by Jack Sommersby
Got mostly bad reviews when released, but it plays out a lot better on the small screen -- and with lowered expectations.I can't heartily recommend Robert Benton's Hitchcock-influenced thriller Still of the Night, in part because Benton, who co-wrote and directed it as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer, should've been perfectly aware of the flaws, a few of which are damaging. On the other hand, if one goes into this Manhattan-set tale that, like De Palma's Dressed to Kill, concerns itself with psychiatry, sex and murder, with not the highest of expectations, it makes for a decent-enough entertainment. In fact, though it's not as dazzlingly made, it's much less odious than De Palma's picture, which was more preoccupied with flamboyance than coherence; but Benton doesn't have De Palma's imagination, or much imagination in general per se, but he's incorporated enough of it here and logically grounded it, so the whole is all of a piece. It centers on that classic Hitchcock story premise of an Everyman becoming involved in a mystery only to find himself in way over his head, due both to forces out of his control and to his own curiosity and fascination with danger; by the time he realizes the thorniness of his predicament, it's too late, and he must then rely on some of his own untapped resources to save himself. The Everyman is non-eccentric and perfectly identifiable, so we have someone we can relate to pulling us into the unusual proceedings; and the one here is one Dr. Sam Rice (played by Roy Scheider), a psychiatrist who learns that one of his patients who he's been treating for two years, George Bynum (Josef Sommer), has been murdered, stabbed to death, his body found in his car on the city streets. The police do a routine interview with Sam for any pertinent information, which he's unable to supply; but right before that interview, an attractive blonde woman has shown up at his office, Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep), to give him a watch that belonged to George, who she was having an affair with, so he can pass it on to George's wife. When the police detective buzzes the office's intercom to announce his arrival, Brooke becomes nervous and jittery and leaves out a side door. Sam knows she didn't have to bring the watch by, that she could have just mailed it to the wife; and before she leaves he encourages her to call him if she needs to talk. Sam's intrigued, and even more so when the detective, frustrated that Sam won't give out details of George's visits because of confidentiality issues, warns him that the killer might be interested in Sam in case he knows something that might lead back to the killer.
"Decent Manhattan-Set Thriller"
We're afforded flashbacks of George's sessions, and come to find he was not exactly honorable. A married man and director of a high-class Sotheby's Parke Bernet-like auction house, he was a philanderer, making it a habit of sleeping with assistants from the office; he'd been seeing Brooke after ditching his previous lover, Gail Phillips (Sara Botsford), who she's on friendly terms with at the office. George also tells Sam that he thinks the woman he's seeing had killed someone before but doesn't offer any details. Sommer, far from a movie-star presence, spending his screen time sitting down in a chair, using power of inflection and of phrase, gives the man some pathos and nuanced sleaze: you sense he's seeing Sam both out of introspective guilt and the want to relate his extramartial triumphs in a bragging sort of way. Particularly interesting is a frightening dream he had: finding himself in a dark house unknown to him, seeing a young little girl in a white nightgown with a teddy bear; not speaking a word to him, she slowly removes one of the bear's eyes, blood spills out of the hole, and she then stands and calmly walks toward George, who's terrified beyond belief. And so are we. Benton, working with the celebrated cinematographer Nestor Almendros, gives the imagery a suggestive eeriness that's neither too much nor too little; making subtle use of secondary colors and well-aligned shadows, the sequence is nightmarish but with a calibrated intensity that tactfully unnerves. In fact, it's so fine that we revisit that house later at the end, where the logic behind the dream is eventually deciphered and the person behind the threat realized. Brooke pays Sam a surprise visit at his apartment, arriving with a gift to replace the figurine she accidentally broke at his office; again, Sam knows she didn't have to make another personal appearance, but he doesn't mind because, with his divorce having just been finalized the day before, he's attracted to her -- and also intrigued, because the police are sure the killer is a woman, and Brooke, who Sam now knows is the woman George was last seeing (the one George claimed was a murderer), is giving off suspiciously weird signals. The only one Sam can confide in is his mother, Grace (Jessica Tandy), also a psychiatrist; seeing right through him, she knows he's foolishly putting himself on the line by tailing Brooke after hours, and advises him to contact the police over his suspecting her. He, of course, refuses, yet he's also perfectly aware of his foolhardy stubbornness.
