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The Bad Seed
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Reviews & Ratings for
The Bad Seed More at IMDbPro »

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65 out of 79 people found the following review useful:

Staginess is not a flaw here

10/10
Author: Brandt Sponseller from New York City
8 June 2005

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) is the daughter of a famous writer, Richard Bravo (Paul Fix). She's married to Kenneth (William Hopper), a military Colonel who seems to spend most of his time away from home, usually on short-term call in some other city. The landlady of their apartment building, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden), is obsessed with psychology, having even been analyzed by Freud. Because of this, she courts friendships with other intellectuals, including a criminology author, Reginald Tasker (Gage Clarke). But by far the most important character is Christine's young daughter, Rhoda (Patricia McCormick).

Rhoda is oddly adult in her behavior. She goes out of her way to excel at everything she does, to be prim and proper, to seem amicable and innocent. However, in the wake of one of Rhoda's classmates falling victim to a drowning accident while on a school picnic, suspicion falls on Rhoda. As more facts come out, Christine realizes with horror that her child just might be a "bad seed".

A tightly focused ensemble piece, heavy on dialogue and taking place primarily in one interior location, The Bad Seed is one of the better but more understated horror films from the 1950s. Because of its ideas, its unusual portrayal of a manipulatively "evil" child (and a weirdly cute young girl at that), and its nihilistic and abruptly mind-blowing ending, The Bad Seed was quite a shocking film in 1956. In my book, it still is. That's not to say that the film is graphic. Much more so than, say, The Haunting (1963), The Bad Seed is the classic example of how something implied and not shown can be just as effective and disturbing as something shown.

Still, not everyone loves it, of course. "Staginess" is often cited with either a direct claim or an implication that that quality is necessarily a flaw. The Bad Seed's "staginess" is easily explicable. It is a film adaptation of a play by Maxwell Anderson, which was itself adapted from William March's last novel, published in 1954. It's easy to see how only minor changes would allow the film to be performed on a stage. However, I don't see The Bad Seed's staginess as a flaw. It's not as if plays are bad merely for the fact that they're plays, right? There seems to be some unspoken or unanalyzed attendant assumption that cinema shouldn't bear strong similarities to other artistic media and/or a belief that cinema should always be "naturalistic". I don't agree with either of those assumptions. Cinema can do many different things. It shouldn't all just be one way or another.

Rather than being a flaw, the staginess of The Bad Seed is an asset. It catalyzed the effective "tell, don't show" attitude towards the film's violence. It allows all attention to be placed on the fantastic ensemble performances, and especially on McCormack, who turns in the best young female performance this side of Dakota Fanning. And it helps make the film feel like the parable that it is.

Under director Mervyn LeRoy's hand, The Bad Seed is an extended meditation on two philosophical ideas--twisted psychologies and the nature versus nurture debate. It's not just Rhoda who has psychologically-rooted problems and dysfunctions, but everyone in the film. Christine is in denial, and shows that she has long been in denial, about her happiness, her life and her daughter. She continually tries to act as if everything is kosher and normal, but as the film progresses, she has periodic cracks in the armor, until the "breakdown" at the end--and even in the midst of that, she tries to act as if everything is okay and mundane. Monica, who keeps trying to psychoanalyze everyone (except the one person she most needs to psychoanalyze), tends to also intellectually browbeat or overpower them. Kenneth is an absentee husband. Leroy Jessup (Henry Jones), the apartment maintenance man, presents himself as just as twisted, deceptive and manipulative as Rhoda, and there is a pedophile subtext with the character. Claudia Fern (Joan Croydon), the head of Rhoda's school, seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and also seems to be in denial, as does Christine's father Richard, who also has elements of absenteeism and emotional distancing. Hortense Daigle (Eileen Heckart), the mother of the drowned boy, is an alcoholic, and her tragedy puts her over the edge. In fact, the only character in the entire film who seems well-adjusted is Reginald, and perhaps that's symbolic of his function as a criminologist.

