Despite having been born in London in 1966, Kiefer Sutherland had spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles and Toronto. The son of Donald Sutherland, whose acting career had begun to take off in the early 1970s with M*A*S*H and Klute, Kiefer would find success in his own right in the 1960s through his work in Stand by Me and The Lost Boys, but it would not be until 1989, when he stepped onto the set of Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, that he would return to his place of birth to star in a movie.
By this point he had been labelled an unofficial member of the ‘brat pack’ and was considered one of the promising young stars of Hollywood, but Sutherland refused to allow himself to be typecast and instead flirted between roles that would portray him as either the innocent victim (The Brotherhood of Justice) or the ruthless psychopath (The Killing Time). It would be this mixture of opposing qualities that would ultimately land him the role of Karl Hulten, an army deserter embarking on a crime spree with a naïve young woman in war-torn London during the 1940s. Critics immediately made comparisons between Chicago Joe and the Showgirl and Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s classic portrayal of outlaw lovers in the 1930s, and while Sutherland’s picture was criticised for its inept script and its glamorous portrayal of violence, it remains a curious-if-flawed effort.
On 3 October 1944 twenty-two-year-old Hulten, having abandoned his post in the United States Army, walked into a London teashop where he made the acquaintance of a girl four years his junior. Upon his first meeting with Elizabeth Jones, the two tried to portray themselves as being more exciting than they really were. Jones was fascinated with American crime movies and fancied herself as a ‘gun moll,’ while Hulten boasted that he was a gangster from Chicago and a man to be feared. Over the next six days, the pair embarked on a crime spree that resulted in several robberies, assault and even murder, but their inexperience and obsession with pursuing the ultimate rush would soon lead to their arrest.
While interrogated by the police, both Jones and Hulten tried to lay the blame on each other but after a well-publicised trial they were found guilty and sentenced to death. Hulten was executed by hanging on 8 March 1945, just six months before the end of the war, while Jones was granted a last-minute reprieve and released after a nine-year sentence. During the trial the crimes became known as the ‘cleft chin murder,’ and even author George Orwell would write an essay on Hulton and Jones, in which he stated, ‘They were only together for six days, and it seems doubtful whether, until they were arrested, they even learned one another’s true names.’
Writer David Yallop had first become intrigued with adapting the true story of Hulten and Jones in the mid-1970s but it would not be until Working Title, a production company still in its infancy, agreed to finance the project that Chicago Joe and the Showgirl would finally make its way to the big screen. The man given the task of making this a reality was Bernard Rose, who had started out making short films in the 1970s, before finding employment for Jim Henson, where he would work on both The Muppet Show and The Dark Crystal. His directing career would take off through the medium of music videos as MTV was beginning to gain momentum in the early 1980s, resulting in popular promos for such artists as UB40 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
After helming made-for-TV movies for the BBC, Rose gained acclaimed with his feature debut debut Paperhouse, with the Washington Post describing it as ‘moody and unnerving in a hard-to-specify way, like a piece of music set in an enthralling but wholly unfamiliar key.’ Rose sensed the immediate commercial appeal in Yallop’s script, with ‘lovers on the run’ being a tried and tested formula, from ’70s classics like Badlands and The Getaway to more recent efforts such as Drugstore Cowboy, which was released while Chicago Joe and the Showgirl was still in production.
Unlike many productions, the two leads would be the same age as those they were portraying at the time of shooting, with Sutherland having turned twenty-two in December 1988 and his co-star Emily Lloyd eighteen in September. The daughter of Roger Lloyd Pack, who had become a household name throughout the 1980s with his recurring role as Trigger in the popular sitcom Only Fools and Horses, Lloyd had made her acting debut in 1987 with the starring role in the acclaimed coming of age drama Wish You Were Here, having narrowly missed out on parts for both Mona Lisa and Hope and Glory.
The success of her first feature would soon bring her to the attention of Hollywood, and for a while Lloyd was in talks to play the daughter of Cher in a movie called Mermaids, but after two directors were replaced, the part eventually went to Winona Ryder who, incidentally, had starred with Sutherland a year earlier in 1969. America had proved to be a disappointing experience for the young actress, and when the offer of Chicago Joe and the Showgirl came along Lloyd was unable to resist the opportunity of returning home to England, while the chance to play such an immoral character could be the next big break she had been hoping for.
Despite being based on a true story, Chicago Joe and the Showgirl incorporates a certain amount of surreal fantasy, even from the opening shot, in which theatre curtains are slowly peeled away to reveal a large cinema screen, while a captain claims that ‘This is a true story.’ In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert was critical of this technique, commenting that, ‘The film tries to maintain a balance between those two kinds of reality – between a series of crimes that eventually led to murder, and a fantasy-world in which movies images were more important than actual events.’
