Directed by Jack Smight (Harper 1966, The Illustrated Man 1969, Airport 1975 (1974) plus various work on television dramas and anthology series) John Gay wrote the screenplay based on William Goldman’s novel (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969, screenplay for The Stepford Wives, Marathon Man ’76, Magic ’78, The Princess Bride. Smight shows us sensationalist traces of The Boston Strangler killings to underpin his black satire.
No Way To Treat a Lady 1968 Stars Rod Steiger, George Segal, Eileen Heckart, Lee Remick, Murray Hamilton, David Doyle, Val Bisoglio, Michael Dunn, Val Avery and the ladies… Martine Bartlett, Barbara Baxley, Irene Daily, Doris Roberts Ruth White and Kim August as Sadie the transvestite, a female impersonator who was a featured performer at a Manhattan cabaret.
The film has it’s gruesome, grotesque and transgressive set pieces of women splayed with lipstick kisses on their foreheads. Director Jack Smight’s and writer William Goldman’s vision is outrageously dark, sardonic, satirical penetrating and contemptuous of motherhood and humanity in general.
From “Ed Gein and the figure of the transgendered serial killer” by K.E. Sullivan– “NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY a story about a serial killer who was psychologically abused by his mother and kills women to get revenge upon her. The killer is most likely based on William Hierans (The Lipstick Killer),yet the narrative foregrounds cross-dressing as part of the murderer’s technique, despite the fact that Hierans did not cross-dress.”
The dynamic Rod Steiger enlivens the screen as lady killer Christopher Gill, living in the shadow of his famous theatrical mother. He impersonates different characters in order to gain access to his victim’s homes, where he then strangles them, leaving his mark a red lipstick kiss on their foreheads. Gill begins a game of cat and mouse with police detective Morris Brummel (George Segal) who lives at home with his domineering mother.
There is an aspect of the film that is rooted in the ongoing thrills of watching Rod Steiger don his disguises as a sex killer. But what evolves through the witty narrative is the moral confrontation between the antagonist and protagonist surrounding their conflicting values and class backgrounds. The one psychological thread that runs through their lives is the parallel and sexual neurosis both have because of their dominating mother figures.
The opening scene… Christopher Gill impersonating Father McDowall (Steiger) is walking down the street viewed with a long shot, he’s whistling a ‘sardonic’ tune… in the vein of “the ants go marching” alongside The East River. Present, is the activity of cars passing by on the East Side Highway.
As he comes closer into the camera’s view we can see he’s wearing a priest’s frock.
We hear the city noises, the sounds of cars honking, young children plowing into him as they run by, and a young girl in a short lime green dress greets him as he continues to walk along the sidewalk.
As Gill passes Kate Palmer (Lee Remick) descending the stairs of the apartment house, he says “Top of the morning to you young lady!”
Kate is wearing in a smart yellow dress (Theoni V Aldredge ) she says “Hello father” As he continues to whistle his tune, she stops and looks up the stairs after him, the camera does a close-up on her lovely face. He stops at apt 2B knocks and calls out for Mrs. Mulloy. It’s father McDowall, asking if she can spare a moment of her time. Sounding a bit suspicious she asks if he’s new to the neighborhood, but he smiles and says that it’ll be a pleasure to serve to such as the like as herself. “I Just need a minute of your life,” he says and that’s pretty telling… since that’s true. Mrs. Mulloy sounds like she’s making a hard decision to open the door, but we hear the latch click…
Martine Bartlett (Sybil’s mother yikes!) opens the door as Alma Mulloy, the very simple Irish Catholic widow.
Alma Mulloy lets him in, after all, he’s a priest. He remarks on what a lovely place she has. She prides herself on her vocabulary. He delights in a word she uses. “habitable” She’s been taking a self-improvement course… She offers him a cup of tea. He asks for something a might bit stronger. She offers him some port. Splendid…
We don’t know what to expect in terms of how graphic the murder sequence will become. It is already quite disturbing how it begins to evolve, as the violence is simple and quite literal, it is the subtle psychological mechanisms that are turning within the narrative that make it all the more uneasy to watch.
This is his first kill. He sits back in the rocking chair contemplative. Perhaps a moment of Guilt? perhaps. Gill puts the lifeless body of Mrs. Mulloy in the bathroom – Stanley Myers’ (The Night of the Following Day ’68, The Devil’s Widow ’70 with Ava Gardner, X Y and Z ’72, House of Whipcord ’74, The Deerhunter ’78, The Watcher in the Woods ’80) soundtrack creates a layer of vocalize which is a flutter of sopranos, like Anglican chants, nuns doing canticles or vespers. The frailty and holiness of their voices underlying the freakishly morbid ritual of Gill laying out the body and adding the fetishistic red lips on their forehead is provocative. This image has stayed with me for years.
