No Way To Treat a Lady (1968) ****

Sly cunning highly original drama hugely enjoyable for a number of reasons, top among which would be Rod Steiger’s serial killer. As the wealthy and cultured Christopher Gill, the actor employs disguise to enter the homes of the unsuspecting. Disguises range from Irish priest,  German maintenance man, wig salesman, a woman and even a policeman knocking on doors to advise people not to admit strangers.

Clearly Steiger has a ball with these cameos, but, more importantly, his character pre-empts the celebrity status accorded the modern-day mass murderer. This is a killer who wants everyone to know just how good he is at his self-appointed task, who desperately wants to be on the front pages, who revels in a cat-and-mouse taunting of the police. To be sure, an element of this is played as comedy, but from our perspective, half a century on, it is a terrific characterization of the narcissistic personality, and far more interesting than the psychological impulse that causes him to kill in the first place.

The hapless detective (George Segal) on the receiving end of Gill’s brilliance is named Morris Brummel which means that he is met with laughter anytime he introduces himself since he that is invariably shortened to Mo Brummel, close to Beau Brummel, the famous historical dandy, from whom the cop could not be further removed. And Brummel is not your standard cop, the kind we have seen often who is stewed in alcohol with marital problems, feuding with his bosses and close to burn-out. Brummel would love marital problems if only to get out from under his nagging mother (Eileen Eckhart) , with whom he lives.

He is dogged, but respects authority and takes his demotion like a man. Not coincidentally, killer and cop are linked by mother issues. Although Gill is angry when ignored he does not taunt Brummel the way his mother does. She is ashamed he is a cop and not wealthy like his brother.

Even less standard is the meet-cute. Kate Palmer (Lee Remick) is a useless witness. She can’t remember anything about the priest she passed on the stairs. When the cop arrives, she is hungover and just wants to get back to sleep, and without being aware that Brummel is in fact Jewish praises his nose. Gill is a bit ham-fisted in the seduction department and it is Palmer who makes the running. But although appearing glamorous when first we see her, in reality she is a mundane tour guide. Their romance is conducted on buses and a police river launch, hardly the classic love story.

Although the trio of principals boasted one Oscar and two nominations between them, their careers were at a tricky stage. Winning the Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967) did not trigger huge demand for Steiger’s services and he had to skip over to Italy for his next big role. Both Remick and Segal, in freefall after a series of flops, had been working in television. Whether this picture quite rejuvenated their careers is a moot point for the picture was reviled in certain quarters for bringing levity to a serious subject and it was certainly overshadowed in critical terms by The Boston Strangler (1968) a few months later. But all three give excellent performances, especially Steiger and Segal who subjugated screen mannerisms to create more human characters.

While Jack Smight had directed Paul Newman in private eye yarn Harper (1966) the bulk of his movies, regardless of genre, were tinged with comedy. While he allows Steiger full vent for his impersonations, he keeps the actor buttoned-down for most of the time, allowing a more nuanced performance. Violence, too, is almost non-existent, no threshing of limbs of terrified victims. John Gay wrote the screenplay from a novel by William Goldman (who had written the screenplay for Harper) so short it almost constituted a movie treatment.  

In reality, the comedy is slight and if you overlook a sequence poking fun at the vertically-challenged, what remains is an examination of propulsion towards fulfilment through notoriety and the irony that the murders elevate into significance the mundane life of the investigating officer.   

Catch-Up: George Segal films previously reviewed in the Blog are Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Lost Command (1966), The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and The Southern Star (1969). I also covered Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (1964).

Three into Two Won’t Go (1969) ***

Unhappily married and childless salesman Steve (Rod Steiger) begins an affair with kooky promiscuous hitchhiker Ella (Judy Geeson). A free spirit in control of her life – no VD and on the Pill – and happy to drift from mundane job to mundane job, Ella ranks her many lovers on their sexual performance. Steve has just moved into a new house in a dreary new estate, perhaps in the hope of revitalizing his staid marriage to Frances (Claire Bloom).

While Steve is away on business, Ella turns up at his home where, revealing – without implicating Steve – that she is pregnant and convinces Frances to let her stay the night. Naturally, it is Steve’s baby but Ella plans an abortion. Steve wants the baby and so, too, still unaware of the father, does Frances, seeing adoption as the solution to their marital woes. And so a love triangle, or more correctly a baby triangle, plays out, with a few unexpected twists.

Like most of the marital dramas of the 1960s, especially in the wake of the no-holds-barred Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), this is riddled with outspoken protagonists who have no idea how to find real happiness. Based on the book by Andrea Newman and adapted by Edna O’Brien, who both have previously marked out this kind of territory, the picture shifts sympathy from one character to the next. While no one is entirely culpable, none are blameless either. Yet there is an innocence about Steve and Frances in the way they fling themselves at unlikely salvation. They are not the first couple to find themselves in a marital cul de sac, nor the first to do nothing about it, hoping that somehow through a new house or job promotion things will right themselves.