The nature versus nurture material is incorporated in an unusual way. Characters debate this to an extent, but most take the nurture side. However, the film itself makes more of an argument for the nature side, and Christine, despite being in denial, comes to believe the nature side, as does Reginald, the even-keeled character. In fact, William March (the author of the novel) believed more in the nature side, and said as much to colleagues while he was working on the book, including doing research into psychotic killers.

What helps to amp up the disturbing qualities of the film is that Rhoda is manipulating the audience as well as she is manipulating other characters. Only very seldom does LeRoy have her "true nature" come through, and it's a shock to us in the same way that it's a shock to the other characters. The ending of the book was changed to be in line with the "moral code" for Hollywood films at the time, but the resultant, somewhat bizarre ending, is probably more shocking in retrospect than March's original ending would have been. There have been many horror films over the years with endings somewhat similar to March's. There haven't been many that end in quite the same way that The Bad Seed does.

While the film would certainly require a bit of adjustment for many younger modern horror fans, it is well worth watching, especially if you've become acclimated to slower-paced, dramatic, understated horror.

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42 out of 45 people found the following review useful:

Another '50s movie way ahead of its time!!!

Author: PeachHamBeach from Morro Bay, Hammett Valley, Twin Rocks
16 August 2003

As the closing statement says, "This motion picture presents a premise that is daringly different."

It may seem to be a self-indulgent thing to say, but in 1956, a film about an angelic looking child named Rhoda Penmark (the remarkable Patty McCormack, whose performance is absolutely brilliant, vicious, and mercurial...she transforms with ease from a sweetie-pie to a bristling monster and back to a sweetie-pie), complete with cutesy dresses, disarming curtsies, and blonde braids, who in fact is a homicidal, amoral murderer, was indeed "daringly different". After the generation of Shirley Temple's angelic dresses and bouncy curles and darling dimples, the idea of a perfectly beautiful little girl being a chillingly cold killer is unnerving to say the least. I love this movie, the controversy surrounding its theme: is a murderous personality inherited???

The book HIDEAWAY by Dean Koontz may have been inspired by this classic B&W film. Koontz describes the malefactor in that book in much the same way little Rhoda is contemplated in this film. Something missing in their genetic codes. "The fundementals of nucleotides, DNA proteins..."

As in HIDEAWAY, where the reader was shocked to discover that Vassago's grandpa was a maniac who slaughtered his family, we discover in THE BAD SEED that there was a grandmother back in Christine's (Nancy Kelly) family who methodically murdered her own brood and then calmly left the country, never to be heard from again.

Just the sight of little Rhoda in that infamous scene with the ex-con/yardman LeRoy is enough to have your hair standing on end: "YOU GIVE ME MY SHOES!!! THEY'RE MINE!!! GIVE THEM TO ME NOW, LEROY!!! RIGHT HERE TO ME!!!" Ooh!!! {{{Shiver}}}!!! That is one nasty little seed, that is!!! And not one any sensible person would dare mess with. Poor LeRoy learns this the hard way.

Not a film for the easily upset or faintish. It's not a horror movie, but laden with truly horrific scenes. The "daringly different" premise is brilliant and far ahead of its time of the sweet, Mrs. Cleaver 1950s.

A+

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36 out of 37 people found the following review useful:

Assured portrayals of real characters in an amazingly chilling film!

9/10
Author: The_Void from Beverley Hills, England
5 May 2006

What we have here is a fantastic classic horror film, which benefits from great performances from all concerned and a plot not typical of serial killer films. The film doesn't adhere to convention and builds its story around an idea that was frightening for the time - and still is to this day. The murderer in this film is as evil as any other; the only difference being that here the killings are committed by a decidedly amoral child. The film presents a good portrait of its star, as it presents its ideas very much from a child's point of view. The young girl doesn't see what she's doing as wrong as she is always given a reason to pass on the blame for wrongdoings, and this always comes across in a plausible way. The plot surrounding the atrocities is even more interesting than the central idea, as we follow the torment inflicted on the girl's mother. The situation that Christine Penmark finds herself in is the stuff of nightmares; just what can you do if you find that your eight year old child has committed murder? The Bad Seed makes excellent use of this dilemma, and the fact that it's incredibly easy to buy into the plot ensures that The Bad Seed prevails as an potently chilling film.