It’s a haunting backdrop to a very disturbing opening sequence… once the piano and voices are through.. Gill turns from the door frame and blows the dead woman a kiss… utterly macabre…
Switch scene to Detective Morris Brummel’s (Segal) mother yelling at him that his eggs are cooking. She starts picking at him… The banter begins, the cliched Jewish mother/ son relationship unfolds. Morris asks for toast, she pushes the Latkas- he says it’s a bit heavy for breakfast.
“So take a good look at yourself, a skeleton without a closet… hows the eggs?” she complains about people starving then adds. “So why do I feed you? Tell me…ha Tell me, how much money are you gonna make today?… Should I tell you how much your brother Franklin’s gonna make today, maybe a thousand maybe two thousand in one day.”
Morris tells her, “He deserves it mother he’s a very fine doctor.”
“Oh no not fine… THE BEST!! B.E.S.T. do you know what that means to be the best lung surgeon in all Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx!… and he’s not even 40 yet” Her Semitic hand gestures are a vital part of the conversation.
“Well, he’s older give me time..” She answers him, “Ha you… time, a hundred years I give and you still can’t tie your shoe laces.”
I could continue with the hilarious dialogue that satirically pins down beautifully the essence of the mother/son relationship between New York Jews. Heckart does a splendid job of capturing the needling ‘pick pick pick’ nature, in the guise of love, protectiveness, worry, pride, and disappointment all rolled into a swift set of words and not-so-subtle hand gestures…
Lieutenant Dawson (David Doyle) calls Morris and asks how his mother is and tells him that he’s on the Mulloy homicide. Morris starts to leave… putting his gun on his belt.
“Look at you with that thing… a Jewish cop. When everybody knows if you’re not Irish, you’re a nobody if you’re a cop.”
His mother starts flailing her hands at him while he’s trying to tie his tie. She needles him about not getting a diploma from a city university not to mention giving her grandchildren, his brother Franklin has three grand children already… pick pick pick.
“What do I get from you… but heartbreak.” She slaps her heart. Morris says so long ma… she chases after him, “Oh that’s right, leave, leave me… don’t come back…”
He tells her she’s over doing it a bit. She calms down, her voice softens, She calls his name wistfully, Morris… He looks down at his shoes, He needs to tie them… She calls him darling… they’re having Kreplach for dinner, he should stop by for the Flanken… He kisses her on the cheek. And the dynamic comes full circle. Love through food and needling…
Scene cuts to Christopher Gill’s opulent Gothic-adorned apartment house interior. He’s humming that sardonic tune again, wearing a black silk bathrobe. He fixes a candle stick that isn’t quite straight on the side table. He is a control freak and a fastidious man. Sits down to a lovely breakfast set out for him by Miss Fitts (Irene Dailey) She gives him the morning paper. He ruffles through the newspaper looking for signs of the murder, and is angered that it isn’t on the front page. All there is, is a small paragraph under WIDOW SLAIN amidst the other news about floods and fireworks.
He calls the newspaper to ask why the story was buried, they tell him that they didn’t have time to get all the facts, when they ask who’s calling he hangs up.
Morris arrives at the Mulloy crime scene. Asks the super who saw the priest. He tells Morris, 3E Katherine Palmer.
He asks for a description of the priest. Kate is still groggy from sleeping. She flirts with Morris. “That’s kind of a sweet nose you got there, it’s not handsome exactly I didn’t say handsome… just kinda sweet, especially for a cop.”
“Oh yeah as a matter of fact he said something kinda funny… He said Top of the morning.” Morris looks puzzled, “That’s funny” Kate clears up the confusion, “It was afternoon.”
Morris leaves but Kate tells him to come back some other time. A voice-over of Mrs Brummel begins…
“Lunatics, lunatics (she’s now framed sitting in a chair on the phone talking to Morris) you got now… Stranglers!!! Morris, I tell you, I’m ashamed. You know… you know. I am sickened at heart when my own son goes looking at dead women’s naked bodies. I tell you, Morris… it’s no way to treat a lady!”
Now Gill arrives at Mrs. Himmel’s (Ruth White) apartment dressed as a plumber. He looks through the old photo albums of Germany, and eats strudel. Now he’s using a German accent. After he’s killed poor Mrs. Himmel and left his lipstick mark… he calls Morris while holding the newspaper with a photo of Detective Brummel.
Morris answers, “Yeah this is Detective Morris Brummel speaking?”
“Yeah well this is Hans Schultz, at least I was Hans Schultz all day today, but a week ago last I was Father Kevin McDowall.”
Morris says, “Look I don’t have time to fool around Mister” Gill tells him, “Yeah well don’t hang up on me, just don’t hang up Mr Brummel huh.”
“What do you want… What do you want?”
“Well, I want to tell you that I am in the apartment of Frau Himmel and she’s quite dead.”