Still of the Night would play out considerably better if the casting of the two lead roles had been different, or if the actor and actress playing them had been more fluid in their interpretations. Scheider is committed and intelligent, and he never pushes for effects; on the other hand, he doesn't bring much to the party. No doubt he's playing Sam exactly how Benton has instructed him, that of a reticent professional unprepared for disorder intruding into his ultra-orderly life, but the character never really comes alive, even when doing risky things like sneaking into people's offices and following someone who he thinks is Brooke into Central Park at night. There's no internal tension to Scheider, and no real development of the character -- Sam is more or less the same as when the movie began, which is a cheat because part of the joy in watching James Stewart in Hitchcock's stuff was seeing a wiser, stronger-willed man gradually materialize before our eyes, making a formidable opponent for the villains underestimating him. But Scheider is otherwise solid, doesn't overact, and remains appealing, though he can't get any chemistry going with Streep, which is more her fault than his. Playing a possible femme fatale should be a treat for any actress to dig into, exuding both erotica and danger that tantalizes the hero into a helpless state of confusion; we should enjoy her sly manipulation that makes mince meat of the man's outer protective shell. Streep, with her nimble figure and luxurious milky-white skin, is certainly attractive enough, but, either because of the skimpiness of the role or her insecurity in playing it (or both), she's too "busy," trying hard for simple effects that inferior actresses could have aptly nailed without all the mannerisms and pregnant pauses that, for the sum of their inadequate parts, don't come to anything definitive. It's an awkward, leaky performance, with the only good scene to her credit the one where Brooke, nude underneath a not completely covering towel, is getting a massage in her home by an Oriental man when Sam unexpectedly drops by -- the slight naughtiness in Streep's eyes and sensual curling of her lips is libidinously hypnotic. And being that Benton hasn't given us nearly enough suspects for what is more or less a whodunit, and that Botsford makes more of a favorable impression in just three scenes, the movie isn't balanced right. We need another third female-character suspect or two well-rounded female performances instead of just one and a half. How could Benton, who helped Streep along to her award-winning work in Kramer, have allowed for this impreciseness?
Furthermore, Benton could've sharpened some of his skills up. When George's incriminating watch is on Sam's desk when the detective questions him, and Sam tries diverting his attention and getting it out of sight, it doesn't have the playfulness that we'd like. When Sam does go into Central Park and eventually descends into a pitch-black tunnel even though he's scared stiff, and a mugger materializes and slams him against the wall waving a knife, and Sam is actually relieved that it's not the killer, the building up to it should be unbearable, and the release of tension orgiastic, but it climaxes unsatisfyingly. In both scenes, we can practically spot the chalk marks Benton isn't hitting. He gets other things right, though. There's a marvelous bit at an important night at the auction house where Sam has to warn Brooke that the detective has brought along a bartender-witness to identity who George was with the night of his death; without being able to verbally communicate with Brooke because she's manning one of the phones in front of the crowd, Sam hastily bids on an expensive item he doesn't want just so he can write a warning to on the claim ticket that will get passed on to her. Yes, something similar was done in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, but it's acceptably staged, especially with some added humor of Sam frustrated that the woman in front of him keeps upping the bid. And the hair-raising final conclusion, at Brooke's isolated seaside Long Island house, where the killer stalks the two of them, has been engineered for maximum suspense. (Hitchcock here as well, with the climax on the outside balcony and crashing waves below right out of Vertigo.) One can aver that Benton could've injected more freshness and fewer Hitchcock references; and perhaps the connective tissue joining them together isn't terribly organic. But Benton has a good ear for dialogue, a born-director's instinct for what to look at and how to look at it, the confidence in his craft so as not to resort to inappropriate chiaroscuro camerawork just to visually spruce things up. (It's an able director who can rely on non-showy compositions to convey menace when they're as well-designed as they are here.) And he refuses to throw in gobs of gore and silly sensationalism in easy attempts at the visceral. Still of the Night doesn't have the contextual value to qualify as a "thinking-person's" psychological thriller, but it's reasonably scary, atmospheric, and delivers the goods more often than not.A long-overdue widescreen DVD has been released. No small special feaures, though.
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originally posted: 04/12/12 19:35:40