A large crowd gathers outside a theatre, with eager photographers attempting to capture an image of the young lady arriving in a fancy black car under police escort. Described by a commentator as the ‘lovely Georgina,’ Betty Jones steps out of the vehicle and walks calmly to the red carpet that leads up the stairs towards the entrance of the Paradise. She stops for a moment and turns to face the crowd, the flashes of the photographers somewhat dazing her as she stares out at her cheering audience. The story then cuts to real life, in which Betty, a local dancer who dreams of becoming a star, explains her love for violent movies to her mother: ‘Musicals are just make believe, but gangster pictures are real life.’
Hulten is then introduced in a similar fashion to Robert De Niro in The Untouchables, released two years before the cameras began rolling on Chicago Joe, with Hulten lying back in the barber’s chair while receiving a close shave. He talks on the phone to one of his contacts, ordering them to relocate merchandise to a warehouse and to avoid using their unreliable look-out. When the towel covering him is whipped away it reveals an American military uniform, giving him an air of authority, and as he leaves the barber salutes him while referring to him by his nickname, Chicago. In the imaginatively-titled Popular Cafe, Betty is sitting with her friend Lenny when Hulten walks in.
Lenny informs her that Hulten is one of his friends and known locally as Chicago Joe, but she seems disinterested until she overhears Hulten claiming that he worked for Capone and notices his pistol. She then begins to fantasise him as a Chicago gangster during the Prohibition era, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth as he turns to admire her, while his discovering that she wants to be a film star arouses his interest. He joins Betty and starts seducing her with stories of violence and adventure, before asking her to join him for a ride. While she resists his charms, she offers to invite him to a midnight movie screening.
Arriving fashionably late, Hulten pulls up in an army struck and then boasts how he has stolen it and, caught up in the moment, she tells him she wants to do something dangerous. Suspicious of her taste for adventure, he pulls out his gun and places it under her chin and claims that it was given to him personally by a gangster and then hands it over for her to admire. ‘You see, where I come from,’ he claims with a certain amount of arrogance, ‘We’d just as soon kill as we would take out our garbage.’ By now she is under his spell and playfully refers to him as Chicago, but instead he insists that she know him as Second Lieutenant Ricky Allen.
His first promise to her is a fur coat, which he obtains by mugging a woman walking by, and then allows her to drive the truck, forcing a cyclist off the road. Come morning light the ride is over but Betty, desperate for more excitement, asks if she can meet Hulten’s gang, believing him to be a real gangster. Having washed the sins of the previous night from him, he once again parades through town towards in his military uniform towards the nearby bakery to meet his sweetheart, Joyce Cook. A pretty and wholesome young lady, Joyce thinks the world of Hulten, whom she knows as Ricky, as does her family, believing him to be a noble soldier.
Far-removed from the sleazy and action-packed lifestyle he had promoted to Betty, when he is in the company of Joyce he is a respectable and courteous gentleman, making out with his girlfriend at the cinema like two teenagers. The actress chosen for the role of arguably the only true sympathetic character in the movie was twenty-year-old Patsy Kensit, who had followed chart success as the singer of Eighth Wonder with her first major Hollywood role alongside Mel Gibson in the action sequel Lethal Weapon 2, which was released Stateside during the production of Chicago Joe.
In her autobiography Kensit had nothing but kind words to say about Sutherland, referring to him as ‘one of the funniest men alive,’ but in her own memoirs Lloyd seemed less complimentary, considering him ‘detached and preoccupied’ and jealous that he seemed to take more interest in Kensit than his co-star. If Sutherland was preoccupied he had good reason, as he was in the process of separating from his wife Camelia Kath, whom he had met almost three years earlier on the set of The Killing Time. He would soon find himself the focus of the tabloids when it was revealed that, during the filming of Flatliners, which would be released a few weeks after Chicago Joe, he had fallen in love with Julia Roberts and the two had become an item.
Betty’s obsession with film noir would provide inspiration for the kind of excitement she longed for next from Hulten…murder. During a screening of Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity, which was released the same year that Chicago Joe was set, the protagonist explains to his partner in crime, ‘A friend of mine’s got a funny theory. He says when two people commit a murder it’s sort of like they’re riding on a trolley car together; one can’t get off without the other, they’re stuck with each other.’ Hulten is also in the audience, enjoying a date with Joyce, but he shares the same fascination with the idea of murder as his secret partner, but it would be Betty who would become the instigator.