Gill laughs “Now you’re interested, maybe now I should hang up on you” Morris motions to Detective Monaghan (Val Bisoglio) to start a trace…
“No no don’t hang up just wait a second, hold on, please please don’t hang up.”
“Hehehe, now you say please, say please, then I don’t hang up.”
Morris pleads, “I just said it, please please don’t hang up.”
“You know what I think, I think you put a trace on the call so that’s not gonna work because there is no trace tone on this set and by the time that they check with the switchboard man at the central office and he checks the frames on the crossbar equipment and then they check “ Morris mouths to Monaghan with his hand over the receiver that Gill knows all about tracing. “But by that time Auf Wiedersehen I’m gone see, so I think it’s best I tell you, that I tell you that I am at 520 East 89th street… (Morris scrambles to get a pen to write down the address)
I like what you said in the newspapers about the murder being so well planned and so well executed and I consider that high praise coming from an expert such as yourself. I thank you for that. You hear me?”
“Yeah yeah, I hear ya.”
“Now the other thing I’d like to tell you is that you should come over here and take a look because you’ll find out that I am well up to my previous standards and I would like you to put that in the newspaper. In fact, I insist on it.”
“I’ll try” Morris acts casually, as a way to piss Gill off, but it’s also part of Morris’ jaded, downtrodden personality.
“Don’t try, you do it and know that I’m smarter than you are.”
“You’re smarter than I am?”
“And there’s just one more thing. You see I don’t like I should call you Detective Morris Brummel because that’s too formal so from now on I call you Morris.”
Morris starts to answer “Fine, listen…” then Gill hangs up. Maintaining himself as the one in control…
The way the scene is framed it looks like Gill is lying on the bed making romantic overtures to Morris. Gill has found a relationship that titillates him.
Meanwhile, a relationship is developing between Kate and Morris. Kate comes down to the police station to give a description to a sketch artist of the priest. Morris escorts Kate onto the bus and back home. Unbeknownst to the couple, Gill is wearing his hairdresser disguise and watching the pair… Gill is now fixated on Morris.
The next victim up is Barbara Baxley as the cat lady Belle Poppie. Gill plays a flaming fag hairdresser Dorian Smith with bleached blond hair and perfect lisp and hat boxes filled with bad wigs.
Belle holding one of her felines asks, “Would you like to meet my cats?” she shows him around the immaculate BTW apartment introducing him to the various cats… This scene is perhaps the most hilarious in the film as the whimsical Belle introduces every feline in the apartment. Gill follows her around, repeating the names of the cats in a manner that just made me laugh out loud, it’s a hysterical scene and Barbara Baxley is spot on in this bit role.
His plan is foiled when her sister Sylvia played by the equally hilarious character actress (Doris Roberts) comes home. He pretends that the wig isn’t free after, so he can get out there. As he’s leaving Sylvia calls him a homo, and he snaps back quickly. Sylvia Poppie- “Is that one of your own wigs you’re wearing? Gill- “You don’t look like Cleopatra, honey.” Belle Poppie-“Don’t raise your voice!” Sylvia gets mean- “You homo!”
Gill as he’s halfway out the door. “Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
Back at the Brummel apartment, Mother Brummel is torturing Morris again…
Mrs. Brummel: “So, what do you, what do you do with her, go to mass?”
Morris Brummel: “No, we just… we walk and we talk.”
Mrs. Brummel: “Oh, please, please. I don’t want to hear another word. Already I won’t sleep another wink tonight. Please, don’t say another word.” she pauses.
Mrs. Brummel: “Morris…”
Morris Brummel: “I thought you didn’t want to hear anymore?”
Mrs. Brummel: “Aw, you think I want to? You think I want… I’m in agony. I… I… It’s my duty. Go on, go on.”
Morris Brummel: “Well, she… her, her name is Katherine. Katherine Palmer.”
Mrs. Brummel: “Short, blonde, beautiful?”
Morris Brummel: “No, she’s, er, she’s, she’s tall and er, she’s only got one eye right in the middle of her forehead.”
Mrs. Brummel: “Of course. Of course. She’ll break your heart!”
There’s a bowl of assorted fruit in the fine crystal and the Challah bread sits on a silver platter decorating the table. The details of the film’s spaces are perfect. From Kate’s mod apartment to the Brummel’s home, to each individual apartment of the various female victims, to the NYC bars, including Gill’s own opulent apartment. The atmospheres are envisioned perfectly.
Again like a form of masturbation, Gill calls and taunts Morris as the flaming hairdresser Dorian…
As Gill asks to speak to Morris Brummel the camera frames the dead woman to the left of the screen as Gill is lensed to the far right, standing by the phone. He found his third victim. Morris says, “Speaking” Gill answers, “Morris, this is Dorian (still in character) Dorian, Dorian Smith.”
