Bright Lights Film Journal

Thoughts on a Frame – Screaming Mimi (Gerd Oswald 1958)

The frame is from Screaming Mimi (1958), directed by Gerd Oswald, based on Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi” (below), which also provided the inspiration – uncredited – for Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.

The image is a study in oppositions – left frame vs. right frame, light vs. dark, foreground vs. background, performer vs. audience, female vs. male.

It would be a mistake to call this either a long shot or a close up. It’s really both. The left side of the widescreen image is an extreme long shot of Anita Ekberg dancing. The right side is a medium close up of Philip Carey playing a newspaper reporter who is conspicuously not watching her.

The image is particularly startling in context. It comes toward the end of Ekberg’s first big dance number. (She plays a stripper with psychosexual problems arising from an earlier attempted rape, interrupted by her step-brother’s shooting of the would-be rapist.) Up to this point, the sequence consists of shots of Ekberg dancing (mostly in shots that show the full length of her body), intercut with shots of the band accompanying her, and of the appreciative audience, shown always from Ekberg’s viewpoint. The sudden cut to Carey at the back of the club – the only one in the audience who isn’t facing her – ruptures the previously established space.

It’s also the first time we see Carey – a brilliant way to introduce a leading man. His face is half lit, half in shadow, an obvious visual indicator of internal conflict. His mouth is tightly clenched, reflecting the effort he is making not to look at her, yet his cigarette (a phallic symbol?) points directly toward her. This single image of a man strenuously in denial of his attraction to a beautiful female body encapsulates the conflict of the entire film. The reporter thinks he is different from the other men who lust after Ekberg. He sees Ekberg as a damsel in distress, himself as a White Knight destined to rescue her from the similarly obsessed psychiatrist (Harry Townes) who has her under his control. Consistent with the film’s critique of the “male gaze,” the reporter has no idea who he’s actually falling in love with.

Coincidentally, Screaming Mimi was released the same year as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another noir critique of the male gaze. In both Screaming Mimi and Vertigo – as in the earlier Laura – a man becomes obsessed with the Mystery Woman he sets out to investigate. (Hitchcock’s Marnie is a later variation on the same theme.)

Gerd Oswald (1919-1989) was the son of German film director Richard Oswald (1880-1963). Though a fixture in Hollywood B movies from roughly the mid-’50s through the early ’70s, Gerd’s considerable visual talents shone most brightly in the German-produced Schachnovelle* (aka Brainwashed, 1960), and in the classic noir/sci-fi television series, The Outer Limits (1963-1964). I once had the opportunity to interview Gerd Oswald in connection with his inspired Outer Limits work. He was not a particularly articulate man, but his images spoke volumes.

* The title literally means, “Chess Novel.”