Reeling Backward: No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)
Rod Steiger overacts like hell but makes it pay off in the dark satire about a persona-changing serial killer based on the novel by William Goldman.
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Quite often when an artist wins a best acting award, it is said that it's not always for the best acting but for the most acting. Rod Steiger should have won Best Actor for his performance in "The Pawnbroker" in 1965 (it went to Lee Marvin for "Cat Ballou"). The following year, Steiger won the award for "In the Heat of the Night."
Steiger's performance as southern-fried police Chief Bill Gillispie was a much flashier performance than his Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman. The gum Steiger chews throughout the film should share screen billing right below Steiger and Sidney Poitier.
A year after "Heat," Steiger gave a performance where if the award was based on most acting, he would have won easily over the likes of actual nominees Cliff Robertson (winner for "Charley"), Alan Arkin ("The Heart is a Lonely Hunter"), Alan Bates ("The Fixer"), Ron Moody ("Oliver!") and Peter O'Toole ("The Lion in Winter") combined. That would be for "No Way To Treat A Lady," a black comedy with Steiger playing Christopher Gill, as a serial strangler of single, lonely, middle-aged women.
Christopher lives a life of comfort (including a housekeeper), is even known at Sardi's and seems to have everything going for him. So why does he kill lonely women? He marks the victim's foreheads with a pair of lips via lipstick.
Christopher Gill has a flair for the dramatic disguises and accents. So does Steiger, which makes him perfect for the role and way, way showier than "The Pawnbroker" and "In the Heat of the Night" combined.
Want to see Steiger as an Irish priest visiting a widow who has lost her faith? Begosh and Begorrah, here ya' go! A German plumber who visits a German widow und get offered treats from ze fatherland? Ya here is wunderbar! How about a swishy wig master named Dorien Smith, offering a free wig to an old cat lady? Yessssssssss, sweetheart (an actual line of dialogue), he does that, too. No 1960s stereotype goes unturned, but man, Steiger goes without a net
Other characters include a NYC police officer, a southern take-out dlivery man of fine Italian food and a barfly at a seedy bar... in drag (Gene Hackman in "The Birdcage" has nothing to worry about). Christopher likes to call newspapers if his work is not getting the proper coverage. He also establishes a phone relationship with NYC police detective Moses Brummel (a low-wattage George Segal), which includes Christopher's impressions of Cary Grant and W.C. Fields.
Steiger would later play Fields in the 1976 biopic "W.C. Fields and Me." One wonders if director Jack Smight (Paul Newman's "Harper" plus he'd direct Steiger right after "Lady" in the film "The Illustrated Man"), just let the camera roll and let Steiger do whatever he wanted.
Detective Brummel is an adult a cop living with his nagging mother (Eileen Heckhart, four years before winning an Oscar for a similar role in "Butterflies Are Free"). As the film goes on, a parallel between Christopher and Moses is supposed to be built that doesn't quite payoff.
Working better is the chemistry between Brummel and potential murderer witness Kate Palmer (the visually stunning Lee Remick, adding glam to a damsel-in-distress role). She remembers bumping into a priest who said "Top o' the morning to ya'" even though it was the afternoon but is vague about any other descriptions. She does like Brummel's attempt to maintain his "just the facts, ma'am" professional demeanor while he desperately wants to ask her out. They eventually go out, almost always under the watchful eye of Christopher.
The film is based a novel written by an early-in-his-career William Goldman, a year before winning an Oscar for his "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" screenplay. John Gay (nominated for his adaptation of "Separate Tables" in 1958) adapted it for the screen.
I have not read Mr. Goldman's novel, but is curious as to how dark it gets. By 1960s standards, it doesn't get too morbidy humorous. Dark comedies would become more acceptable by the 1970s ("Dr. Strangelove" setting the pace earlier in the 1960s). In Goldman's novel (originally called "Boys and Girls Together" and inspired by the events of The Boston Strangler), it brings up the question of if there were two killers working at the same time. The film briefly addresses the idea of a copycat killer.
Hell, Steiger could have played both killers and use twice as many disguises and accents. Like his Mexican bandit from "Duck, You Sucker" or brought back his Komarovsky voice from "Doctor Zhivago." What could have been.
One straight-out comedy piece is when Mister Kupperman (Michael Dunn, Dr. Loveless on TV's "The Wild, Wild West") turns himself in to Detective Brummel for the murders. Morris knows Christopher's voice and the fact that Mr. Kupperman is a dwarf does not help his investigation. The real chuckle of this film is that our hero is most comfortable and has the most chemistry tracking down a killer.
Yes, there is an eventual (mediocre) meeting of our cop and our killer while the NYPD back-up follows cinematic procedure of showing up after the conflict is over. They miss one hell of a final moment by one of the actors, if you can't figure that out by now.
Also helping "Lady" was that it was released seven months before the much-more-serious serial killer film "The Boston Strangler." For fans of dark comedy, the film is light in its darkness.
"No Way to Treat a Lady" is a worth a watch for Steiger chew scenery with great relish (and with pickled relish). Steiger once famously said of his work in an interview "I'm 60 percent virgin and 40 percent whore." Like post-HOOHAH-era Al Pacino and current-era Nicolas Cage, they know what level of Brand Name to bring a project.
While "No Lay to Treat a Lady" could have been darker and more twisted, Steiger still delivers.
Matthew Socey is host of the Film Soceyology podcast for wfyi.org.