“Ha, I’m sorry I think you got the wrong number.”
“I don’t have the wrong number this is Dorian, Dorian Smith. Tell me you haven’t forgotten me already sweetheart. “ Morris says, “No no I haven’t forgotten you.”
Sarcastic chuckle, “Well I didn’t think so Sweetheart, I didn’t think so. Now look, (he stammers for a bit) I’m very sorry if I”m disturbing you at home.”
“How’d you get my number?”
“Sweetheart, How many Morris Brummels are in the phone book?”
“What do you want?”
Gill looks insulted that Morris seems abrupt and uninterested, and looks over at the dead woman. Her head rested on the cold porcelain toilet lid. Her forehead was tattooed with bright red lips.
“Oh Morris I’ve been a bad boy again. yes… (he explodes) What do you mean yes… just don’t say yes show some interest. Can’t you notice that my voice is completely different?”
“Yes, I noticed that.”
“Alright, you should have heard my Father McDowall it was sensational. (Steiger’s voice changes on a dime and an all together malefic tone emerges in the midst of his rant “Don’t you think I’m clever?”
Morris comments, “Yeah, you’re a wizard.”
“Then You should hear my W.C Fields sometimes it’s absolutely uncanny” ( he goes into his WC Fields impersonation- “My boy you are engaged in a conversation with the great WC Fields himself concerning the degeneracy, debauchery, and murder involving one infantile detective called Morris Brummel boy detective. How’d ya like that one Morris?”
“Alright alright but can’t we talk this over from one human being to another?”
“No no no no no no no you don’t, you don’t (Deep sigh) you gotta find that out for yourself, you see it’s not fair I told you where I was last time. So you’ll have to find out this time for yourself.” He hangs up the phone.
Gill says out loud to himself Ciao, Ciao Ciao Bambino… He holds the last vowel and hums on it like a mantra which turns into a whimpering sob as he looks away crying like a small child, he chokes the tears back and puts a gold handkerchief over his mouth. He is sickened by his actions. Obviously struggling with Oedipal psychosis, ambivalent and disturbed. He even called himself a “bad boy” to Morris…
His body shakes and shivers. Yet again another layer of a stunning performance by Steiger. We hear the heavenly soprano voices in the background, it’s an eerie moment that plugs into the disorientation and grotesquery of the film’s narrative. One that also makes this antagonist a bit more sympathetic, as he is aware that he is sick…
Morris and Katherine continue to date. We see Gill at his mother’s theater. He is directing a production of Othello. One of the names on the theater roster is William Pratt an homage to Boris Karloff’s real name.
Gill is trying to live up to the expectation of his famous mother. His masquerading to murder is put on for her benefit. To attain the notoriety she had back in the day. The strata of Steiger’s performance is chilling as it is stunning. Going in and out of his central character Christopher Gill to one of his guises back into the wounded child within Christopher Gill, the very sick man, the mama’s boy, he balances three separate performances in one when he is aroused to anger on the phone. He is an outstanding actor, and in No Way To Treat A Lady, he gives a tour de force…
A very memorable scene in the film is when Michael Dunn comes to the police station and tries to confess to the murders. As Mr Kupperman (Michael Dunn) turns himself into Brummel as ‘The strangler,’ “Yeah I killed every one of them” Morris asks, “You, you killed them?” “With my bare hands” “Why’d you do it?” “Hostility.” Mr.Kupperman warns Morris that he’s sensitive. But Morris has to bring it up because it bares on the case. “You’re a midget” “Lots of people are midgets!” “He was taller than you..” “You see how I fooled them I’m a master of disguise.”
Morris gets the idea to plant a fake 6th victim. He suggests this idea to Murray Hamilton as Inspector Haines.
They got the body from the east river, a suicide. Morris is disgusted that they even added lipstick to the corpse.
At Gill’s home, he sits down at the piano remarking about the flowers that Mrs Fitts puts on the grand piano. He tells her they’re lovely, “Romance Mrs Fitts, romance is the magic that makes men whole and women bold.”
Mrs Fitts-“You read the newspapers nowadays there’s not much love in it… not with all the rioting and wars and with all these murders. It’s getting so that I’m afraid to step out onto the street. Imagine one man killing six women.”
Gill is confused and asks what she means he didn’t kill six women. Morris’ plan works, the news unwittingly has planted a fake story to lure him out.
Mrs. Fitts tells him, “Victim number six and killed the same way with the lipstick across her forehead and everything. Imagine Mr. Gill six women!!!!” He asks Mrs. Fitts for his tea. Then gets into a phone booth and calls the police station.
“Ah, but you forget something Mr Brummel, I have given you my word of honor that I’ll stop… I don’t tell lies what kind of a person do you think I am?”
“What do I think you are… a malignancy, a cancer the cesspool of the world that’s just for openers.”
