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The secret history of Chicago movies: Once Upon a Savage Night

I’ve been an enthusiast of both Robert Altman and Chicago-shot movies for decades, but only recently did I become aware that the directing giant once made a TV movie here about a serial killer trying to escape a police dragnet via the city's toll roads. Even more surprising than discovering this early film was finding out that it’s actually good. Once Upon a Savage Night is an hour-long feature that originally aired as an episode of “Kraft Suspense Theater” in 1964. The original commercial breaks exclusively featured products from the sponsor as well as explicit instructions on how to use them (e.g., Kraft Miracle Whip should be the main ingredient of your meatball gravy!). To watch the entire thing on YouTube today is to experience a genuine blast from the past.

The film itself is also an invaluable document of Chicago life in the mid-1960s. Nicely photographed in black-and-white during the holiday season, it’s a taut noir that expertly conjures a feeling of uniquely Midwestern winter bleakness. The plot concerns a serial killer known only by the nickname “Georgie Porgy” (“Kissed the girls and made ‘em die,” a cop helpfully explains), a sad-sack with a mama complex and a penchant for strangling statuesque blondes. After dispatching his latest victim in a Loop strip club, Georgie flees the city via the outbound toll roads, hijacking a series of vehicles and hoping to escape unnoticed amidst a military convoy. 

Altman’s interest in the project was apparently spurred by his fascination with toll roads, which indeed provide a suitable backdrop for a game of automotive cat-and-mouse. The director was 39 years old when the film first aired but wouldn’t achieve fame until MASH six years later. Nonetheless, his talent is obvious here, as is that of many in the film’s cast (especially Ted Knight as a cop and Philip Abbott as the psychotic killer) and crew (the emphatic score is by a young John Williams – credited here as “Johnny”).

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