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).