No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)

5A mysterious man (Rod Steiger) roams the streets of New York City in the late 1960s. He adopts a variety of disguises – a genial Irish priest, a passionate German expatriate and a flamboyant hairstylists are amongst his more notable achievement, which he uses to coerce his way into the homes of a variety of middle-aged women, whose trust he wins through his scheming intelligence and relentless tenacity. In reality, he’s Christopher Gill, a failed actor who is getting revenge on his late mother, an acclaimed theatre performer, by murdering any woman that reminds him of her in some way. The detective put on the case is Morris Brummel (George Segal), an amiable cop who still lives with his overbearing mother (Eileen Heckart), who derides him for his perceived lack of ambition. An offhanded comment made by Morris on the scene of the first murder makes its way into the newspaper and catches the attention of Gill, who is enthralled by what he believes to be a compliment. He decides to forge a connection with the detective, calling him from the scene of each murder and taunting him, giving him vague clues to his whereabouts and identity, but in actuality just teasing the good-natured cop, who simply wants to do his job. Thrown into the fray is Kate (Lee Remick), a free-spirited hippie tour guide who was a key witness on the first crime scene, and who somehow manages to win the heart of the straight-laced detective, which serves as both a motivation for him to solve this case and also a distraction, as his mind begins to wander away from the matter at hand, towards the affairs of the heart – all the while, Gill runs rampant, bringing a new string of victims to this awful crime spree.

Jack Smight’s No Way to Treat a Lady, based on the novel by William Goldman, is a hilarious, irreverent dark comedy that takes absolutely no prisoners in its endeavour to be as outrageously bleak as it possibly can be, while still being a thoroughly entertaining piece of filmmaking. The intersections between comedy and crime have been well-explored before, across many different generations of filmmakers, all of which looked to investigate the similar thematic territory trod by these two seemingly opposing genres. Smight, a director who had not ever risen above being simply a vessel through which a solid script can be channelled, managed to put together a remarkably effective thriller that takes many of the more common elements of the genre and subverts them beautifully, creating an uneasy sense of darkly comical dread that works particularly well in terms of the film’s overarching themes, particularly those that refer to the more satirical elements. Operating as both a great crime film, and an elegant spoof of some of the more grave aspects that normally find their way to the forefront, especially during this era, in which grimy crime dramas were not only popular but seemingly essential to the culture. Perhaps unintentional, No Way to Treat a Lady becomes one of the most inadvertently brilliant satires of the 1960s, a daring social odyssey that carries a lot more depth than even the filmmakers themselves might have expected – and there may be nothing better than a great film manifesting from nothing more than a good premise and an immense amount of conviction.

In all honesty, No Way to Treat a Lady begins and ends with Rod Steiger. It’s impossible to find anything written about this film, whether positive or negative, that doesn’t praise what the actor does. Given the role of Christopher Gill, Steiger gives a performance that very few actors at this time could have effectively conveyed. Blending his working-class sensibilities with a flamboyant sense of humour and the ability to do exceptional character work, Steiger conveys a kind of subversive brilliance that almost comes as a surprise. The role is not one that normally requires depth so much as it needs someone adept that impersonation and adopting a variety of different personas – so the fact that Steiger managed to derive quite a compelling performance from what was ultimately nothing more than a bundle of quirks masquerading as a villain only speaks to the actor’s skills, and the ability to Smight to give him the space to explore this eccentric, terrifying antagonist, who commands the screen and renders everything around him almost entirely redundant by the sheer power of his performance alone. This isn’t to suggest George Segal doesn’t hold his own either – playing the quintessential “nice guy”, Segal is able to be an audience surrogate for the insanity surrounding the plot, being a worthwhile protagonist that may not have much in terms of personality traits, but is serviceable enough to propel the story forward, doing exactly what is required, which is often to just step aside for Steiger. The only actors in this film that aren’t given worthwhile material are Lee Remick and Eileen Heckart, who have interesting characters but fail to be developed beyond the confines of mere stereotype.