“I see, hhm well why can’t I make you believe it!”
Morris starts yelling into the phone “You don’t have to, you don’t have to… we got a full description of you this time, somebody who saw you last night at the murder” “But that’s impossible, it was not me.”
“You’re very short, you have blonde hair wide nose, and bushy eyebrows.”
“hahaha that’s very funny you see cause first of all, I have brown eyes, I have brown hair I am approximately 6 feet tall. (he pauses) and you are clever.”
“What’d you say?”
“Oh Mr Brummel you’re very clever, very clever.” he gets off the phone, “yes clever but not clever enough.”
And so the elaborate game of cat and mouse continues between the theatrically psychotic Christopher Gill and the smothered downtrodden Jewish cop Morris Brummel. I’ll stop here… See it to its thrilling conclusion!
Gills sees Morris admiring the imposing painting of his mother-“A rather striking portrait of my mother don’t you think?… Have you ever seen her on the stage?”
In Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo’s New Light by Martin M. Winkler he mentions how the killer (Rod Steiger)
feels overshadowed by his late mother, and so strangles these middle-aged women- He owns a large bronze statue by German sculptor Gerhard Marcks of Antigone leading her blind father in which killer Christopher Gill makes the revealing comment “I like its strength.”
Ed Gein and the figure of the transgendered serial killer by K.E. Sullivan
“In the world of Krafft-Ebing, there is no such thing as benign sexual variation. Everyone who departs from reproductive, monogamous, male-dominant heterosexuality is described as criminally insane.”
“The second version of transvestism in contemporary media also involves discovery about the “truth” of a character’s body. Such revelation, however, is not comic but horrific. Here the guise of femininity does not hide or empower a clever heterosexual man but reveals a monstrous gender- and sexual-deviant: a man in “gender distress.”‘ If a character has a transgender body, this detail usually is tied to some dark and horrible secret in the narrative, and the revelation about the “truth” of the body” — that a woman has a penis or a man is a transvestite/ transsexual — typically is revealed simultaneously with the revelation of another “secret” — that the person is a killer. Indeed, monstrosity or deviance almost exclusively mark images of transgender individuals, allowing for little if any sympathy from spectators.”
Rod Steiger is superb as Christopher Gill the Oedipal well-educated upper-class dandy thespian lady killer who disguises himself as various characters in order to gain entry to unsuspecting women’s apartments where he proceeds to strangle them. George Segal is marvelous as Morris Brummel… Gill’s new fixation/adversary as he begins to phone and taunt Brummel like a lover. Brummel also has issues with his own domineering mother portrayed by the wonderful character actress Eileen Heckart.
Lee Remick is perfect as Kate Palmer the shiksa in Morris’ life who has a pretty wild side herself, confessing that she used to swing with all the beautiful people when she first moved to NYC. The film also co-stars Murray Hamilton as Inspector Haines. Then there’s a delicious bit by Michael Dunn as Mr. Kupperman who has a hilarious cameo in which he shows up at Morris Brummel’s police station confessing to the murders. The always droll Val Bisoglio plays Detective Monaghan.
And the fine character actors who are lined up to be Gill’s victims- Martine Bartlett as Alma Mulloy, Barbara Baxley ( who I love!) as the cat-loving Belle Poppie, Doris Roberts as sister Sylvia Poppie, Irene Daily as Mrs Fitts, Ruth White as the nice German house frau Mrs. Himmel.
Stanley Myers is responsible for the fabulous musical score and the engaging cinematography is by Jack Priestley (Who’s on location realist and gritty photography can be found in some of the best episodes of The Naked City series, Where’s Poppa 1970, & Across 110th Street (1972). Priestley captures the rhythm of NYC perfectly. And George Jenkins (All the President’s Men 1976) adds detail and flare to his art & set direction. His use of color brings the palate of the film to a vibrant level of verisimilitude. Cinematographer Jack Priestly and art director George Jenkins chose very vibrant colors- a familiar richness in tone common to films of the 60s and add a sense of pageantry of the grotesque because the killer is playing out some murderous theater.
Theoni V. Aldredge’s costuming and wardrobe for Lee Remick and Eileen Heckart are fabulous, but even as much detail is spent on the lady victims of the story. Adding a dimension of realism and intimacy as a character study within the narrative.
A descendent from the Alfred Hitchcock/Robert Bloch -Norman Bates generation of psycho flicks No Way To Treat A Lady acts as a wonderful hybrid suspense piece synthesizing all the best parts of black comedy & crime thriller, with a bit of police procedural and psycho-sexual drama centered on a flamboyant actor with an Oedipal fixation who kills women, leaves a lipstick kiss as his calling card on their foreheads and taunts a Jewish cop who is also dominated by his stereotypical Jewish mother.
