Thursday, 30 June 2016

NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO (1964)



“I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire
Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away!” (Psycho Killer,
Talking Heads, 1977)



He was a shirt maker in a town full of pants makers. For four decades maverick director Robert Altman barely tolerated the Hollywood film industry, as it barely tolerated him. That said, he could play the game as needed and was as artful in getting his individual and idiosyncratic movies produced and to market as he was conceiving and creating them.

Altman got his start after WWII working on business and industrial films in his hometown Kansas City. He soon left for Hollywood, where his production skills were underappreciated and his stories were rejected – with the exception of Body Guard, filmed and released in 1948 starring Lawrence Tierney. Discouraged, Altman went back to Kansas City but returned to California later in the ‘50’s with an independently-financed picture, The Delinquents (The Hoods of Tomorrow! The Gun-Molls of the Future!) under his arm. Starring Tom Laughlin, the movie didn’t add anything new to the youth-gone-wild cycle but had the ring of truth to it and showed clearly enough that Altman could direct. 


Though none of the major film studios were ready to hire him on, Altman managed to find steady work in television, directing on M Squad, Hawaiian Eye, Peter Gunn, Route 66, and Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama on ABC. The latter’s trenchant writing and gritty realism won it multiple Emmy nominations and a committed audience. Unfortunately, after shooting ten episodes, Altman got turfed for ‘uncooperativeness’.  However, the work he did on the series revealed some of the elements of what would become a trademark style: an appreciation of ensemble performance, a restive mise-en-scène, a film noir-like use of light and shadow, and dissonant multi-track soundscapes and scoring.

Altman then went to NBC’s Kraft Suspense Theater, directing three episodes before getting himself fired, this time for telling a TV Guide interviewer that the Kraft-sponsored series was as “bland as cheese”.  However, one of his episodes, Once Upon a Savage Night based on a novella, Killer on the Turnpike, by William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Shield for Murder, Rogue Cop, Odds Against Tomorrow) was anything but. The high-voltage black-and-white crime drama was like nothing else seen on television – shot in cinéma vérité style in and around Chicago and featuring a jagged, expressionistic score by jazzman Benny Carter and a young ‘Johnny’ Williams, who’d go on to win more than forty Academy Award nominations.



Because of the higher costs involved in location shooting, the producing studio, Universal Pictures, had Altman take enough extra footage to be able to extend the episode to feature length for syndication and theatrical distribution. The eighty minute version, titled Nightmare in Chicago, later showed as a made-for-TV movie, then screened theatrically in Europe.

A taut, modernist post-noir fugue à la Blast of Silence (1961), Nightmare in Chicago tracks a killer known as ‘George-Porgie’ (“Kissed the girls and made them die!”). Georgie’s already murdered four women in other places by the time the film picks him up in Chicago’s desolate rural outskirts. Georgie (Philip Abbott), an ordinary-looking guy in a topcoat, has just strangled his fifth victim in bed in an old farm house and is heading back to the city. It takes a while for the Chicago police to realize that the killing is troublingly similar to the other four – all the women being “tall, blonde, and a little on the cheap side” according to, Harry, the lead detective on the case played by an irritable Charles McGraw.


Though physically non-descript and having to wear dark glasses because of a congenital eye condition, Georgie is a smooth-talker and has no trouble finding willing prey. Back in the city, he chats up his next victim and before long they’re having drinks in a packed burlesque joint in the Loop. Amid all the noise and on-stage distractions, he chokes her with her own scarf while they make out in a corner. 

However, one of the strippers sees what’s just happened and Georgie has to get out fast. Some customers and beat cops give chase but lose him when he hijacks a car. Later, the police realize he’s made it all the way onto the Illinois Tollway, which complicates the pursuit due to its restricted accesses. Worse is that the Tollway is about to be cleared by state police for an Army convoy that’s thundering through with a giant nuclear missile in tow.

If this specter of mass destruction sounds like more of a load than a small and restless character-driven narrative should have to bear, keep in mind the tale began with author McGivern, master of the drum-tight storyline. The plot does not suddenly go Tom Clancy on us. Events only render Georgie’s frantic attempt to escape that much more intense.


Shot on a tight schedule just days before Christmas and mostly at night, Nightmare in Chicago was Robert Altman’s first studio feature (the science fiction drama Countdown made in 1967 counts as his first big theatrical release – even if Jack Warner took him off the shoot and banned him from the lot out of exasperation with the way “everyone in the damn movie is talking at the same time!”). Nightmare also stands as one of Altman’s most reliably straightforward narratives, something he was deemed weak at constructing by critics who were as unreceptive to his triumphs such as The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) as the missteps like Prêt-à-Porter (1994). As for his radical 1973 deconstruction of Raymond’s Chandler’s revered The Long Goodbye, it’s always going to depend on who you talk to. 



Altman’s main gift as a director was his ability to create a visceral sense of time and place and to reveal characters by immersing audiences in the often-fraught immediacy of their worlds. However, it sometimes felt as though he was content just to leave us there. Altman liked to say that he wanted his films “to seem as though they were just happening”.  In Nightmare, he makes certain that things really do. His scene-building and story-telling in the film are as deliberate as they would ever be. At the same time, Nightmare in Chicago feels loosely-scripted. Altman is patient where he feels he needs to be and allows the camera to linger. Often there’s a sense of time and space being stretched to be able to contain the actions of the characters, particularly in busy scenes shot within the moderne immensity of the Tollway’s ‘Oasis’ rest stops.

