Thursday, October 21, 2010
Very Shy, Very Subdued
Recently I found myself wondering about the career trajectory of Robert Benton, a writer/director with any number of esteemed credits to his name including winning a Best Director Oscar for KRAMER VS. KRAMER but in spite of that his place in the pantheon may be due to being one of the screenwriters of the immortal BONNIE AND CLYDE. Nothing at all wrong with that, of course, it’s about as valid a reason for cinematic immortality as you can get and in addition to his various other writing credits (he’s one of several names on the likes of WHAT’S UP DOC, SUPERMAN, even THE ICE HARVEST) is a directing output which seems to combine character studies with oddly pitched genre pieces which are in themselves often character studies. Not all of them are successful and there are even a few I’ve never seen, with a surprising gap of a number of years between them. There’s a definite clean, non-nonsense nature to much of his work with several titles having a fairly sparse running time as well (1987’s NADINE: 82 minutes). Sprinkled throughout his filmography, his thrillers could be seen as trying to replicate genre pieces that he maybe saw on the late show years before (well, he made a movie called THE LATE SHOW, after all) and one of these is the Roy Scheider-Meryl Streep murder mystery STILL OF THE NIGHT which in spite of its potentially powerhouse teaming is almost forgotten today, never put out on DVD. Released in November 1982, it plays as an odd choice for any Best Director followup coming three long years after that win. The pedigree is impressive, the two leads seem on the surface like they would be ideally matched and the film certainly looks great from start to finish, but neither the mystery nor the interplay between the characters are ever as intriguing as they should be so as a cinematic experience it ultimately plays as dramatically inert. Maybe it’s just an unfortunate case of a movie where nothing ever really gelled from the chemistry between the stars to the very nature of the mystery. The story is so sparsely populated with a certain lack of actual incident that there are really only so many directions things could ever go in and there’s an abruptness to it which indicates that maybe the reason Benton made the film in the first place somehow got lost along the way.
When recently divorced Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Sam Rice (Roy Scheider), having a bad day that includes his divorce getting finalized and the Yankees getting creamed up in Boston, also has to deal with the death of his patient George Bynum (Josef Sommer), found stabbed in a parked car on the street. He is visited by the beautiful Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep), a mysterious woman who had an affair with the dead man and asks the doctor to return his watch to his wife but seems to know more than she’s saying. After being visited by the police in the form of Det. Joseph Vitucci (Joe Grifasi) Rice begins to believe that a woman killed George and his suspicions naturally fall on Brooke. As he is haunted by descriptions of a dream George once told him about and which may hold the key to the mystery, Rice begins to suspect that he is being followed based on something he knows and his own interest in Brooke may lead to becoming the killer’s next victim.
STILL OF THE NIGHT has a certain mood to it complimented by some absolutely beautiful cinematography by Nestor Almendros and the strong presence of some very good actors but nothing particularly compelling ever happens in the plot (screenplay by Benton, story by David Newman and Benton) during its brief ninety minute running time. It all comes off as too polite for a would-be spellbinding thriller, done in Benton’s no muss, no fuss directorial style, with all the killings happening offscreen as if he didn’t want to overly rattle the nerves of his friends who he was going to have dinner with after the screening. The expected Hitchcock tropes are there, certainly beginning with Streep’s rather extreme blond hairstyle on her enigmatic femme fatale who wears noticeably elegant black gloves. There’s a dream out of SPELLBOUND, someone peering across a courtyard to another apartment out of REAR WINDOW as well as a prolonged auction house sequence that never becomes the NORTH BY NORTHWEST-type centerpiece it wants to be—actually, based on the detail of this section set in a Christie’s-type auction house called Crispin’s and the amount of needless exposition we’re given as to how it works it feels like Benton is interested in all this more than anything else in the film. Streep’s look, as attractive as she is, seems somehow not quite right for the actress, playing a part that doesn’t really go with her inherently naturalistic style. There’s certainly an interesting-enough effect given off by it and if the story wound up really building to something more her odd demeanor wouldn’t be such a bad thing. As it is, the character just comes off as enigmatic for the sake of being enigmatic and it’s never really clear why this doctor played by Scheider becomes so obsessed with this ‘very shy, very, subdued’ woman or with solving the murder of his patient at all—by a certain point when Streep enters his apartment yet again I couldn’t help but think that it would make perfect sense for him to say he had other things to do. In trying to explain his motivation he does have some dialogue along the lines of ‘I’ve got to do it,’ seeming to think that connecting with Streep’s beauty is some door that he needs to open before getting totally closed off from any sort of passion in his life but this doesn’t really play.