Here as in Psycho the monster is not drawn from the supernatural, or divined by historic mythic lore, they are very real psychotic individuals who commit acts of violence. The antagonist is presented as an ‘object’ of horror, like Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Terence Stamp in The Collector ’65, or even Catherine Deneuve’s insane disorientation in Repulsion ’65.
According to Leslie H. Abramson –Movies and the Failure of Nostalgia in American Cinema of the 1960s edited by Barry Keith Grant. 1968 was rife for movies to exploit the American nightmare. The Vietnam War peaked in ’68, civil unrest, anti-establishment sentiment was rampant, there were political, social and domestic clashes everywhere, so that these turbulent times manifested a very contemplative lens in film. Jack Valenti president of Motion Picture Association of America tried to attain film’s independents and self protection by creating the rating system instead of the Production Code that existed earlier. This was meant to appease critics. So amidst all the reality of shocking news headlines “In cinema as well, manifesting not only social trauma and upheaval but the public’s new commitment to confronting its own demons, the year’s releases reflected upon domestic culture as one of appalling violence, violation and struggle. An index of the increasing pervasiveness of psychic and graphic mortification as well as the huge for its containment, both the independent and studio sectors nostalgically encoded contemporary anxiety in the horror film, reinvigorating the classical genre with Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby. Both films envisioned the nightmarish emergence of the ghastly from within and among patriarchy, a preoccupation of the year’s multiple releases representing the murderer as lone assassin: The Boston Strangler, Targets, and No Way To Treat a Lady.”
Abramson seems to be making the argument that these films cynically portray the disparity between a vastly dysfunctional social pathology and a corrupt institution of laws. Presenting the archetypal outsider, the anti-hero figure who is capable of shedding a truthful light on the decadence or irredeemable vexations of our culture.
Also made monstrous within the film’s narrative is Morris’ castrating Jewish mother, who is running parallel to the specter of Gil’s deceased but ever-present imposing theatrical mother. What makes this a clíche is what Kaja Silverman in Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism claims that the character (in this case every female presence in the film) only knows her own identity by the language that is used. This is how she knows herself. Brummel’s mother, one of the main women in the film, is merely defined by her being an overbearing Jewish mother with no other qualifying marker of identity. As Silverman states, “Whereas the male subject has privileges conferred upon him by his relationship to discourse, the female subject is insufficient through hers.”
So neither Kate Palmer (Lee Remick), Mrs. Brummel (Eileen Heckart) nor the various female victims have a strong identifying individuality other than, ‘mother’, ‘object of desire’, or ‘victim’. The film truly focuses on the relationship between Morris Brummel and Christopher Gill which acts as the central pinion for the larger narrative.
An interesting fun fact that I read from IMDb is that one of Rod Steiger’s theatrical and campy impersonations was that of comedian W.C. Fields. In (1976) Steiger would inhabit the role of the red-faced wisecracker in Arthur Hiller’s W.C. Fields and Me.
Curiously Rod Steiger was the one who was approached at first to play the mama’s boy cop Morris Brummel. And he probably would have been fabulous at it, since he’s quite good in any role. But what a stroke of genius for him to choose the part of a psychopath, transvestite, and all-around chameleon, his over-the-top performance truly brought the film to life. In fact, Christopher Gill was not as prominent in William Goldman’s novel but had been elaborated on in greater detail for the film, making him the narrative’s focal point as both the antagonist and anti-hero.
Steiger felt the role of the killer would be the one that would gain the audiences’ attention as well as the critic’s eye, stealing the show as the flamboyant frustrated thespian with a mother complex and a fetish for red lipstick.
Also, a little homage that is close to my heart, is the poster outside the theater using the name William Pratt which happens to be the name given at birth to my beloved grandfather Boris Karloff. Okay okay… he’s not really my Grandpa, but if I did have my wish, he sure would have been the one to read me stories at night with a nice cup of cocoa. And not the kind laced with K9 Liniment as used in that Henry Slesar teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour– ‘What Really Happened.’
Here’s what film critic Vincent Canby had to say back in 1968 upon the film’s release in movie theaters. colorfully articulated, insightful yet a bit harsh & scathing, taking the film a bit too seriously IMHO.
No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) Screen: Farcical Exercise in Murder:Logic Loses in ‘No Way to Treat a Lady’ Segal and Steiger Play Hunter and Quarry
By VINCENT CANBY
Published: March 21, 1968
Buried beneath all the outrageous make-up, hairpieces, disguises and belly laughs in “No Way to Treat a Lady,” there is a curious and ironic comment about the land of stifling mother love that once so alarmed Sidney Howard that he wrote “The Silver Cord.” The comment seems to be that whatever makes one man into a psychotic killer may make another into a nice Jewish cop.
So much for what passes as sweet reason.
