I caught a showing of the classic suspense film The Bad Seed this past Halloween week on TCM the other night. There were no commercial ads to break up Rhoda Penmark’s murder spree; no light in the background to filter the slow dawning of devastating knowledge for Rhoda’s mother. Ahead of its time in the early fifties, the short novel by William March captivated me when I read it in one sitting back in junior high. Soon after, when I finally watched The Bad Seed for the first time, I kept a watch on all those classmates of mine who placed such a high degree of importance on being overly gracious with dimple-faced kindness.
Patty McCormack was born to play Rhoda Penmark. She exudes guile and a practiced insouciance. Eight-year-old Rhoda is an only child of a military family, and once again, the doting father has to leave his girls alone for a long stretch of time. Her mother, Christine Penmark, portrayed by the winning actress Nancy Kelly, is slow to catch up to the audience, and this is part of the suspense: when will she finally realize her daughter is a monster? After one of Rhoda’s classmates mysteriously drowns at a school picnic, Christine soon discovers her daughter feels no empathy whatsoever.
Leroy Jessup, played by the amazing character actor Henry Jones, recreates his Broadway role as the maintenance man in the apartment building. Leroy is the only one who immediately sees through Rhoda’s pretty facade. He understands her evil mindset because he covers up his own dark side as well. Leroy’s interactions with Rhoda throw the nurture versus nature argument going on at the time in psychological circles into the forefront. Are monsters born or does environment play the formational role? That is one of the questions the movie asks. Crimes committed by children were slowly on the rise in this time period, rising acts of juvenile delinquency, and The Bad Seed puts the debate front and center. Even Monica Breedlove — played with gossipy charm by Evelyn Varden — the doting “Aunt” to Rhoda, the Penmark’s landlady who lives upstairs, claims to be an expert in psychotherapy and to have once been a patient of Sigmund Freud. In a strangely funny turn, this woman, with all her psychological insight, remains blinded to Rhoda’s evil inner persona, which shows how brilliant a manipulator the child is.
The word sociopath wasn’t used back when the novel was written, but March wrote about a girl without a conscience who killed to get every wish in a way that is very realistic. He researched real-life serial killer Belle Gunness as part of the back story, and all this comes out in a shocking reveal.
The Bad Seed is bloodless. There is no violence depicted onscreen. Everything is off stage, so to speak, with the horrific aftermath to deal with. The utter lack of emotion in Rhoda is the key to further tragic events that unfold in the film.
Hortense Daigle, played by the brilliant Eileen Heckart, shows up drunk to confront Christine Penmark and get to the bottom of why her boy ended up dead. The scene is shattering.
Patty McCormack still acts and showed up in recent character roles on Grey’s Anatomy, The Sopranos, and Entourage. She and Eileen Heckart both received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for their supporting roles.
Watch out for sociopaths in blonde pigtails, a look that has taken on iconic proportions, with slight tweaks over the years. I hope you can discover The Bad Seed on DVD or Television for the first time if you’ve never had the experience. And if you haven’t seen it in awhile, why not make it your next choice?
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