The film is based on a stage play by Maxwell Anderson, and this comes across often as the film takes place in just a few settings and the whole thing is very stagy. This is, however, to its benefit; as the locations make the whole piece more claustrophobic, and the fact that we don't see the murders themselves benefits the film immensely as it allows the audience to spend more time considering the implications; which are what the film is actually about. The main reason why this film works so well is down to a great performance by talented child actor Patricia McCormack. McCormack presents a portrayal that finds exactly the right pitch between the sweet and innocent youngster that she appears; and the dark persona that lies just beneath her exterior. Nancy Kelly similarly gives a defining performance as her tortured mother, and excellently puts across a torrent of emotion. The acting is typically melodramatic, but all the cast somehow manage to keep their acting down to earth. Every scene in the movie is perfectly pitched and nothing is wasted as we are continually taught more about the characters and their situations. The climax to the film is fabulously poetic, despite being implemented on the producer's orders and overall, I really don't see much wrong with this film. Highly recommended!

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46 out of 58 people found the following review useful:

Though Flawed and Stagy, Still Chilling After all These Years - Part One

Author: mmitsos-1 from Oak Brook
11 December 2004

I saw "The Bad Seed" years ago, circa 1970, for the first time, and have seen it periodically over the years. When I first saw the film, as a child, I found the film, expectedly, quite chilling.

I saw it again this afternoon, after not having seen it for about three years, and still find it quite disturbing. Now that we have IMDb, I decided to offer my thoughts. And so, I was shocked to find SO MANY comments about it...more than for any other film that I've reviewed on IMDb to date. If I add anything of unique value, great. If not, I'm happy to share my review anyway.

Certainly, there are flaws, or perhaps only "unique differences", in this film. Primarily, it can very easily be considered a filmed play, as the staging, the dialog, and the entrances and exits of the characters throughout the film seem to be lifted directly from the stage version. Therefore, some may find the film a bit too sterile or unnatural in many ways. However, I think it is this very sterile, staged, stark-from-a-production-standpoint quality that gives the film an even eerier and in some ways far more realistic edge than might be found were it to be produced today for film, with far more slick and sophisticated sets, dialog, camera work, etc. The realism and pronounced disturbing quality of this version stems from the simple story itself, the psychological horror of which could be in some ways obfuscated from a much more sophisticated, big-studio, modern-day production.

As for the subject matter itself, I know that the number of cases, historically, involving child murderers is actually low. Therefore, some critics have argued that to take a relatively rare phenomenon, such as the child murderer, and build a motion picture around it, portraying it in the vein of plausibility, can be misleading and dangerous, giving the impression, especially to younger viewers, that child criminals are more commonplace than you may think. I wholeheartedly reject this notion. The whole purpose of acting is to portray the entire range of the human condition with as much truth as possible, no matter how rare or commonplace certain aspects of human behavior might be. Though child murderers may be few in number, it's an area worthy of as much exploration, in film, as is an ugly, unrealistic alien telling us to "phone home" or the sinking of the Titanic.

Even though this film possesses a definite "campy", staged, and perhaps even "cult" quality, it is chillingly effective. One reason for which this film works is due to the character of Rhoda herself, played by Patty McCormack. The smiling, blond, blue-eyed veneer of the child juxtaposed with the idea of her criminal potential (and actions) is just plain "creepy". Moreover, the less you see, in terms of the actual crimes she commits, the more you conjure. And, you continually wonder who her next victim will be. Furthermore, you wonder how many people will eventually "come on to her" and become aware of whom she is, and how that knowledge will affect their fate.

Another reason for which this film works is because of the mother, Christine, played by Nancy Kelly. As we slowly watch her become aware of what has become of her daughter, we can't help but empathize with her predicament and her decision in handling it. The first few times I saw the film, just as I felt that Patty McCormack's portrayal and dialog delivery were probably mere replicas of what she offered on stage, I felt that Nancy Kelly's performance was affected and probably lifted directly from her work on the stage (I've never seen a stage version, nor have I read the book, yet). But in the case of Ms. Kelly, watching her realize what she has ultimately given birth to and raised is very heart wrenching. Moreover, I have always wondered if the use of her right hand was a direction given to her by either of her directors (for play or film), or if it was something she came up with herself. Two instances come to mind.

