When I’m not watching silent movies, I spend a lot of time in the swinging sixties. Sixties movies have this wonderful freewheeling quality but there is still a touch of the old studio class without the overwhelming squareness of golden age films. The film I am reviewing today is one of my all-time favorites, a twisted little black comedy with great acting and zany writing.
As is typical in After the Silents posts, I shall be sharing some information on the silent film personnel who took part in making the picture. In this case, editor Archie Marshek, whose career started in the twilight of silent film and continued through the Technicolor boom of the thirties, the noirish forties and the decadent fifties. No Way to Treat a Lady was one of the very last films he edited before his retirement in 1971.
Before we look back on Marshek’s career, let’s discuss the poison little bonbon that is No Way to Treat a Lady.
The film opens with a New York City priest (Rod Steiger) with a thick Irish brogue paying a call on a local widow. As he walks, he whistles and those of us who have seen M know that compulsive whistling is never a good sign. Sure enough, within five minutes our priest has strangled the widow, dragged her into the bathroom and painted a mouth on her forehead with red lipstick.
Detective Morris Brummel (George Segal), Moe to his friends, wants just one thing in life: his mother (Eileen Heckart) to leave him the heck alone. She doesn’t do it, of course, always telling him how his older brother is the best doctor in New York, so forth and so on. In his mother’s opinion, her younger son is wasting his life, who ever heard of a Jewish cop anyway?
Morris gets called in to investigate the murder. There are a lot of fingerprints and an eyewitness, the upstairs neighbor. As he goes to question the witness, Morris makes an offhand remark to a tabloid reporter that the murder seems to have been well-planned. Upstairs, he meets the witness, Kate Palmer (Lee Remick), who didn’t really notice anything about the suspect except that he was a priest who said: “Top of the mornin’ to ya.” It was afternoon. Kate does, however, notice that Morris is pretty cute.
Brummel’s comment about the murder being well-planned has come to the attention of Christopher Gill, aka the murderous Irish priest. Of course, he isn’t really Irish and he isn’t a priest. In fact, as the story goes on we realize that he is a theatrical director from a famous acting familt with a production of Othello currently playing. (Don’t worry, I’m not giving anything major away.) Gill takes Morris’s words the way a struggling actor takes any offhand praise from a critic: he cherishes them, repeats them, brags about them. Morris has unwittingly become his biggest fan.
The story continues with the flirtation between the somewhat neurotic Brummel and free-spirited Kate while Gill’s body count increases. Two more women are murdered, each by Gill in a completely different disguise and accent. The victims fit a pattern: all living alone, all in their forties to sixties and all found in their bathrooms with the distinct lipstick mouth painted on their foreheads.
All the while, Gill calls Morris and taunts him, trying to needle him into praising his abilities. He shows off his talent for impressions, does numerous accents (most badly), performs as Cary Grant, Maurice Chevalier and W.C. Fields. He’s like an actor trying to court a producer or director to give him a part. Morris is baffled and then annoyed by this bizarre attention but he has to keep the killer on the line, hoping that the police will be able to trace the call.
Every other lead has proven to be a dead end as the killer’s fingerprints are not in the system and the eyewitnesses see the killer’s disguises, not the man behind them. Gill continues to obsess over Morris, call him at home and watch him at work. This stalking soon leads Gill to see that Morris is dating Kate.
In a moment of frustration after murder number four, Morris calls the killer a pervert with a mother fixation and his remark is overheard by reporters and printed. This sends Gill into a frenzy, screaming that Morris cannot talk about his mother. A raw nerve? The key to the mystery? Maybe but the police department is not willing to let Morris find out. A killer taunting the cops is bad publicity. Brummel is taken off the case and put on leave. But what will Gill do when he discovers that his fan, his critic, the man he is trying to impress is no longer there? What will he do to get him back?
I usually do a bit of spoiling in reviews (with due warning, of course) but I really don’t want to do that here because the movie is such twisted fun that it would be a crying shame to ruin it for a potential fan. So, I’ll leave my synopsis off here.
If this doesn’t sound much like a comedy, it’s because much of the humor comes in the form of wry one-liners from Morris. George Segal is a charmer with sharp comedic timing in the leading role and his character’s dark sense of humor very much fits with his profession. You have to laugh at some things or go crazy, right?
