Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nightmare in Chicago

For a 1964 episode of KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER titled “Once Upon a Savage Night,” Universal allowed producer/director Robert Altman (NASHVILLE) to film on location in Chicago. To justify the expense of taking the show off the backlot and shooting cinema verite-style on Kodak’s new high-speed 35mm color stock, Universal asked Altman to direct extra footage for a “movie” it could release in theaters overseas and in syndication.

Altman avoids the usual touristy spots and downtown Chicago glitz to showcase the stark Illinois winter and tollroads appropriate for writer David Moessinger’s (QUINCY, M.E.) crime drama, which takes place mostly at night. Based on William McGivern’s novella “Killer on the Turnpike,” NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO’s first half plays sans musical score to play up the realism. It isn’t until the episode turns into a manhunt that composer John Williams (STAR WARS) brings up the score to punctuate the suspense. It looks very little like a typical ‘60s television show and very much like the experimental cinema coming out of Europe. Some performers are obvious amateurs Altman picked up in Chicago, and the stars — talented as they are — were likely chosen because they could blend with the scenery.

Philip Abbott, who played Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s blandly efficient boss on THE FBI, uses that anonymous quality to good effect as “Georgie Porgie,” a serial killer strangling women in the Midwest. He’s already struck four times by the time the story picks him up in a small Indiana town just outside Chicago. After leaving his fifth victim sprawled in her own bed, Georgie quickly adds number six, whom he shockingly strangles during a makeout session in the front row of a crowded strip club. As if a deranged serial killer isn’t enough to keep cops Charles McGraw (THE NARROW MARGIN), Robert Ridgely (BOOGIE NIGHTS), and Ted Knight (THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) busy on a brisk night just before Christmas, they also have to contend with an Army convoy carrying nuclear weapons that’s making its way down the same tollway Abbott is on.

“Once Upon a Savage Night” was the second and last KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER directed by Altman, who was busy on other shows like COMBAT, BUS STOP, and THE LONG HOT SUMMER at the time. While I suspect the episode plays better at an hour (one scene in particular involving two waitresses and the boyfriend of one of them has nothing to do with the story and is obvious padding) than at 79 minutes, NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO is crisp suspense on par with another of Altman’s finest works of the 1960s, BUS STOP’s notorious “A Lion Walks Among Us” episode.


Mike Doran said...

It might be noted that this was filmed long before Ted Knight's stardom on Mary Tyler Moore's show.
During the '60s, Knight almost never did comedy; his roles were almost always small ones, as minor officials or sub-bad guys. When war shows were popular, he played a lot of Nazi officers.

On the other hand, Robert Ridgely's career was all over the place.
Before this show, Ridgely's largest TV role was a serious one as a lieutenant on The Gallant Men.
Even today, many people don't realize that Robert Ridgely was the medieval hangman in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (he didn't get screen credit for that one, but did when he reprised the role in Men In Tights).

Todd Mason said...

I reviewed the atrocious b&w copy of the KST version that is or was up on YouTube a while back...has there been a legit release, or only gray-market? Even thus, it was pretty solid.

Grant said...

I'm glad someone mentioned Robert Ridgely. "All over the place" is right.