Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


THE BAD SEED (1956). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

Horrifying and fascinating study of a woman, Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly), who slowly begins to realize that her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack, pictured) is what today we would call a sociopath, someone born without a conscience, and that she may have been responsible for the deaths of more than one person, including a little boy whose penmanship medal she coveted. Although at first the film (based on a play, which itself was based on William March's novel) is a bit stagy and the acting a little too broad, eventually it becomes more and more intense, the acting fitting the out-sized emotions of the characters. Patty McCormack is wonderful as the loathsome Rhoda, and Nancy Kelly has some very strong moments as she etches a portrait of a woman facing a prospect so unthinkable that it is enough to drive her insane -- which it nearly does. Eileen Heckart almost walks off with the movie in two shattering scenes as the heartbroken and drunken mother of the dead little boy -- her performance is so strong and true that it's almost hard to watch. The ever-weird Henry Jones gives one of his best performances as the doomed handyman Leroy Jessup. There are also notable performances from Evelyn Varden as Christine's landlady and Paul Fix as her writer-father. William Hopper is certainly out-classed in this company but he has only a couple of appearances as Rhoda's father. While the link of "madness" with heredity is compelling, it's also the most dated aspect of the production. LeRoy's direction of the piece is competent, but it's the acting and script that put this over. One can only imagine what this might have been like with Alfred Hitchcock at the helm! McCormack continued acting well into adulthood, appearing in such films as Mommy and Shallow Ground. The film's comic post script is regrettable.

Verdict: Surprisingly powerful stuff. ***1/2.


David K. said...

I just re-watched this on Tuesday and came away still very impressed with then 10 year-old Patty McCormack, but also very much enjoyed Henry Jones' performance.

I also wondered why they gave Nancy Kelly's character a "happy ending" when she was certainly aware of Rhoda's past behavior and may have prevented Leroy's murder by turning Rhoda in.

I too thought the post script was kind of out of place given the subject matter.

William said...

In the play and novel the mother dies at the end and Rhoda is still around to make mischief. You're right that the mother sort of bypasses her moral responsiblity but I think that's because she just isn't willing to accept the terrible truth about her daughter. I forgot to mention in my review that there's a mistake in the dialogue. When the little boy dies, Christine makes a comment that Rhoda has never been exposed to death before. But later on we learn that Rhoda was present when an old woman fell down a flight of stairs and died. One could argue that Christine just put the earlier incident out of her mind but was already suspicious. One senses that although Christine survives, her guilt and sadness will make a true happy ending impossible for her. [I thought her husband was awfully forgiving considering she tried to kill their daughter.]

Thanks for the comments!