In the first one, the manner in which she hits the table with her right hand as she listens to what is happening outside near her shed while Rhoda plays "Au Claire de la Lune" on her piano is very pronounced, appears somewhat odd and is perhaps symbolic. She seemed to be pounding her hand not only in outward denial and anger at the realization she now has of what her child is capable of committing, but as a means to torture and punish herself for having given birth to her in the first place. In the second instance, Nancy Kelly used her right hand again in a very pronounced manner when she offers Rhoda her vitamins "that night". Again, I couldn't help but wonder what symbolism she wanted us to draw from her gesture. It might be said that this very hand, which once comforted and fed her child all her life, has now become the tool that feeds the ultimate fate of her child toward the end of the film. (Again, not having read it, I have a fairly good idea how the book ends).

As for how the ending/epilogue in the film was handled, practically everyone on this site who has offered a review knows that the use of the "casting call" was basically dictated by the mandates of the Hays Code. I'll just add that I find that the chilling effect of the story carries over to this bizarre "epilogue". I still find it a bit unsettling to see each of these actors take their bows, especially considering that some of the characters they portrayed would, in my estimation, appear stranger to a child than does Rhoda....particularly Leroy, when he bows to the viewing audience carrying his large pitchfork.

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22 out of 25 people found the following review useful:

Vividly memorable

9/10
Author: the_old_roman from Leonia, NJ
27 August 2001

My daughter, Rachel, always found this the most frightening movie she ever saw, and from a psychological perspective, it's easy to see why. Patty McCormack is magnificent as charming but evil first-grader Rhoda Penmark. Nancy Kelly is terrific in some scenes, but almost comically overwrought in others, as Rhoda's gradually terrified mother. Paul Fix deserves special mention in a strong performance as Kelly's father. And, Eileen Heckart is also a standout as the grief-stricken mother of a boy that we suspect Rhoda of killing. But, my personal favorite character is LeRoy, incredibly portrayed by Henry Jones. This is a characters I have never forgotten from the moment I first saw this one in the late 50's.

"That Rhoda is smart, almost as smart as me", he repeats for the camera several times in obsessive fashion. The ending which differed from the play has disturbed a lot of purists, but I think it has a lot of merit. Altogether, I give it 8 out of 10, very memorable and extremely well done.

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26 out of 34 people found the following review useful:

WHOA!!!

Author: jweatherford27 from Lexington KY
13 July 2001

I was blown away! I was at the edge of my seat the whole time. Those people gave me the creeps. I was just flipping through the channels when I came across it. Normally I'll change the channel after a minute or two to see what else is on, but not when I saw this movie! I was so terrified, I sat through the whole movie, uninterrupted. I'm shivering just thinking about it right now!

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18 out of 20 people found the following review useful:

The devil wore dotted swiss.

7/10
Author: catherine_wheel from Canada
27 April 2005

Minor 1950's classic that holds up well fifty year later. The film does have its flaws. Occasionally it has the feel of a staged play--at times it seems Mrs. Penmark has to answer the door every five minutes so as to get the other major characters on screen. The Freudian psychobabble and the altered ending add an unnecessary half hour or so to the running time. And the acting can be very overwrought (although the scene in which Mrs. Penmark is screaming in the apartment as Leroy screams outside--both counterpointed by Rhoda's untalented but very loud rendition of "Au Clair de la Lune"--is a moment of high camp horror on par with anything in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?") Still the movie works, largely because of Rhoda, the eerily self controlled little murderess who despite her sweet smiles always looks at though her hair is braided a bit too tight. It helps that an actress was cast who was cute enough, but not too pretty--Patty McCormack looks like a miniature gargoyle when she drops the sunny mask and starts roaring. Leroy, the leering simple minded caretaker is almost as unsettling--the scenes in which he sadistically taunts Rhoda almost amount to a very twisted flirtation, as he is clearly more delighted than appalled by her capacity for evil (at least until he learns just how far this capacity goes).

