Starring: Nancy Kelly, William Hopper, Patty McCormack, Eileen Heckart
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Running Time: 129 minutes
Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a well-mannered 8-year-old little lady — and an efficient, unfeeling killer. And in this spellbinding chronicle of evil, whatever Rhoda wants, she ruthlessly gets. Her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), reluctantly made to see her child’s moral blindness at work, is heartrendingly torn between mother love and grief for Rhoda’s victims. From Maxwell Anderson’s stage hit, The Bad Seed ticks like a time bomb under the skillful direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who cast several Broadway production originals, including Kelly (re-creating the role that won her a Tony), McCormack and Eileen Heckart. Their harrowing performances captured three of this suspenseful movie’s four Academy Award nominations — and make this thriller one of the great ones.
This 1956 film adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play (which in turn is based on William March’s 1954 novel) is a great thriller from Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the big houses were still putting out smart movies with artistic merit and tight storylines. It’s a well-told story with dialogue that shows its stage pedigree, but still rolls with a certain charm. Likewise, the acting is very much a product of its time, but though it’s tempting to deride The Bad Seed for over-the-top acting and stilted dialogue, you have to remember that the film landed at a time when filmmaking was still heavily influenced by the stage.
The Bad Seed is generally an exploration of the nature vs. nurture argument. These days, it’s been done to death, but in 1956 it was a compelling theme. Rhoda is a polite schoolgirl with perfect manners and an overpowering moral blindness. She’s evil at a genetic level; her grandmother was a notorious serial killer who even killed one of her own children, and who lives on in every psychotic act that Rhoda commits. Nancy Kelly’s Christine is a loving mother whose discovery of Rhoda’s budding psychosis drives her to her own desperate acts, which is where the film falls on its ass. In the stage play, the ending plays out the nature versus nurture theme to its logical end, as Christine ultimately sacrifices herself in an attempt to stop her daughter, while the girl survives to continue the cycle. Under the Hays Code, villains could not be seen to profit from their crimes, so an extremely clumsy ending was tacked on, leaving one with the feeling that the film ends twice before the credits.
Convoluted endings aside, this is a great movie to watch if you get off on classic cinema. And it’s pretty much the index case for child-villain movies, which gives it an almost anthropological appeal.
Crave Factor – 8
The video quality is very nice, if not really fantastic. Whereas some Blu-ray releases give older movies a beautiful new face, this is more of a gentle nudge in a pretty direction. The blacks and whites don’t really pop, except for in a few later scenes. But the images are fairly crisp with a nice layer of film grain, and the overall effect complements the cinematography extremely well. It just doesn’t sizzle and pop the way some black-and-white Blu-ray transfers do.
More of the same. The sound track is free of issues and is very clear across the board, but it’s still very much a ’50s-era soundtrack that will leave the surround-sound lover disappointed, and everyone else more content than honestly happy.
Crave Factor – 6
Theres nothing on the Blu-ray release that isn’t already on the DVD: The extras consist of a trailer, an interview featurette with Patty McCormack and an audio commentary track.
Crave Factor – 4
Menu and packaging
The menus are cleanly designed and fairly intuitive. They likely work so well because there’s almost nothing to this release. The cover design is darkly attractive. And of course, it comes with one of those stupid cardboard sleeves.
Crave Factor – 5
The Bad Seed isn’t a prefect movie by any stretch, but it’s still a great film, especially for a campy movie night. And the themes, though no longer new, still hold up just fine today.