That commodity is in conspicuously short supply in the farcical melodrama that opened here yesterday at the Forum and Tower East theaters. However, anybody who has been entertained by “Psycho”—or even “Twelfth Night”—knows that sweet reason often has as much to do with entertainment as goodness had to do with Mae West’s diamonds.
Although “No Way to Treat a Lady” has the shape of a conventional suspense tale, the film is at its most entertaining—and, in fact, is only acceptable—as a series of macabre, sometimes broadly funny confrontations of caricatures, all dominated by the presence of Rod Steiger. Here is a dream role for the actor, permitting him a half-dozen masquerades as everything from a garrulous Irish priest, with a platitude for every occasion, to a fearful lady barfly, as full of tears as she is of booze.
Mr. Steiger gives a beautifully uninhibited performance as a hammy. Mom-haunted Broadway producer who undertakes “his own bizarre solution to the problem of New York’s growing population of lonely ladies—maiden, widowed and divorced. Dressed in a variety of disguises, he gains admittance to their apartments, where he promptly strangles them and then calls the police to brag about his handiwork.
Playing mouse to Steiger’s cat is George Segal, the detective assigned to solve the mystery of the stranglings and who is, oddly, as much of a caricature as the flamboyant killer who taunts him. Fresh from his role as a Jewish intellectual in “Bye, Bye, Braverman,” Segal is seen here as a middle-class nebish, dominated by a Jewish mother so extravagantly played by Eileen Heckart that she might drive Georgie Jessel to seek asylum in Syria—and her son to matricide.
John Gay’s script, adapted from the William Goldman novel, makes nothing much of this Oedipean hang-up common to both cat and mouse nor does it offer more than the sketchiest motivations for anything that happens. Instead, Mr. Gay has written an exposition-free, gag-filled cartoon, which is the manner in which Jack Smight directs it. “No Way to Treat a Lady” is all contemporary surface action, with quick cuts between scenes of murder and comedy and sometimes between scenes that combine both. Luckily, despite the fact that it was beautifully photographed in color entirely in New York, it has absolutely no reality.
There is nothing wrong with this sort of sheer sensation for its own sake as long as the gags and Steiger’s masquerades maintain their bold effrontery. When they don’t, however, as happens with increasing frequency toward the end, the mind begins to wander.
One simply must not question why Steiger, apparently a normal, maladjusted. Broadway producer until the film starts, suddenly commences his reign of terror. Nor why Lee Remick, the Minnie Mouse of the cartoon—a beautiful blonde with no visible means of support, a self-described former swinger and the kind of girl who sleeps in her false eyelashes—should fall for the clod detective. (Unless, of course, she is actually the castrating putdown artist she humorously affects to be in her first meeting with Segal’s harridan-mother.)
There is also the peculiar casting of someone who is obviously a female impersonator as one of Steiger’s victims, although nothing is made of this in the plot.
In addition to the wild, eyeball-rolling, lip-smacking, rococo-gestured performance of Steiger, who employs more accents than you might have heard in a year of vaudeville, Smight has got some fine performances from his supporting players, including Barbara Baxley, Martine Bartlett, Ruth White and Michael Dunn.
Dunn is seen as a pint-sized creep who tries to confess to the crimes. “You’d believe me,” he tells the detective waspishly, “if I weren’t a midget!” As with the film itself, there is something both funny and oddly disturbing in this aggressive lack of logic.
No Way To Treat A Lady opens with the unsuspecting woman in peril Martine Bartlett as Alma answers the door to an Irish Priest. The queasiness we feel, the anxiousness, and empathy because she is an older lady. The victims could be our own mother, aunt, or grandmother and not the evaluated, penalized, sexualized, and typified film ‘tramp’ who has somehow brought this wrath down upon herself making the murders particularly vicious. One of the more interesting victims is Sadie, a drag queen who sees Gill dressed in drag himself crying into a hanky in a bar and is scorned by the other patrons contending with nasty homophobic comments. Has Gill chosen this particular victim as a way to destroy the latent homosexuality within himself?
After each murder, Gill meticulously traces the lips of each victim with red lipstick and brands his kiss on their foreheads!
The symbol used as the ‘red lips’ is the hyper representation of female sexuality. The co-opting of this image as a weapon is really interesting as it is telling…
Rod Steiger, perhaps one of the most versatile actors, brings to life the flamboyant Christopher Gill who begins his assault on middle-aged women in the unsafe jungle of NYC. His chosen victims are most representative of the dear old mother. Steiger’s assorted guises that he dons in order to gain each lady’s trust are not only compelling but darkly funny as his performance which is never superfluous but totally campy psycho candy for the brain. Gill is like a supervillain who disguises himself as a parish Irish priest befits with an ideal brogue, he’s a German plumber perhaps a nod to the killings attributed to that man in Boston who strangled his innocent female victims. He plays a flaming hairdresser using the ploy that they have won a wig in a giveaway. He becomes a chef and a police officer, and at one point, he eventually does turn up in drag. – He incorporates various accents masterfully, among them he uses the voice of W.C. Fields.