Audiences, accustomed to seeing Steiger (In the Heat of the Night, 1967) in morose roles, might have been shocked to see him happy and he manages to present a more rounded character than in some previous screen incarnations. In burying herself in domesticity, Claire Bloom (Charly, 1968) essays a far from fragile character, whose resilience and pragmatism will always find a way forward. Geeson is the surprise package, at once knowing and in charge, and at other times completely out of her depth, and to some extent enjoying the chaos she sparks. The exuberant screen personality she presents here is almost a grown-up more calculating version of the character she portrays in Hammerhead (1968).

Director Peter Hall (Work is a Four-Letter Word, 1968) ensures more universal appeal by not grounding the movie in the swinging sixties so that it would not quickly become  outdated. The snatching at last-minute fantasy to avert marital disharmony will still strike a note. The performances are all excellent, including a turn by Peggy Ashcroft (Secret Ceremony, 1968) and bit parts from British character actors Paul Rogers (Stolen Hours, 1963) and Elizabeth Spriggs in her second movie.

Make sure you catch the correct version of this picture if you hunt it down. Against the director’s wishes. Universal edited it then added new characters for the version shown on American television.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

The Pawnbroker (1964) *****

Director Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, 1964) could have made an excellent film just about the customers of a pawn shop, the haunted individuals haggling for more bucks than they will ever be paid, the sad sacks, junkies, lost souls and general losers whose stories are told in the items they pawn or redeem – candlesticks, lamps, radios, musical instruments, occasionally themselves. You don’t need to be a pawnbroker to know that three hoodlums turning up with a pricey lawnmower are dealing in stolen property. And it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the pawnbroker is involved in some kind of money-laundering scam for a local gangster. Clearly shot on location on a bustling low-rent area, north of 116th St in East Harlem, New York, there’s enough going on in the streets – the markets, the tenements, poolrooms, the bustle, the eternal noise – to keep you hooked.

But you might think twice about positing as your hero an “absolute bastard” as Lumet himself described shop owner Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). He is more haunted than any of his clientele, a Holocaust survivor, plagued by flashbacks to the concentration camp where he witnessed his son die and his wife raped. He is devoid of life, completely shutdown to any emotion, rejecting overtures of friendship, and his life is played out in tiny elliptical shreds. He does not even derive any enjoyment out of his affair with a widow and although he claims to worship money – according to him the only “absolute” outside of the speed of light – that brings no fulfillment either. It is surprising he has lasted so long without imploding. After his war experience, you would have to wonder at a man who spends his life behind the bars of the grille in his shop and just in case he considers escaping from his predicament designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, 1973) incorporates other visual aspects of imprisonment into the production.

This startling image taken from the Pressbook encapsulates one of the striking moment of the film. As seen on the advert at the top of the blog, although not technically a roadshow in the normal sense (i.e. in the grandeur of 70mm) it played separate performances. This was a technique to drive up demand by limiting access. Originally, to take advantage of a British tax break known as the Eady Levy, the film was due to be made in London. Lumet pulled out when MGM insisted on a London shoot and only returned after that idea was abandoned and second-choice director Arthur Hiller bowed out.

Steiger gives a very restrained performance, especially for an actor known for his volubility and over-acting. He seems to sink into the role. He is accused of being among “the walking dead.” Around him are a set of very lively characters, his ambitious assistant (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch, 1969) trying to go straight and his girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a very smooth and wealthy and gay gangster (Brock Peters), and a trio of small-time hoods with whom the assistant is friendly. But also the deranged and the lonely. A widowed social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who suffers from the “malady of loneliness” offers him friendship but is rejected.

There is little plot to speak but it is just enough to teeter him on the brink of self-destruction. So it is primarily a character study. Unusually, Lumet observes without any sentimentality those around Steiger. “Sol has buried himself in this area,” Lumet wrote (“Keep them on the hook,” Films and Filming, October 1964, p17-20) “because he needs to be with people that he can despise….This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces.” There is no redemption and he lacks the courage to commit suicide. It’s a stunning, bold picture, as raw as you can get without turning into a bloodsucker.

Fans of “The Godfather” might recognise this image – of a puppet on the strings -used to symbolise the power of the Mafia don. Eight years before Coppola’s gangster saga, this rarely seen but similar image in the Pressbook for “The Pawnbroker” evoked the opposite – a broken man.

The film had a few firsts. It was the only mainstream American picture to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor (although films like Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, has shown camp victims). It broke mainstream conventions on nudity, bare breasts being seen for the first time. Lumet experimented with incredibly short cuts – just one-frame and two-frames in places (a technique he had first used in television)- when the standard assumption was that audiences required three frames to register an image. Brock Peters played not just the first openly gay person in a mainstream picture, but the first gay African-American (although The Long Ships the same year had a bit of comedy about a eunuch chasing Vikings).

Quincy Jones made his debut as a movie composer. If you listen closely you might detect a piece of music later made famous by the Austin Powers pictures and if you look closely you might spot a debut sighting of Morgan Freeman. And if want another anomaly, try and work out why Rod Steiger lost out to that year in the Best Actor Oscar stakes to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965).

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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