A deranged madman (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night) begins murdering middle-aged women and it’s up to a stressed-out New York police detective (George Segal, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) to stop him.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I tell you Morris, it is no way to treat a lady.”
Shrewdly directed by Jack Smight (The Illustrated Man), No Way to Treat a Lady is a black comedy that features two parallel narratives. The first is the story of a serial killer on a killing spree. The second is about a detective investigating the murders and his courtship with an eyewitness. One is perversely humorous, the other one is wryly romantic: American Psycho meets When Harry Met Sally.
At first, I thought this was a case of “contrast of opposites,” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the two storylines aren’t as disimilar as I initially thought. The narratives mirror each other and function to push the idea that the cop, played by George Segal, and the killer, played by Rod Steiger, are two sides of the same coin.
Based on William Goldman’s 1964 novel of the same name, No Way to Treat a Lady tells the story of two men whose lives have been shaped by domineering mothers — you get two versions of the “Oedipus Complex” for the price of one. The film does remain a bit vague about the killer’s motives — we never find out the reason for the sudden bursts of violence — and that’s fine because it’s fun to try to fill in the gaps.
For me, at least, the most interesting aspect of No Way to Treat a Lady is the connection between the killer’s “modus operandi” and the stage world. He is not only the son of a theater diva, but also a successful and respected Broadway producer/director.
The killer’s knowledge of theater allows him to assume different identities in order to ensnare his victims. It’s a twisted and perverted rendition of Shakespeare’s “the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” You also get to see Broadway in the 1960s — there is even a scene inside the famous Sardi’s (a popular restaurant among theaterphiles) located in New York’s Theater District.
Believe it or not, No Way to Treat a Lady is also a great romantic comedy. Eliminate the killings and you are left with a quirky and amusing rom-com. Lee Remick (as Kate Palmer) and George Segal (as Detective Brummel) got something here that’s unique and irresistible. Their exchanges are clever, witty and very romantic.
It’s a modern (re) interpretation of the old Doris Day & Rock Hudson comedies — the formula is tweaked to reflect changes in the mating game. Remick is straightforward and sexually aggressive while Segal is timid and kind of asexual. This inversion of gender roles creates many funny moments. This is all happening as the bodies start piling up and that’s off-putting, but extremely interesting. I also loved Eileen Heckart (Butterflies are Free) as Segal’s overbearing mom. Murray Hamilton (Jaws) plays Inspector Haines and Michael Dunn (Ship of Fools) is hilarious as a serial confessor.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
No Way to Treat a Lady is bound to offend some viewers — you are asked to chuckle as women are brutally murdered. Maybe it didn’t bother me because I’m always game for genre-bending movies. Plus, I loved Rod Steiger’s performance — it is, in my opinion, his best screen work ever (he’s clearly having a blast!). Interestingly, No Way to Treat a Lady was turned into a stage musical in the 1980s. Color, 104 minutes, Rated R.