While Chicago Joe and the Showgirl was not a particularly graphic movie, it was classified an 18 by the BBFC due to not only the suggested violence but also one scene which featured simulated oral sex. Now they are no longer two strangers flirting but instead have become lovers, sharing a mutual taste for indulging in their fantasy lives and perpetuating their need for excitement.
This would come when they offered a lift to a young woman called Violet, who has missed the train and has been left stranded by the side of the road. Inviting her into the army truck, they drive deep into the country and, despite clearly having a fondness for the polite lady, Betty insists that Hulten fulfil his promise to her. Claiming that they have a flat tyre, the truck pulls to the side of the road and Hulten takes out a large wrench used to loosen the nuts of the wheel and strikes her on the back of the head, before attempting to strangle her. Having believed that they committed murder, the body is thrown into the river and they try to move on with their lives, but clearly Hulten was more affected by the guilt than his lover.
But Betty, clearly aroused by the excitement of taking a human life, or at least being a participant in the act of murder, the two take a taxi and once they are far from houses or other cars Hulten shoots the driver from behind. As the man slowly bleeds to death in the passenger seat, Hulten jumps behind the wheel while Betty wipes her hand in his blood and inspects it. This had not been a part of Yallop’s original script but had been suggested by Lloyd, who felt that it showed the audience how much pleasure she was getting from their crimes.
It would be through the discovery of the man’s body, identified as George Heath during the subsequent trial, as well as the young woman surviving their attempted attack, that Hulten and Betty would finally be discovered. The pair were arrested soon afterwards, with Hulten carried away as a heartbroken Joyce watches in horror. ‘Both defendants had made incriminating statements and, after a bit of back-and-forth among the barristers, the trial judge ruled that the statements made by Hulten to American interrogators were admissible as evidence,’ explained T. A. Kevlin in his study Headless Man in Topless Bar.
‘Jones’ story was that it had all been Hulten’s doing, that she had been unaware that he was going to shoot Heath, and not helped move the body and that she had only gone through Heath’s pocket under Hulten’s orders.’ It would be during their interrogations that both Hulten and Betty had discovered each other’s true identity, but during the trial they would be found guilty of murder and would never see each other again. The movie ends with Sutherland’s voice-over explaining, ‘Karl Hulten and Betty Jones were subsequently charged with the murder of George Heath.
They were tried at the Old Bailey during January of 1945. Betty Jones was found guilty and sentenced to death. She was reprieved less than forty-eight hours before her execution was due to take place. She was released from prison in 1954. Karl Hulten, the only American serviceman to be tried by the British during World War II, was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged on the 8 March 1945.’
It would not only be Sutherland who was going through personal issues during the filming of Chicago Joe and the Showgirl. Lloyd had been struggling with depression for some time and was prescribed antidepressants by a local doctor, but the isolation she felt during the making of the movie and a traumatic childhood experience that had continued to haunt her resulted in a breakdown mid-shoot. In an act of desperation, Lloyd took an overdose of her medication and was rushed to hospital, where she was ordered to take time off work to relax, but the following day she had returned to the set, despite being physically and emotionally exhausted.
According to her testimony in her autobiography, Bernard Rose – who was the only one of the crew to be aware of her suicide attempt – had shown little sympathy towards his troubled lead over the subsequent weeks, often shouting at Lloyd for failing to deliver her lines. On the final day of shooting, having blown several takes, Lloyd was once again the target of the director’s wrath, causing her mother to step in to try and defuse the situation. Lloyd states that Rose simply turned around to her mother and shouted, ‘Fuck off,’ forcing a producer to wrap the shoot before the hostility was taken any further.
Chicago Joe and the Showgirl was released in late July 1990, almost a year after filming had taken place and shortly before two other Sutherland pictures, Young Guns II and Flatliners, made their debuts. Chicago Joe proved to be the least well-received of the three, being heavily criticised in reviews and ignored by cinemagoers. The presence of a Hollywood star like Sutherland was clearly not enough to entice audiences, and even an accompanying novelisation by M. Gaynor, based on Yallop’s screenplay, did little to attract attention.
Variety’s review appeared to summarise the general opinion that critics had on the movie: ‘Yallop was unable to ignite anything sensational in the finished product… Problem is that Emily Lloyd totally fails to deliver the necessary allurement, and Kiefer Sutherland is weak in playing a weak character.’ While it may have failed to achieve the aspirations it so clearly was aiming for, Chicago Joe and the Showgirl was still an ambitious picture that wished to avoid making a generic ‘true story’ picture, but instead also a statement on the young criminals’ obsession with the glamorous portrayal of gangsters in the movies and how, even as a war was raging on around them, senseless murder was still punishable by death.