Unlike how SEA OF LOVE and BASIC INSTINCT would utilize this type of plot several years later there really is no sex here at all—the doctor has been told by his dead patient that, like him, Streep’s Brooke Reynolds is a stiff—and the one time it seems there will be turns out to be a misdirect. It’s a fairly passionless film, Scheider’s character shutting himself off from life after his divorce and having Chinese food with his mother, a fellow psychiatrist played by Jessica Tandy (hey, another Hitchcock nod!) so it all becomes a fairly passionless viewing experience. The lack of life seems reflected in how the barren late-night New York streets we see are populated by characters that have had any joy drained out of them by bad relationships, something which seems perfectly plausible but there’s a badly-needed energy missing that the film never quite finds. It all feels a little stifled, with extended flashbacks showing Josef Sommer as the murdered man in sessions with Scheider that come off as way too subdued, leading to a plot that doesn’t really go anywhere and a droning, too often humorless nature to the dialogue that I honestly sometimes just space out on as I try to follow what’s being said. When Scheider has an actual laugh line late in the film (“I just paid $15,000 for a painting that I don’t even like!”) it’s kind of a relief to hear the actor finally let loose in his patented “cut this crap out” nature that we love about him, but it’s not quite enough.
It feels a little like Benton was trying to make a movie-movie in the New York world he was so familiar with crossed with a few other elements—the presence of Almendros behind the camera along with the overall sparse style makes me imagine a version made by Truffaut in his Hitchcock-lite mode possibly with Catherine Deneuve in the Streep role, a notion that sounds like it would have had much more heat based on her presence alone. Hey, I’m daydreaming. For that matter, the sparse black-and-white-in-color palette and lack of a giant setpiece also makes it feel a little more like a forties film, whether directed by Hitchcock or someone else—the Fritz Lang version might have starred Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett (boost up his part a little, Joe Grifasi could easily be Dan Duryea) with even that version having considerably more passion to it. Those films were more backlot-bound than the cool, barren New York City this film is set in, amidst an upper crust Manhattan scene that Benton seems to know very well but it coexists uneasily with the pulpy nature the story should be going for. Its overly dry nature causes things to have very little impact in the end although it’s too classily made to be a ‘bad’ film—one prolonged sequence of Scheider following someone into deep, dark Central Park at night is frankly stunningly well-photographed making this section as suspenseful as the rest of the film never really is (the bemused reaction the cops have the next day to where he’s taken a walk is another nice moment) and as quiet as the climax is, with nothing but waves heard crashing below the house it’s set in, the deceptively simple image of a certain character coming towards a person with a knife somehow manages to stick in the brain like a nightmare. But that the solution to the mystery based on a dream described by someone before they died just feels a little too remote a concept and while the climax in question contains what seems like a possible nod to the end of SABOTEUR it occurs to me that it commits what Hitchcock years later felt was a fundamental error in that film, involving the wrong person being in jeopardy, and it strikes me that such a move seems emblematic of the film as a whole. Benton clearly has a fondness for the form but doesn’t have as much of an affinity for what makes it work as he does for the people living in these high-toned Upper East Side apartments, people who rarely ever get involved in such scenarios. As intriguing as some of it is, the result never really pays off.
Roy Scheider is a very dependable lead, as always a total pleasure to watch and never less than totally relatable, but he seems constricted by the nature of the material—musing about his history playing baseball makes me think of how cool it was that he used to be the star in films like this but the speech ultimately isn’t all that strong. Opposite him is one of the only Meryl Streep performances that could be considered off key. It’s not that she’s bad at all, playing things with a finishing school accent where she says things like, “I felt very, very badly,” but the actress just seems the wrong choice to be some sort of equivalent of Faye Dunaway in CHINATOWN. When she has a big speech late in the film explaining herself it’s undeniably effective, with Benton getting lost in simply framing her as waves crash offscreen below (really, it’s almost like nothing else mattered to him in the entire shoot except this one shot) but the way it’s played feels like it’s in the wrong movie. Maybe Meryl Streep as an actress just wasn’t meant to be in this kind of film. Jessica Tandy is the one person onscreen who seems to have a genuine energy to her presence that no one else here has, quizzically goading her onscreen so into revealing why he’s so obsessed with this case in her few scenes and Joe Grifasi has a few quirkily enjoyable moments as the investigating officer, enough to make it seem like it would only have helped to make his part bigger.
The film was titled STAB during production and some accounts have it not being a particularly smooth shoot, with numerous rewrites and Benton spending a prolonged period editing— without getting into spoilers, it’s certainly conceivable to imagine that certain aspects of the plot may have gone in different directions at one point. At the very least, if it had kept its original title it would have been one of the more mild films ever to contain such a moniker. Made by professionals at the top of their game, STILL OF THE NIGHT is well made enough that it certainly can’t be dismissed, but it never seems to mix together the right ingredients in order to make it a compelling piece of work. In the end, it feels like a misstep, an off day for a number of various talented people. They all do their jobs well enough that the film certainly has points of interest for anyone who might be curious but it seems to intent on remaining high-class that it never seems to realize that getting down and dirty might be a good thing. In the end, it’s a too-small glass of halfway decent red wine, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it could certainly use a good shot of whiskey somewhere it its system to liven things up.