The film also is trusting of its actors. Their characters feel real, their lives small and routine, their stories largely undisclosed. Harry and his easier-going sergeant, Dan (Robert Ridgely) grind it out in hopes of capturing Georgie before he kills again, while having to deal with the self-serving interference of Police Commissioner (Ted Knight) who’s more concerned about delays to the convoy and his scheduled handball games downtown. 

Georgie and his victims are isolated and vulnerable souls, a familiar Altman type. A near-casualty is Bernie, a lonely-hearted waitress who serves Georgie in the rest stop’s massive Fred Harvey eatery. She’s endangered when she ends up being the only one who’s able to identify him. Bernie is played by Barbara Turner, married for a time to actor Vic Morrow with whom she had a child, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (Turner is now best known for her screenwriting, including the film Pollock (2000) which garnered Academy Awards nominations for Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden). 



Turner’s scenes in Nightmare are among the movie’s most openly improvised and affecting. They foreshadow some of what would become the director’s signature ‘urgency-to-no-clear-end’, an Altman-ism shaped by a conviction that straightforward resolutions or consolations should come no more easily in movies than they do in real life.

Meanwhile, Nightmare in Chicago drew critical fire with its bleak naturalism and family resemblance to the meaner exploitation films of the period, from sex-and-violence cheapies to no-grade horror movies. Georgie-Porgie is a banal but chilling noir embodiment of horror’s unpacified evil – a psychotic who’s driven to kill his mother again and again, tormented by the agony of her promiscuous childhood betrayals and the brute noises in the room next door that still throb in his brain. 



But even better-known and disruptive end-of-the line film noirs like Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) drew on some of the same dark impulses and dread sense of conviction as Nightmare in Chicago. The difference was that Nightmare in Chicago started out life as a television program with everyone in the living room watching.

However, as comfortless as the film may be, it does, like most of Robert Altman’s films, evince a moral understanding of how and why human beings behave as they do. Altman’s movies at their core always come from a place of empathy – something that all true film noirs, no matter how bleak, know something about. Count Nightmare in Chicago among them.


Note: Several sources, including IMDb, show Andrew Duggan, Carrol O’Connor, Michael Murphy and Mary Frann as starring in Nightmare in Chicago. Whether or not they were ever cast to appear, none did, in either television or film versions.


Gary Deane

5 comments:

  1. Having been meaning to see this for decades, in a kind of desultory way, I finally caught a bad dupe copy of the KRAFT hour version on YouTube, and suspect that the IMDb listing is a fairly typical result of cutting and pasting cast lists from the series description to an episode...more likely to misinform with an anthology series such as KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER aka CLIMAX aka SUSPENSE THEATER (depending on which repeats/syndication package one was looking at). Ted Knight was good in his serious role, and Barbara Turner was great.

    The tougher aspects were definitely present in the hourlong version, even if not to the same degree (I still look forward to seeing a clean copy of the NIGHTMARE version). I like your harkening to PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM (I've recently had reason to write about 1960's other notable serious film criticized for being Too Brutal, THE VIRGIN SPRING, and the complaints lodged against all three films had a very similar tone, and to the objections to the likes of "Savage" and the episode of BUS STOP based on the Tom Wicker novel, that got that series yanked from the air...and thanks. Since all the KRAFT episodes I'd seen were in color, I assumed the bad dupe copy I watched was in black and white because it was a bad dupe copy...in fact, the "Savage Night" dubs (now two) up on YT even have the NBC in living color announcement/network ID just before the KRAFT ST opening animation comes up. As with the three 1960 theatrical releases, being in black and white didn't stop things from Getting Too Real for some audiences as portrayed in the respective productions...BUS STOP was a b&w series, too, for that matter...

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    Replies
    1. Apparently the only copy extant of the feature is a 16mm print that by coincidence showed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last night (June 30). Reports were that it's a mess, so washed out that folks assumed it was B&W. A real shame.

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  2. William McGivern is woefully neglected these days. At his frequent best, a genius. Even his most trivial fodder churned out for the Ziff-Davis fiction magazines in the '40s tends to be of a higher grade, and often more adventurous, than that of the others in the Ray Palmer stable of Chicago-based writers Howard Browne inherited along with the editorship of ZD's fiction magazines..McGivern's work under his own name, at very least.

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  3. Major IMDb screwup:

    In 1968, four years after Altman & Co. made Nightmare In Chicago, they got together to make a pilot for CBS called A Walk In The Night.
    The cast members mentioned above were in this; Carroll O'Connor and Andrew Duggan would have been the stars of the prospective series, playing the guys running a Chicago-based investigative unit.
    As with Nightmare, this was shot in Chicago, entirely at night.
    The story here dealt with a Swedish sailor who jumped ship, unknowingly carrying a time bomb; O'Connor & Company had to catch him.
    The credited writer is Robert Eggenweiler, a long-term Altman crony, then and later on; I don't know (or can't recall) whether it has an earlier source.

    Whoever did the IMDb writeup simply conflated the two shows, given the Altman/Chicago commonalities.

    Personally, as a Chicagoan, I'd like to see both shows again, for comparison purposes.
    Unlikely, though; Nightmare was an MCA production, while Walk was a CBS project, so a joint DVD release probably won't happen.
    Ah well/ oh hell ...

    Walk In The Night ran on CBS in the summer of '68, as part of one of those unsold-pilot anthologies; it got a repeat a couple of years later, after O'Connor's All In The Family stardom kicked in.

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    Replies
    1. Many thanks for this. It solves that particular puzzle.

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