No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)


(director: Jack Smight; screenwriters: John Gay/from a William Goldman novel; cinematographer: Jack Priestley; editor: Archie Marshek; cast: Rod Steiger (Christopher Gill), George Segal (Morris Brummel), Lee Remick (Kate Palmer), Eileen Heckart (Mrs. Brummel), Michael Dunn (Midget), Murray Hamilton (Inspector Haines), Martine Bartlett (Alma Mulloy), Ruth White (Mrs. Himmel), Barbara Baxley (Belle Poppie), Doris Roberts (Sylvia Poppie), Val Bisoglio (Detective Monaghan), David Doyle (Lieutenant Dawson); Runtime: 108; Paramount; 1968)
“A thoroughly enjoyable film about a pitiless serial killer of middle-aged women, that is played for laughs at the expense of the women victims.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A thoroughly enjoyable film about a pitiless serial killer of middle-aged women, that is played for laughs at the expense of the women victims. It is a black comedy acclaimed for its stellar performances, especially by Rod Steiger as Christopher Gill. He’s the psychologically warped killer with a severe mother fixation, who uses a number of disguises to commit the murders and performs the murders as if he was on-stage. But that only seems natural, considering that he is an accomplished Broadway actor and well-known theater owner and the son of a great actress.

George Segal is the likable Jewish detective, Morris Brummel, who is assigned to investigate the murder case. He also has a mother problem, as his stereotypical Jewish mother, Eileen Heckart, offers him her possessive love and could nag with the best of them. This presents an interesting contrast with the way the killer handles his neuroses. Segal, who lives with his mother, takes his daily punishment in stride, offering a bon mot here and there and sometimes just a resigned look but without really complaining, accepting his fate like a mensch (man). His performance is endearing and Heckart’s is amusingly right on target. Also noteworthy, is the beautiful and giddy shiksa (non-Jewish woman), Lee Remick as Kate Palmer, who will become romantically involved with the nice Jewish boy as a result of the case. She is delightfully refreshing, offering her beauty, sensitivity, and comedy in a splendid performance. Her romance with the bashful Segal was well-conceived, as she leads him on by her womanly flirtations and draws out of him how much he loves her as a whole person and not just for her body as her past lover did. She also has this great line, in response to him complimenting her on her looks: “Getting dolled up is easy; looking natural takes time.” This is an actor’s film and they all make the most of it.

In the first scene Steiger is disguised as an Irish priest merrily walking into his first victim’s tenement building whistling and when seeing Remick on the stairs, saying “top of the morning” to the art museum guide who lives in the victim’s building and will be called on later to become an eyewitness to identify the killer. Steiger knocks on Mrs. Mulloy’s door and gains entry by saying he is the new priest in the neighborhood. He drinks some port with her, tells her some absurd stories, and he begins to tickle her like his mother liked to be tickled; and, as she goes into a ticklish convulsion, he strangles her to death. He leaves her in the bathroom with his trademark signature for the murder, lips smeared on with lipstick across her forehead.

Segal is assigned the case and is quoted in the paper as giving the killer a rave review, saying how well-planned and executed the murder was. Steiger calls him the next day and offers to become Segal’s telephone confidant but tells him, “Remember, I am smarter than you are.” He will commit five murders and only fail to call Segal after the first and fourth.

Steiger next poses as a German plumber and after eating some home-made cake with the middle-aged woman who was born in Frankfort, a place where he pretends he’s from, he strangles her and does his lipstick bit again. He then calls Segal and gives him the latest victim’s address.

This role is a hammy actor’s dream, a role in which Steiger gets a chance to outshine the indomitable Peter Sellers as the master of disguises. Steiger will also be disguised as a gay hairdresser, a police officer, a woman, and an Italian waiter with a Southern accent. He will do Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, and Maurice Chevalier imitations, as well as calling the detective from different places such as an art gallery, Sardi’s restaurant, and from Remick’s apartment.

There is one very funny scene where a midget confesses to the crime, but who becomes upset that Segal doesn’t take his confession seriously. When told an eyewitness says the killer was of normal height, the midget responds: “See, I’m a master of disguises.”

It was difficult not to find this witty film funny and its romantic subplot equally charming. It was adapted from William Goldman’s novel.