The Bad Seed

Year: 1956
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Writer: John Lee Mahin/Maxwell Anderson/William March
Cast: Nanyc Kelly, Patty McCormack, Evelyn Varden

When you think of a lot of black and white movies you think of a very particular approach – performances that are theatrical to the point of being over the top, a very locked-camera shooting style on a sound stage, the occasional Vaseline-smeared lens for the leading lady's close-up and very straight-arrow plots about good and evil that don't have a lot of character or emotional nuance.

So I kept thinking of the fairly gutsy cigar-chomping studio VP or chairman who greenlit this adaptation of the hit play. I can't imagine any writer coming up with this concept at a movie studio – or a movie studio backing it – without some proven track record, so maybe theatre was where the more adult fare was to be found in those days, Hollywood still in the business of distracting, shiny baubles.

For awhile you can't believe it's a story about a cute, pigtailed little girl who turns out to be a sociopath and a murderer, and if you don't know the story I won't reveal here whether she does or not, because in one way it's not about that. Modern thriller writers and directors often aim for nerve-sawing tension in scripts and movies, and this was a very early example of it.

Young suburban mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) keeps wanting to dismiss the crazy thought she's having about her preternaturally sweet and well-behaved daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack, who also played a role in the 2018 TV movie remake). Rhoda is freakishly good natured and polite to everyone from her teachers to her erstwhile Auntie who lives upstairs, Christina's landlady Monica (Evelyn Varden) – to the point it almost seems robotic and scripted.

But some awful things start happening when Christine's military officer father has to go away. While at a school picnic near a lake, and after being warned not to go near the water, one of the boys falls in the water and drowns, the community reeling from the news.

Fearing that Rhoda might be traumatised, Christine prepares to treat her with kid gloves when she gets home, but the girl has hardly broken a sweat. Her only concern is the medal the boy won for some class assignment, one Rhoda feel she deserved. She's not exactly cruel or dismissive about the boy's death, but it gives Christine a sense of disquiet she can't shake.

Rhoda's behaviour doesn't really change – she still professes to love her mother and treats everyone with perfect-bordering-on-suspicious manners – but Christine finds and sees more evidence that Rhoda might not be telling the truth, trying to deny the dreadful feeling that he daughter might have killed the boy,

Of course, we've seen her true colours by then in her dealings with the resident handyman, an uneducated dolt who taunts her that he knows all about what she's really like and to whom she shows a snakelike, venomous side that makes you even more sure (if the title hasn't tipped you off) that Rhoda might be truly, unimaginably evil.

You can't say anything about the final act without giving away the whole story either, but it would be shocking today – you can only imagine Middle American audiences in the mid 50s going straight to church to confess afterwards.

Just like South Park (of all things) was honest enough to remind us all that kids aren't all beatific innocents but can be jerks just like adults, The Bad Seed dared to ask the confronting question – can a kid be evil? You only have to look at the 1993 murder of James Bulger by two boys who were barely into double digits to know the answer, but pop culture still has a hard time portraying kids as anything other than brainless snowflakes in constant danger from paedophiles.

It also predated the entire Bad Robot ethos about mysteries and spoilers by the title card at the end of the movie asking audiences not to spoil the end for friends or other patrons who hadn't seen it.

It's a dark, psychological and very effective thriller. It can't escape some of the trappings of the era and style, but there are nuances in the script, characters and performances you certainly don't expect from a movie back then.

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