I first saw The Bad Seed in my high school film class and it was love at first sight. Sure, it’s got campy written all over it, heavy-handed acting and characters breaking into monologue, but the characters and plot keep everything from going completely off the rails. The film is remarkably deep, leading the plot away from being a tawdry expose on a child murderer into a psychoanalytic discussion on nature vs. nurture. I always recommend people see The Bad Seed; it’s a fun flick and it’s permeated popular consciousness. You’d be surprised to realize how many television shows (South Park in particular) and movies borrow or reference The Bad Seed.
The Penmark’s live the perfect life. Daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a little girl with the air of an adult and is loved by everyone in her worldview. Things take a turn, though, when a classmate at Rhoda’s school ends up dead and suspicion falls on Rhoda herself. Her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) slowly becomes convinced that her daughter is a cold-blooded killer.
The theatricality of The Bad Seed is worthy of praise. Based on a play by Maxwell Anderson the Broadway cast is reassembled for the film, although I’m unaware of how similar the two mediums are to each other. There was certainly a desire for Anderson’s play to be a prestige picture, Rosalind Russell up for the role of Christine. It’s this quality which elevates the film above a schlocky B-picture. The events of the film are confined to one location, that of the Penmark’s house, and it’s heavy on dialogue and discussion of the psychology of people. The domesticity of the home ends up being shattered by the murderous intentions of Rhoda, providing paranoia to 1950s audiences already fearing their neighbors and other Communistic threats. Despite Rhoda being accused of murder you never actually see any violence committed, and yet you fear Rhoda regardless. Much of it stems from her lack of empathy and gleeful exuberance amidst all the carnage. The stagy quality gives off laughing acting every now and then, especially in the character of Leroy (Henry Jones) who monologues in the open throughout, or the way characters simply walk into the Penmark house, but that’s really the only moment where the play doesn’t translate.
The film stark look at the mind of a sociopath and how such people are created is fascinating in light of the antagonism against psychiatry in 1950s films. You don’t expect such a frank, and embraced discussion into a person’s mentality in a genre where doctors are the villains, but the movie and screenplay present strong arguments for and against the idea of inherited sociopathy. The question of whether a person is “born bad” is always on the tip of your tongue because Rhoda has all the advantages of a happy childhood, and yet she’s completely lacking in emotion or sympathy for others. This doesn’t mean she’s a murderer, and for almost the entirety of the film’s runtime there’s an air of ambiguity as to whether Rhoda is a calculating killer or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film’s big reveal is that Christine, a happy woman herself, learns she’s the daughter of a deranged female serial killer. From this reveal the movie questions the idea of inherited violence through femininity, and the womb being a place of possible contamination; the roots of evil turning in a twisted tree. The film never answers whether a person is born bad, but the fact it’s asking the question is something.
Patty McCormack is adorably over-the-top as Rhoda Penmark. She’s a bit grating with her simpering tone and her general annoyances to her mother and the audience (slapping shoes together, playing piano), but I think it furthers the audience hostility against her. She’s so deceptive in her perfection, and yet you know it’s a façade. For all her smiles and curtsying she’s a total bitch, for lack of a better word. She treats Leroy like garbage (although he is creepy and just as bad as her) and she murders little Claude Daigle purely for a penmanship medal. A simple case of poor sportsmanship turned to bloody violence. To diverge for a second, the way Rhoda says “Claude Daigle” is a joke in my house because its way too easy to mimic how she says it. Second, a penmanship medal? I was lucky to get a printed off certificate when I won something…1956 was a good year for education I guess. But unfortunately for poor Claude he never gets justice. Rhoda is one of the preeminent child psychopaths in film and Patty McCormack is the only one I see in the role. The best line from her: “Why should I feel sorry? It was Claude Daigel got drowned, not me.”
The rest of the cast is equally well-done. Henry Jones is delightfully licentious as Leroy. Throughout the entire movie it’s said Leroy only has a job because he has a family, yet he lives in the basement and talks about trying to seduce Christine! He’s one of the few characters free of artifice as he states how he sees through Rhoda “and she sees through me.” For all his lecherousness, landlord Monica (Evelyn Varden) says she believes Leroy has “psychopathic tendencies.” Um, I don’t care if this guy has a family of 12, you’re letting him work around stay-at-home moms and children and giving him unlimited access to everyone’s house?
As Christine, Nancy Kelly is so vulnerable and sweet. She’s superb in this role, especially taking into account the emotional rollercoaster her character is on. She conveys love, fear, surprise, disgrace, all at once in several scenes and to a child she fears wouldn’t give a second thought to killing her. I don’t have a problem with her acting, although there are a few instances where her attempts at consoling are a tad condescending and fake, but I think that’s attributable to the stage nature of the acting in general. The scene stealer is Eileen Heckart as Hortense Daigel, Claude’s mother. Heckart won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the bereaved mother (and was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar along with McCormack and Kelly in the Leading Category). Heckart is brutally honest and it’s apparent how much she loves her son, possibly due to being an older mother. You feel for Hortense from beginning to end and realize her and Christine are two mothers suffering from love for their children. Her sad and boozy character is one of the film’s memorable roles and who doesn’t love her introductions to the characters by saying “I’m a little drunk?”
The film ran through a few endings to placate the Production Code. The original play ended with Christine trying to kill Rhoda and herself. This proves unsuccessful with Christine dying and Rhoda living. It would have been realistic, but the Motion Picture Production Code wouldn’t endorse it; officially, because a villain wasn’t allowed to live, but unofficially I’m sure they didn’t want filicide on-screen. Instead, the film ends with Rhoda going back to the pier, after Christine tries to poison the girl and kill herself, and is subsequently struck by lightning. It’s a laughable ending with its “Hand of God” feel, but I guess the MPPC could have found a worse way to end things.
I can’t praise The Bad Seed enough. It’s camp at its best and the acting is amazing. The stage nature of the film keeps the plot focused as well as opens it up to exploring the mind of a killer. Far better than expected!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.