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Chicago Joe and the Showgirl Review

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True story about the inexplicable citywide rampage undertaken by Karl Hulten (Sutherland) and Betty Jones (Lloyd) as they steal, vandalise and eventually commit murder in London. Hulten's reward is the death penalty.

★★★★★

There is a world-class movie to be made about the bizarre tale of Chicago Joe and his showgirl, but sadly this isn't it. The story is a filmmaker's dream. Unearthed and dusted down by writer David Yallop, it covers one astonishing week in the lives of Karl Hulten (Sutherland), an American serviceman based in London during World War II, and Elizabeth Maud Jones (Lloyd), a 17-year-old fun-seeking British "entertainer" of dubious character and even more dubious sanity. Unusually for a Real Life movie, the "This Is A True Story" blurb at the beginning of the film insists that not a single event or name has been changed to aid the makers with the telling of this unlikely duo's tale.

Unremarkable (and certainly not pathologically violent) until they met in a Hammersmith greasy spoon in October 1944, "Chicago Joe", as the self-deluding Hulten called himself, and his Showgirl (who insisted she was a "film star") fired each other with lies and bravado to commit a series of crimes over just six days. They drove around West London in a stolen army lorry, ramming cars, attacking pedestrians, ripping fur coats off the backs of innocent bystanders — their brutality culminating in a killing of a particularly vicious and senseless kind.

Acting as if they could literally get away with murder, they were naturally smartly apprehended and presented before a war-weary nation, which was immediately enlivened by the tale, reacting partly with repulsion, partly with horrid fascination. Hulten became the only American ever to be executed in this country, and Jones — after being reprieved and eventually released from prison — disappeared and died in obscurity.

It's a gob-smacking story, and Yallop and director Bernard Rose, to their credit, have not only stuck to its truths but also refused to take the easy way out. Rose, directing his second feature after the impressive fantasy Paperhouse, obviously feels that to show death or violence as something clean or uncomplicated is immoral. So he makes it horrific. After a slow start, he thrusts us into the awfulness of violence with unusual brutality, showing Lloyd squealing and bubbling with delight while Sutherland viciously — and pointlessly — attempts to murder a woman who's done them no harm. In its examination of violence and crime, the film offers no easy answers and allows its principals to be realistically complex, even if that means the audience loathes them.

Despite this commendable honesty, Chicago Joe And The Showgirl falls down in a number of key areas. The cast do Rose and Yallop absolutely no favours, with Emily Lloyd and Patsy Kensit gallantly attempting, though thoroughly failing, to cut the mustard. Sutherland acquits himself better, but even he never really convinces.

The sets too are horribly cardboard, giving a depopulated, one-dimensional air to a war-torn Hammersmith that begs to be realistic. At times it looks like we've wandered into a screening of Mary Poppins as we gaze out over the "rooftops" of a London that is quite clearly about ten feet square.

These problems, along with fantasy sequences that add nothing to our understanding of the couple's motivation which we can't pick up from the dialogue, mar what could have been one of the best British movies of recent years. The writer and director of Chicago Joe And The Showgirl have been true to themselves and the story, but they've simply surrounded themselves with entirely the wrong people.

A badly acted curiosity that, had it not been a true story, would have incurred the wrath of social commentators everywhere.

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