I haven't seen the 1980's remake, but I can't see how it could top the original, if only because evil little girls in jeans and T-shirts just aren't as scary as evil little girls with hair bows and starched frocks.

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12 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

An Unusual & Effective Thriller

Author: Snow Leopard from Ohio
27 July 2004

With some familiar elements of classic thrillers plus some creative turns, this is an unusual and effective thriller. Patty McCormack is memorable as young Rhoda, and the rest of the cast succeed in making their characters react believably to some nearly unbelievable situations. The story moves slowly enough to build suspense carefully, while still holding your interest the whole time.

For this kind of story to work, it has to keep the tension and uncertainty without becoming obviously implausible or annoyingly overplayed. In "The Bad Seed", we see the tension and fear that build in the characters as the story develops, but events also unfold within an atmosphere that otherwise would be peaceful and normal, making for an interesting contrast that helps to maintain a good balance.

Unlike the many banal movies made in recent years about serial killers and the like, "The Bad Seed" also contains some substance. The characters, especially the mother (played by Nancy Kelly), not only have to make difficult decisions, but also must fearfully attempt to understand the reasons for everything. It's a good example of how well a thriller can work when carefully made without a lot of extraneous elements, and it's a demonstration that a movie can have a tense, dark story without being shallow or superficial at the same time.

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10 out of 11 people found the following review useful:

What Rhoda Wants, Rhoda Gets

10/10
Author: ligela from Canada
29 May 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is a movie that stands the test of time because of the period in which it was filmed, its methods of filming and acting, and the level of knowledge of the subject matter at that time. It is truly a period piece and as such, it is a powerful chiller-thriller.

A hit on Broadway, 'The Bad Seed' was translated into film as though it were a play; hence various commentators speak of its staginess and sometimes overwrought acting as if they were serious objections to the enjoyability of the movie. But does anyone complain that 'Dracula' was stagy and overwrought? No, because the movie is classic in and of itself, and so is 'The Bad Seed'.

Translate your mind back to the early nineteen-fifties and 'The Bad Seed' takes on new levels of meaning and challenge. Christine Penrose, whose military husband is called away from home, is raising her darling daughter Rhoda on her own when things start slowly coming apart. Rhoda is the perfect eight-year-old, a pretty, intelligent and very affectionate child, in crinoline dresses and blonde braids, to whom everyone around gives praise and, often, gifts. She is always grateful and loving in her delight with what she gets.

What is wrong with this picture? Rhoda wants something very badly, something she feels she won and has been unjustly denied, something that disappeared when its owner died a sudden, tragic death. So why does it turn up in Rhoda's possessions?

Christine Penmark has no idea what is going on. Children were not believed to have mature personalities according to the psychology of the day, and the case of Leopold and Loeb was brutal and startling, and apparently a singular aberration, just a few years before the play debuted. There was then no way to explain what Christine begins to perceive: that Rhoda takes what she wants if she can't charm her way to it, and anyone who gets in her way she simply 'removes'.

This wasn't supposed to happen in the 1950's. Today we may be more reliably informed, especially to the statistics that point clearly to the 'nurture rather than nature' explanation, but Christine is alone with her manipulative little murderess with no world-view to encompass what she faces. Her confusion and denial aren't weaknesses of character but the product of the general understanding of the day.

It is not until she has a chance encounter with a criminal psychologist who posits the 'nature, not nurture' theory of criminality, and then digs more deeply into the dark secret of her own childhood that things begin to add up, and Christine Penmark herself unravels in as ghastly a manner as her life has done.

The play is in black and white, and so are the performances and the ethics and morality of its message. Rhoda has only two sides to her: the apparently good, affectionate, perfect angel and the manifestly evil, selfish, deadly crocodile-brained killer. Patty MacCormack is excellent in the dual portrayal, and her performance as a child actress is an achievement seldom rivaled and never bettered.

Nancy Kelly's utter devastation, step by step, is carefully crafted and touched with a dread terror that recognizes, though never states, that Christine knows that she herself is not safe around Rhoda, let alone anyone else. Her response to that knowledge is telling; she is the mother of a murderess, after all.

