Friday, May 11, 2012

Movie Appraisal: No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)

I saw the stage version of No Way to Treat a Lady a few years ago and fell in love with it. I mean seriously the sense of humor, the story, and the characters were all so fantastically done. The writing was fantastic, and the acting and the singing happened to be pretty good as well. It was easily one of my most enjoyed theatre watching experiences I've ever had. I loved the music (the stage version is a musical by the way, in case you didn't catch it) and the plot. Man, it was intense and funny in all the right parts. Absolutely fantastic.

Well, the movie predates the stage play, which itself is predated by a novel of the same name by William Goldman, better known as the writer of The Princess Bride  novel. Now, William Goldman can certainly write a certain kind of very well done humor, dark and fantastic in all the right ways.

Anyway, No Way to Treat a Lady is essentially a movie about a serial killer and the detective who is trying to find him. Arguably it can be seen as fairly serious in some ways, at least with the subject matter of a man killing older women across New York City. The film features the detective and the killer as the leads of the production. The detective, Morris Brummel (played by George Segal), is a Jewish cop who seems to have a very certain way of living his life. He has no girlfriend, lives with his mother, and seems altogether to be a slight be of an oaf. And yet he is extremely likable, similar to any shy man who has ever existed. He starts investigating the case and falls in love with the first witness Kate Palmer (played by Lee Remick). The love story is altogether kind of sweet. Kate is shown as a lady on her own who can take care of herself. She is often forward where Morris is embarrassed, nervous, or seems just plain terrified at the prospect at talking with a woman who isn't his mother. A good portion of the plot deals with his relationships between the two female characters in his life and how he has to learn to act around them. He falls in love with Kate over the course of the movie just as she falls for him. And it's really kind of sweet. I'm not usually a sucker for love stories because seriously, screw love stories, but this one works for me. Maybe it's because it feels realistic, or maybe it's simply because these characters remind me of actual people. I don't really know.

The rest of the story is about the serial killer proper, Christopher Gill (played spectacularly by Rod Steiger), a well-to-do Broadway theater owner who recently lost his famous actress of a mother. He kills older, often middle-aged, women by strangling them, seemingly envisioning his mother as he does so. Mr. Gill showboats his accomplishments, phoning the police after his murders. He eventually targets Morris, and they speak with one another from time to time, eventually they grow to have a strange rapport with one another. This is certainly more on Gill's side than Morris's side, but it's interesting to see the progression of open hostility at first to almost a strange friendship of sorts. I think it's portrayed spectacularly in the play version, but the movie does have some of it as well, although it is a great deal subtler, which I think is to the film's detriment even if the play came afterward.

The main premise of the film is that Gill dresses up and acts as different personae to get into these women's apartments. The whole first scene of the movie is Gill as a priest talking with and eventually strangling an ex-Catholic widow. He also plays a German plumber, a seemingly gay hairdresser, a terrified woman, and even goes as far as imitating Detective Brummel. He affects different accents and intonations when becoming these characters, and the acting from Steiger is a real treat to watch. He pulled off a fantastic performance here. The problem is that his own pride at his acting ability and accents does really give him away in the end. He almost has to be some sort of actor. And his own hubris is what finally fingers him for the crimes. He wants to be the gentleman killer, who murders only his chosen victims. When another murder is attributed to him, he flies off the deep end, almost getting himself caught because of it. Eventually the game of cat and mouse between Morris and Gill reaches a head with Gill unhappy about the dangerous games that Morris seems to be playing with him, and Gill decides to play his own game of setting a meal up for Kate so that he can kill her.

His plans don't work out as they should though, and Kate survives. He flees to his theatre and Morris meets him face-to-face, eventually deciding that this is his man after seeing a portrait of Gill's late mother with the same lipstick on her own lips that Gill placed on the victim's foreheads. Morris asks Gill for the keys to the costumes, and knowing that the costumes he used would be right there on display, Gill gives the key to Morris only to intercept him in the darkness below the theatre, trying to kill him with throwing lights at him and such. Morris eventually shoots Gill and Gill knocks Morris out. Gill staggers on stage, becoming each of the characters he had acted in turn, remembering the murders, and eventually, when confronted with his crimes, asking Morris for forgiveness, calling back an earlier scene where Gill asked for forgiveness from Morris after yelling at him over the phone. Morris does not forgive Gill, who has finally been captured.

This movie is really good in general. The pacing and the plot are incredibly well done. And this movie really seems to foreshadow some of the dark comedy murder mystery-like television shows that would come out long after this movie. Hell, there are some Psych episodes that certainly have a similar feel. My point is that this movie actually works as both a serial killer film with a certain darkness that those movies have in them and as a comedic film with almost romantic comedy elements to it. In general this is a great film for anybody to watch. The acting is superb, the story is both tense and incredibly funny, and the movie is a really fun watch in general.  It was an enjoyable experience. I'd certainly watch it again if given the chance or if I was in the mood for it. So, I have to say that I would recommend it. If my description sounds intriguing, go and check it out.

Also, and just a last remark here, I compared this movie to The Princess Bride in my head before I wrote this review,and I just find it funny that two very different movies can be compared together so easily on issues like tone, humor, and enjoyment. Honestly, if you like The Princess Bride, you'd probably like this movie too.

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