Veteran character actress Eileen Heckart has a lot of fun as Morris’s mother, who is always ready to list the ways her son is ruining his life. William Goldman often infused his stories with humorous Jewish characters based on his own life experience (Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, anyone?) and the film seems to have had a lot of fun imagining the what-ifs of Morris’s home life. For example, here is a clip of Morris’s mother discovering that he is dating a shiksa.
The film plays around with parallels between Morris and Gill, who both have overbearing mothers, but it does not beat these parallels into the ground, leaving something to the audience’s imagination.
Lee Remick is her usual charming self as Kate, one of the few people who appreciates Morris for who he is. Their romance is cute and thoroughly sixties, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Kate-Moe scenes provide a welcome relief from the serial killer business and balance out the film nicely. (Okay, one spoiler just inside these parentheses. In the book, the detective’s girlfriend was fridged while the film doesn’t exactly dodge the trope but it does let Kate live. Phew!)
The story is strewn with colorful side characters, most notably Michael Dunn as Mr. Kupperman, a politically militant little person who insists it bigotry if he is not at least considered as a suspect. (Need I add that this film is not for the easily offended?)
The other standout is Barbara Baxley as Belle, an eccentric cat lady who is very nearly Gill’s third victim but who accidentally evades him when she ducks the trope of cat ladies being weird loners and has her sister come to visit. Belle’s careful introduction of her cats and her surprising knowledge of Shakespearean wigs (yes, really) baffle Gill and she manages to steal the scene from Rod Steiger, which we all know is very difficult.
Naturally, Steiger is the center of the story and this is less of a whodunit than a whentheheckaretheygonnacatchthisguy film. We are shown how Gill kills, how he evades the police and even where he gets his disguises (from his theater’s prop department) and must wait to see if Brummel and his colleagues will track down their killer before he strikes again.
One can easily see that Gill is not a good actor himself and, as the son of a legendary actress, this is eating him up inside. All of his disguises are studies in stereotypes, his performances are mere imitations of more famous performers. He has a trite mind, thinking only in clichés and this proves to be his downfall. It is significant that the women who escape his attacks alive are the characters who do not fall into obvious categories.
Steiger takes a good gnaw at the scenery but this contrasts well with the more natural performances of Segal and Remick. In general, everyone understands that this is a comedy, albeit and inky black one.
With its serial killer humor and certain story elements and characters (can’t give those away without spoiling the plot) No Way to Treat a Lady is not for everyone but those of us with a somewhat warped sense of humor will find a buried treasure. William Goldman fans will discover a lot to love, as will devotees of black comedy. Basic rule of thumb: if you like Arsenic and Old Lace and Clue, you will probably enjoy this film, which is nicely nestled between them chronologically and stylistically.
Now we’re going to be taking a look at the career of Archie Marshek, No Way to Treat a Lady’s connection to silent films.
Editors don’t get much respect. If they cut something particularly brilliant, it is often the director of the picture who gets the credit so let’s examine one of the masters of this underappreciated profession. Archie Marshek was born in 1902 in Minnesota and was first credited as a film editor in 1927, the same year the talkie craze hit Hollywood. The silent Legionnaires in Paris was released just a few weeks after Al Jolsen wowed audiences in The Jazz Singer, the part-talkie that started all the fuss.
Marshek’s most famous work was as the in-house editor at RKO. He was one of the first editors to master working with the new three-strip Technicolor film and was the editor of the color showcases La Cucaracha and Becky Sharp.
Marshek’s 1940s career took a noirish turn as he was the editor of This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. The 1950s provided one more silent film connection as Marshek was the editor of the infamous Buster Keaton biopic, The Buster Keaton Story. (On an unrelated note, the film found another way into silent film lore. During the shoot, an assistant contemptuously told veteran silent writer and director Monte Brice that they did not need his input on making an accurate film. “You’re an old man. The parade’s gone by…” The quote was later used as the title of Kevin Brownlow’s landmark book on silent film.)
The 1960s found Marshek as busy as ever. He edited the infamous Marlon Brando ego fest, One-Eyed Jacks, and the ill-advised 1962 remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He had spent over forty years in the film industry by the time the 1970s arrived and edited only two films during that decade: Rabbit, Run and The Shoot Out. Marshek retired after the latter film and passed away in 1992.
Examining Marshek’s career, it is striking how many behind-the-scenes professionals are completely forgotten even when they enjoyed long and successful careers. Directors, costume designers and cinematographers get a lot of credit but the snap and flow of classic films were in the hands of their editors and Archie Marshek’s long and successful career proves what a valuable player he was.