach, accompanied by her lovable dog. Whilst washing the salt and sand away under the outdoor shower, she hears the dog’s death squeals and is promptly attacked by a knife-wielding maniac. Her screams draw the attention of her stepbrother (Romney Brent), who shoots her molester in the back, leaving her holding the knife in her own bloodied hands. The screaming continues as we read the words emblazoned across the back of her would-be killer’s overalls: ‘Highland Sanitorium’… which is also where she then ends up for psychiatric treatment for her resultant amnesia.
There’s no denying the film’s main selling point was its leading lady. The scene of her rising from the sea is said to have inspired the similar shots in Dr. No (1962) and indeed Ekberg was considered to play the iconic Bond girl, Honey Ryder, but was passed over in favour of Ursula Andress.
Anita Ekberg is now better known as the girl in the fountain from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Her career was built on her considerable physical attributes rather than any remarkable acting talent. She first came to the attention of Hollywood when she took part in the Miss Universe beauty pageant and was offered a studio contract. Only then was she enrolled for acting lessons. Because westerns and costume dramas were so popular at the time, the studio drama programme included sword-fighting and horse-riding. It’s said she only turned up regularly for the riding lessons and neglected the others.
Her first notable part was in the spy thriller Blood Alley (1955), produced by and starring John Wayne, with Lauren Bacall. This led to a handful of starring roles that included Valerie (1957), directed by Gerd Oswald, who then cast her in his next two films: the Bob Hope comedy Paris Holiday (1958) and Screaming Mimi, which was probably the most challenging role of her career and actually required her to act, rather than simply look stunning.
Dr. Greenwood (Harry Townes), her psychiatrist at the ‘Highland Sanitorium’, becomes fascinated… first with her case, and then with her. This was just the fourth in a handful of feature films for Townes, a prolific character actor who worked almost continuously in TV for four decades. With the help of dramatic lighting, he oscillates between carer and creep. To begin with, it’s not quite clear what his intentions are, but when he sees how readily she responds to his brand of hypnotherapy, it isn’t long before Greenwood breaks the doctor-patient code and pursues a romantic relationship. Soon he’s altering medical records, falsifying her death and changing their names before they go on the run together as Mr Bill Green and Miss Yolanda Lange.
With Green posing as her manager they try to make a new life in a new town. She also acquires another pooch, but this time it’s an impressive Great Dane which she names ‘Devil’, and acts as a sort of canine bodyguard. With a twist on the usual ‘woman-in-jeopardy’ plot, she becomes the breadwinner and lands a job ‘dancing’ in an exotic nightclub, ironically named ‘El Madhouse’.
The line-up of entertainment includes a hip jazz quartet fronted by Red Norvo, who was known as ‘Mr Swing’ and famously earned respect from the beat generation for making the vibraphone legit, which he’s seen playing a few times throughout the movie. There’s also a kooky—and cringe-worthy—dance routine performed by the waiters and Gypsy Rose Lee (of Minsky’s Burlesque fame) treats us to a fun-but-terrible rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame”. But it’s the interpretive dance routine of Yolanda that enthrals the nightclub punters as she appears dressed as an idealised slave-girl, complete with ropes, chains and manacles. All in all, it’s a bit kinky and attracts the attention of night-beat journalist Bill Sweeney (Philip Carey). Carey’s all-American good-looks ensured a steady stream of roles, almost entirely in the western, war and noir genres, usually as the good guy and here he’s cast accordingly.
Whilst interviewing ‘Yolanda’ in her dressing room, for his newspaper column, he spots a somewhat grotesque statuette of a screaming woman before being rudely turfed-out by her ‘manager’, the fiercely jealous and overprotective Bill Green. As a journalist, Sweeney had recently covered the murder of another nightclub dancer who bears a striking resemblance to Yolanda. When he revisits the crime scene photos, he recognises a copy of the same weird statue lying broken next to the dead girl. So, when Yolanda narrowly survives a similar attack, he begins investigating the connections in what appears to be the work of a budding serial killer. It’s here that the film crosses-over from classic noir to what is now recognised as a proto-giallo, and yes, the killer is referred to as “a maniac”—which has since become the giallo ‘calling-card’.
Also, true to giallo convention, it pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable and, for reactionary 1950s America, pushed too far and was never given a general release. Ekberg makes the most of any opportunity to flaunt her form in bathing suits or negligees—not to mention the slave girl cosplay. Although only alluded to, the lesbian relationship between ‘El Madhous’ owner, Joann ‘Gypsy’ Masters (Gypsy Rose Lee) and her younger lover Ketti (the only screen role for Linda Cherney, painter, poet, dancer and one of the darlings of the beat generation), raised a few eyebrows at the time and a few plot points about loyalties and motives. If the queer subtext was kept subtle, their smoking of marijuana is much more blatant. But for an audience of today it’s all fairly quaint.
It’s beautifully shot, too. Oswald cleverly uses shadows and mirrors to expand the mise en scène beyond the frame and confirms his mastery of the noir aesthetic with the expert help of cinematographer Burnett Guffey who had already worked with John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and had won an Oscar for his work on From Here to Eternity (1953).
The script is also nice and slick, peppered with some lively exchanges and witty reposts. The screenplay is by Robert Blees who seems to have been the go-to writer for adapting novels. He had also adapted Carol Brink’s novel into his screenplay for All I Desire (1953) and Lloyd C Douglas’s novel for Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), as well as Max Erlich’s The Glass Web (1953) for director Jack Arnold.
It’s worth noting that Fredric Brown (author of the original novel) was one of the most prolific and respected authors of science fiction’s Golden Age. His fans include Alfred Hitchcock, Robert A. Heinlein, Gene Roddenberry, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, and Philip K Dick, who once credited him with producing “the most significant story SF has yet produced”—referring to Brown’s 1945 short story The Waveries.
Another of his stories, Arena, was voted to be one of the best written before 1965 in a Top 20 according to the Science Fiction Writers of America. It was adapted into The Outer Limits episode “Fun and Games” (1964), which happened to be directed by series regular Gerd Oswald, and into the Star Trek episode “Arena” (1967) directed by Joseph Pevney. Oswald also went on to direct a couple of classic Trek episodes: “The Conscience of the King” (1966) and “The Alternative Factor” (1967).
60 years on and Screaming Mimi is still surprisingly fresh. It’s an enjoyable story that throws in a few whopping red herrings and keeps the audience on their toes until the last act, when there’s a rather awkward, though probably necessary, info-dump intended for the hard-of-thinking. Mind you, I was still waiting for an extra final twist right to the last frame—but my expectations have been yellowed by six decades worth of giallo-viewing.
The denouement is rewarding enough and pre-empts a good many psychological thrillers yet to come, including Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964). Despite its limited release, it has gained a solid cult following over the years and hip director Jim Jarmusch cites it among his favourites. Apart from a few hiccups—I’m really not sure about those dancing waiters!—it’s a classy piece of work.
Cast & Crew
director: Gerd Oswald.
writers: Robert Blees (adapted from Fredric Brown’s novel).
starring: Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey, Gypsy Rose Lee & Harry Townes.