The lacklustre portrayal of the two main female characters is actually quite a stark element of the film, as No Way to Treat a Lady is, as the title suggests, underpinned with a sense of gender issues. Perhaps not a film that takes anything close to a feminist approach, especially not with the fact that the two central characters are men engaged in a complex game of wits, but there’s a sense of maternal commentary that pervades the film. Both of the leads are men who have endured challenging maternal figures – for Gill, its the legacy of his world-renowned mother, whose achievements stood far above his, with his own aspirations being pale in comparison to that of a woman who achieved so much acclaim. This is contrasted with Morris’ own challenges with his overbearing mother, whose constant refusal to accept him as being the culmination of his own achievements, which don’t align with what she desires him to amount to, forces him into a position of almost ironic empathy, where he begins to relate to the worldview of the man he is pursuing. No Way to Treat a Lady is certainly not all that subtle with this commentary – it sometimes conceals some very clear problems in favour of connecting the two characters in truly absurd ways, but as the film constantly reminds us through its devil-may-care approach to the genre, this is not supposed to be all that serious, and suspension of disbelief is not only encouraged, its entirely necessary, for the film only truly works when we surrender ourselves to the bewildering perspective offered by the story, in which reality is warped in favour of subverting expectations – it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but through the dedication of a more surreal story, it comes together in unexpectedly wonderful ways.

No Way to Treat a Lady is essentially just an attempt to satirize the crime thriller genre without resorting to outright spoof, which is a rare distinction for a film like this to have. Overtly dark in how it approaches the comedy, it is quite unconventional, dismantling many of the more indelible characteristics of the genre. Firstly, it tends to be more focused on the process of a serial killer’s crime spree, rather than the motivations or the aftermath – the reasons for Gill to commit these murders only reveals itself towards the end, by which point it is almost inconsequential since the journey there was compelling enough already. The incredible character work done by Steiger, and his interactions with Segal are remarkable, and set No Way to Treat a Lady as being an unexpected subversion of the buddy cop genre – the two seem to be more fascinated with each other than being at odds, and the entire film works because of how the story centres on a growing relationship, rather than the expected hostility, that would come between these two characters. One of the most enduring strengths of this film is its ability to somehow challenge conventions by not taking a binary view of these two central characters. It doesn’t purport Morris as being the most efficient, intelligent detective, but shows him as a working man who does his best, regardless of the situations that put in more compromising positions. Contrast this with Gill, who is treated with a kind of endearing care, where the entire film centres around him as something of an anti-hero, a desperate man who is passionate about his craft, and resentful enough of his past, to transform himself an engage in a form of performance, succeeding in ways that his previous, more conventional work failed him. It’s an oddly empathetic view of a predatory pervert, one where we aren’t coerced into feeling pity, but also aren’t necessarily hostile towards him. It makes the climax of this film all the more effective because we’ve become so attached to these characters, the only way to resolve the story and tie up the loose ends was to take them to the very limits of logic, which results in a tremendously haunting, effective finale.

The reasons for No Way to Treat a Lady being so relatively obscure is quite concerning – perhaps its the less-prestigious director at the helm that makes it appear like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill crime film, or the premise that doesn’t harbour that much interest (despite the fact that this story is a fascinating piece, not only in terms of filmmaking, but in the cultural context, with the film occurring between the sprees of the Boston Strangler and the Zodiac Killer, two of the most chilling crime sagas in crime history), but the film has been relegated to nothing more than a footnote in the careers of its performers and in the genre as a whole, despite featuring some of the very best work Rod Steiger ever did, and one of the first attempts to propel George Segal to stardom. It’s a fascinating experiment and one that does feature some merit, particularly when considering the broader implications that this film had, especially on the crime-comedy genre. Darkly comical, hilariously absurd and wonderfully-composed, there’s a defiant spirit underlying No Way to Treat a Lady that is increasingly rare, where the film manages to infuse new life into a weary genre without attempting to reinvent it. It’s a terrific piece of filmmaking and thoroughly entertaining film that evokes laughter as much as it seeks to chill us with its tremendously unsettling portrayal of the business of serial murder, which has rarely been as gripping as it is here.


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