Joker‘s Roots in Two 1960s Thrillers

The fictional metropolis of Gotham has long been a stand-in for New York City, and with Joker, director Todd Phillips borrows (you might even say outright steals) from several New York movies of the 1970s and early ‘80s that showed the city’s skuzzier side, including The King of Comedy (1983), Taxi Driver (1976), Death Wish (1974), The Warriors (1979), The Driller Killer (1979), and Maniac (1980). But look back a little further, to the ‘60s, and you’ll find Joker‘s roots in a pair of black-and-white thrillers.

Prior to the ’60s, New York was usually portrayed as a center of glamor, where Manhattan socialites took fairytale rides through Central Park in horse-drawn carriages, and where sailors on shore leave danced through the streets with pretty girls. A few filmmakers like Elia Kazan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Jules Dassin (The Naked City) had explored New York street life, but it wasn’t until 1965 and the release of Joseph Cates’ Who Killed Teddy Bear that audiences would get a detailed look at the rotten side of the Big Apple.

The film stars teen idol Sal Mineo as Lawrence Sherman, a socially inept busboy who develops an obsession with Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse), the wannabe actress who DJs at the club where he works. Lawrence has a curious way of showing his affection, treating Norah to a series of anonymous obscene phone calls and even leaving a headless teddy bear in her apartment.

Previous thrillers had featured stalking narratives, but what makes Cates’ film stand out is how much time we spend with its antagonist. Much like Joker’s Arthur Fleck, Lawrence leads a miserable, unenviable existence — some of it of his own making, some of it the result of childhood trauma. Lawrence’s home life consists of caring for his mentally ill teenage sister, Edie (Margo Bennett), similar to Arthur’s relationship with his ailing mother in Phillips’ movie. Both films feature a key reveal concerning the roots of the psychological conditions of the women in their protagonists’ care.

Like Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, Lawrence is obsessed with his body, spending hours pumping iron at the gym, an act suggested as a substitute for the sex he can’t obtain from Norah. Something shared by Lawrence, Travis, and Arthur is their fondness for pornography. Lawrence hangs out in sex shops, Travis spends his free hours in porno theaters, and Arthur pastes cutouts from pornographic magazines into the journal that houses his increasingly deranged thoughts.

Lawrence isn’t the only sinister figure in Who Killed Teddy Bear. Aside from Norah, who crucially is an out-of-towner, Cates’ film presents a rather dim view of the residents of NYC. The detective assigned to her case (Jan Murray) takes a suspicious interest in Norah and becomes obsessed with porn himself, even leaving magazines out in view of his young daughter. Like Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey, he’s haunted by the murder of his wife, which fuels his rage at the city and those he considers its lowlifes. When Norah seeks comfort in the arms of her employer, nightclub manager Marian Freeman (Elaine Stritch), she again finds herself the subject of unwanted attention as Marian makes predatory sexual advances towards her. Even while walking on the city’s streets, Norah is objectified, with Cates’ camera catching the leering gazes of male pedestrians, unaware their glances at this pretty young woman are being preserved for posterity on celluloid.

(Who Killed Teddy Bear boasts a direct connection with Taxi Driver. Its assistant cameraman was Michael Chapman, who would later capture New York in its full-color ’70s grimy glory for Scorsese as Taxi Driver‘s cinematographer.)

If New York was America’s most dangerous city of this era, the most dangerous part of New York was the subway. The inciting incident of Joker occurs on a subway ride, when a group of Wall Street types harass the clown to the point of no return, and seminal New York movies like Death Wish, The Warriors, and Maniac all mined the terrors of the subway.

The first movie to explore the growing dangers of the NYC transit system was Larry Peerce’s The Incident (1967), in which a disparate group of commuters is menaced by Joe (Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen), a pair of psychotic hoods who board a train carriage with evil intentions. Initially written by Nicholas E. Baehr as a one-off TV drama, The Incident is from that school of drama wherein a metaphorical grenade is thrown at a group of people to see who ducks for cover and who throws themselves on it. In this case, nobody seems willing to dive on the grenade that is Joe and Artie, each commuter keeping their head down while their fellow passengers are harassed and humiliated. In the years following the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, killed outside her apartment while her neighbors purportedly (but may not have actually) ignored her cries for help, the subject of New Yorkers’ unwillingness to come to the aid of their fellow citizens was ripe for cinematic treatment. Peerce’s film is a damning indictment of the city’s perceived apathy.

While Artie is little more than a stock maniac out for kicks, Joe is very specific in his manipulations, employing a divide-and-conquer approach to his commandeering of the carriage. He begins by picking on those with the lowest social standing – an unconscious hobo, a recovering alcoholic, a homosexual – knowing the other passengers are unlikely to interfere. He gradually begins to work his way up to the more middle-class commuters, and it becomes clear that Joe’s rampage is fueled by a feeling of societal injustice. In what must have been quite the taboo-rattler in 1967, Joe even squares up to a pair of soldiers on leave, who despite being the passengers best equipped to intervene, have thus far refused to stand up to him. The New York subway could reduce even America’s bravest to quivering cowards.

Perhaps the most interesting of the passengers is Arnold Robinson (Brock Peters), an embittered African-American who initially enjoys seeing the white passengers subjected to the sort of humiliations he’s no doubt experienced many times himself. Arnold begins to see himself as akin to Joe and Artie, but Joe makes it all too clear in racial language that the feeling isn’t mutual. The moment in The Incident that stands out as most prescient today comes when the police finally make a belated appearance. As they rush aboard and take a quick glance at the assembled passengers, who do you think they initially assume is the guilty party?

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