All guises that will draw upon his designated victim’s wish fulfillment. Speaking German to Mrs. Himmel (Ruth White) bringing back her nostalgia for the old country, he enjoys eating her strudel.
Ironically enlisted to help track down and capture this deranged killer of defenseless women is Morris Brummel (George Segal) who is perfect for the part of a man who needs to break free of his cliched Jewish mother’s love… once again I’ll mention portrayed by the marvelous Eileen Heckart.
Morris is under his mother’s thumb, get’s flustered a lot whenever he’s at home or near beautiful women and gets phoned and taunted by the crazed Gill while trying to woo his new waspy girlfriend. Lee Remick plays the blonde shicksa a free-spirited liberated woman who used to swing with the beautiful people in Manhattan and now gives museum tours. She’s sexy and classy and just what Morris needs to shake things up in his claustrophobic life. Heckart is wonderfully overbearing to the point of pushing my own Jewish mother’s buttons. Pick, pick pick!
It’s no accident that there is a correlation between the two character’s mothers. One, domineering and relentless in her nagging Morris for not being more successful than his lung surgeon brother. While the dead Grande Dame mother of Gills looms largely over him, shown in austere portraits at the theater, having been a great actress herself in the day. A torch her son must carry in order to be as substantial as she was, and why he enacts different personae while he murders her repeatedly in re-enactments, these are his victims, middle-aged women who are signifying his mother.
What creates the great interplay between the flamboyant fiend and underdog cop is that they are both outliers, who somehow find each other and give their lives it’s meaning for that time. A game of cat and mouse. An oddball commiseration, one giving purpose to the other. A struggle of wills and morals.
Christopher Gill begins another fixation aside from his middle-aged female victims, now with his pursuer Morris Brummel. Perhaps he feels a kindred spirit in him. But something about their banter on the phone titillates Gill, it’s almost homoerotic, and as we can see by the animosity toward middle-aged women, although he worships the memory of his grande dame mama, he does have deep-rooted mother issues. Why else would he be re-killing her over and over again?
Gill is also a classic narcissist. Checking the newspapers constantly to make sure that they are printing the story about him. All the world’s a stage… Gill’s mother was a great thespian. He deals with his repressed homosexuality and his engorging Oedipal Complex. The homoerotic fixation that he has on dressing up and using, lipstick as a fetish, suggests again that he has a strong anti-mother sentiment. The use of lipstick turns a symbol of womanhood against them.
The film is a pervasive torch song of psycho-sexual prompts as Christopher Gill’s masculinity is challenged, destroying his mother, the devouring mother with each victim of his baleful masquerade.
We sense both men’s alienation Gil and Brummel as they are governed by mothers with a tight and suffocating grip. It’s a macabre classy thriller, polished and well acted even with the stereotypes and remnants of homophobia the 70s film that hadn’t been shaken from their villains or bit characters who were either downright crazy, unstable, or destined to be a victim of murder or suicide themselves.
In Cynthia A Freeland and Thomas E Wartenberg’s Philosophy & Film chapter The Politics of Interpretation, they cite as I like to, once again Kristeva’s theory of abjection of the maternal body from Powers of Horror. Abjection…
“Is an extremely strong feeling which is at once somatic and symbolic and which is above all a revolt of the person against an external menace from which one wants to keep oneself at a distance, but of which one has the impression that it is not only an external menace but that it may menace us from inside. So it is a desire for separation, for becoming autonomous and also the feeling of an impossibility of doing so.”
Kristeva’s notion of abjection is taken to an extreme level, where it is not sufficient enough to annihilate the maternal body seeing it as abject, in order for the child to be free of the maternal restraints. Even on an imaginary level where the maternal body must be killed so that the child will not kill itself. Kristeva suggests that this leads to matricide. And why Christopher Gill must constantly kill his mother in the form of various middle age women, over and over again, yet his psychosis will not allow him to be set free. He is surrounded by her memory. It is as if she is still alive and reigning over his life. He has a portrait of his mother, who is a prominent presence in the theater watching over her son.
The portrait of Mrs. Gill comes across with the power of a Sphynx. A monster with the body of a beast and the head of a woman. Perhaps even a bit like a gorgon. Her piercing eyes and outre-defined red lips tell of a menacing woman who commanded an audience, especially her son…
From The Sexual Subject –Stephen Heath’s chapter-Difference– “The historical positions of patriarchy society tell us that ‘women’ are constantly identified as the central focus of oppression constructed and justified in its terms.”
“Woman as sphinx confronting Oedipus and the Oedipus is always underlying. the eternal feminine which menaces the subject, either male or woman.”