The performances of Henry Jones as the unsavory handyman the audience ends up wanting Rhoda to put out of our misery and Eileen Heckart as the bereft and alcoholic mother of Rhoda's dead schoolmate are both stand-outs. Again, look to the time of the filming. People had no access to the psychiatric and sociological services both of these two characters needed in spades. People like them were out there in the 50's, more of them than we -- five decades or so later -- want to think, and without help or restraints we expect to come naturally now. Terrifying or pitiable, they were there when the movie was made.

I read the book before I saw the movie, so I expected the original ending and was somewhat disappointed that it was changed. But the add-on tag is yet another level of good v. evil, one the audience might embrace emotionally if not intellectually, and perhaps more reflective of other beliefs of the 1950's, also.

Beware if the Penmarks move in next door. They may not be good neighbors, no matter how much they smile and compliment you. After all, it runs in the family. Oh, and as Christine Penmark had to do, take a long look at your own....

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9 out of 10 people found the following review useful:

Moral conundrums

10/10
Author: gkearns from St.Louis, Missouri
19 October 2001

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

(THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE) What a flock of moral conundrums this little movie throws at us. Rhoda is every bit a little girl. She is not evil. Basically, no one has to fear turning his/her back on the child. Well, almost no one; the point being she was never out looking for a victim. (SPOILER) This is the key point that LeRoy (Henry Jones) misunderstood about her, which proved to be a fatal mistake. He thought he could see right through her because he thought she was just plain bad, like him. She wasn't "bad" in the normal way of things. She loved her dolls and toys. She loved to read fantasies and have her mother read to her at bedtime. She loved to play imaginary hostess with her new tea set. She loved for adults to make over her. (BIG SPOILERS AHEAD) In this story there are three people we know she has killed. The little boy who won the penmanship medal she felt she was more deserving of. Old Mrs. Post in Baltimore, who promised the girl her fish bowl when she died. And, of course, Leroy, who threatened her. She was capable of great lies when pressed for motivations, but was unafraid and even forthcoming if her cover collapsed. To her there were very logical reasons for her acts. (SPOILER) That's what LeRoy missed. Had he realized that when she had reason, she would stop at nothing to achieve her purpose, he would never have turned his back on her after he threatened her security. The conundrum here is that she is only different by degree than many typical everyday people who dodge thoughts of right and wrong when it suits their purposes. (SPOILERS) When her mother realized Rhoda had committed murder, she told the girl to go ahead and burn the incriminating evidence. Her grandfather had let his daughter grow into adulthood without letting her know about her shocking roots. Her teacher, perhaps the only one who really understood what was going on, just asked the mother to move Rhoda out of the school, rather than going to the authorities with her suspicions.

Then there was the bigger conundrum of our own attitudes about children. Rhoda gave out exactly what she thought the adults wanted from her - and she did it very well. She was the unreal, dream, story-book, Shirley Temple-like, non-sexual, pretty little girl people love. When things heated up, she by-passed the subject by turning on the "little girl language" the adults would eagerly eat up. Her selfishness was considered cute and natural. (SPOILER) Even at the end, most of the adults in her life looked on her as that wonderful story-book little girl. We do that a lot in this world, assessing one another by pre-determined stereotypes. Had Rhoda been publicly exposed, there would have been a clamor to analyze her behavior for the warnings we could look for in other children so "this kind of thing can never happen again." Many normal, innocent, sweet, pretty little girls would soon find themselves subjected to cruel psychological behavior mod preventive therapies. Sound familiar?

Patty McCormack was phenomenal as Rhoda. You could see her "reading" adult faces for reactions to her words. You could watch the evolution of decision cross her face at key moments. Hers was never the face of sinister evil. But she portrayed real childhood; and she portrayed determination; and she portrayed hate; and she portrayed jealousy, anger, and rage; and she portrayed happiness and glee. Patty McCormack did not portray Rhoda as any one-dimensional troubled child. There was a depth to her performance that was every bit equal that of any adult, legend or not, in any movie before or since.

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