Thursday, September 16, 2010

Part 1 of 2 - Movies That NEED Remaking: How STILL OF THE NIGHT Could Have Been a Quality Hitchcock Pastiche

(Caution! Still of the Night Spoilers Ahead!)
With Alfred Hitchcock having long since gone to that big movie set in the sky, it seems like every filmmaker and his Aunt Lillian have tried their hand at a Hitchcock pastiche, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.  Sometimes they’ve even succeeded, with such stylish entertainments as Stanley Donen’s Charade and Arabesque, Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill, and Mark Robson’s The Prize, the latter borrowing liberally and gleefully from Ernest Lehman’s North by Northwest screenplay.
You don’t need to slavishly imitate Hitchcock to make a quality suspense film inspired by The Master of Suspense, unless you’re doing so for the purposes of affectionate spoofing, as with Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train, or even D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia.  But you do need a director and writer with a real sense of the theatrical, even a gonzo touch. Failing that, make sure your characters are as engaging as all get out. Your audience has to identify with your protagonists—which, of course, does not have to mean they must be squeaky-clean goody-two-shoes types. The characters Cary Grant and James Stewart played in Hitchcock’s films weren’t always 100% lovable. Even the characters played by the bewitching Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman were complicated women, not just window dressing.  Hitchcock had a knack for tapping into the dark side of his glamorous stars.

That’s why it frustrates me when a promising suspense story, especially one that goes out of its way to evoke Hitchcock’s style, misses the mark. Of all the unsuccessful off-brand Hitchcock wannabes I’ve seen and found wanting, the one that disappointed me most was Robert Benton’s 1982 Hitchcock salute, Still of the Night (SotN). I wanted to like it, really I did; it came so close! To paraphrase North by Northwest, it could tease a moviegoer to death without half-trying. The trouble was that it stopped trying, or at least didn’t quite try hard enough. Despite a great cast and several promising moments, SotN had too many promises and not enough moments.

No one will be seated during the
Weird Guitar-Shaped Shadow in the
Elevator scene!
For those who may not remember that far back, SotN was directed and co-written—with David Newman—by Robert Benton, fresh off his Oscar-winner Kramer Vs. Kramer. Benton also made one of my favorite films of the late 1970s, The Late ShowSotN’s original, more pulse-pounding title was Stab, but it didn’t fly with preview audiences. The way I heard the story, Stab supposedly began life as a slasher movie spoof that would reunite Benton with his Late Show leading lady Lily Tomlin, but it evolved into a straight-faced Hitchcock tribute re-teaming Benton with Kramer…’s Meryl Streep. SotN had a helluva cast going for it; Streep was joined by one of my favorite actors, Roy Scheider, as well as The Birds star and future Oscar-winner Jessica Tandy, not to mention such fine character actors as Josef Sommer, Joe Grifasi, and Sara Botsford. Plenty of talented people behind the camera with Benton and Newman, too, including director of photography Nestor Almendros, production designer Mel Bourne, and composer John Kander, whose piano-heavy main title theme has always been one of my favorites. To top it all off, SotN was filmed in and around New York City. Those who know me well can attest that I’m a sucker for New York-set films, especially when the filmmakers go to the trouble of actually filming on location!

Bynum's recurring nightmare. Little kids with eyeballs
painted on their eyelids: Instant Creepy!
The film starts promisingly in classic Hitchcock style: after a simple but elegant opening credit sequence showing the phases of the moon, the film opens in, appropriately enough, the still of the night on a quiet midtown Manhattan street. (Yes, even midtown Manhattan streets can be relatively quiet if it’s late enough.) A car thief attempts to ply his trade, discreetly trying the handles of each parked car. He finally finds one that’s unlocked, and opens the door—but his triumph is short-lived as a bloodied corpse falls out. See, folks, crime doesn’t pay! 
From then on, the viewer gets to play “Name That Hitchcock Flick” as The Master’s familiar beloved tropes parade across the screen. The dead man is George Bynum (Sommer), a bigwig at the auction house Crispin’s, and a patient of psychiatrist Dr. Sam Rice (Scheider). You can tell Sam is a decent, down-to-earth guy because he likes baseball and insists on treating a financially-strapped patient gratis. After Bynum’s murder, Sam has a visitor: Brooke Reynolds (Streep), a soignée, aristocratic blonde. Unlike Hitchcock’s usual cool, unflappable blonde ice maidens with hidden fires, poor Brooke is a jumpy bundle of nerves. Maybe the nicotine from her ever-present cigarettes is getting to her. Maybe it’s the fact that Brooke and her boss, the married Bynum, were having an affair; Brooke claims she dropped by so Sam could give Bynum’s widow a wristwatch he’d left at their love nest. Or maybe Brooke’s so nervous because NYPD Detective Vitucci (Grifasi) is on the lookout for an aristocratic blonde who, according to witnesses, was arguing with Bynum a few hours before he was murdered.

Sam goes over his notes/flashbacks on his therapy sessions with Bynum. We see that Brooke’s reputation preceded her. Seems that Bynum, another chain-smoker, was a sleaze in gentleman’s clothing. (In fact, all the smokers in SotN have terrible emotional problems. Were Benton and Newman trying to give audiences some kind of anti-smoking message?) Turns out Bynum had discussed Brooke with Sam at length during their sessions, with tales of mysterious goings-on in her apartment (“She moved into the building behind mine, which I find very significant,” Bynum intones dramatically. Sheesh, everybody’s a therapist!). Shades of Rear Window as Bynum sees Brooke’s window across the way and spots her stripping before a portly gent (sorry, fans, this dude is Asian, not British). Bynum hints that he’s learned a terrible secret about Our Miss Brooke. Need I say it involves murder?

"Sam, your collar needs
my lipstick on it. Come here, you
big sexy psychiatrist you!"
This ominous hint is accompanied by one of the film’s highlights, a dream sequence (you can never have too many Spellbound homages, I always say!) in which Bynum finds himself trapped in a big old house at night. There, a small green box slips through his fingers, and a little blonde girl with a bleeding teddy bear and unnerving stare terrorizes Bynum without saying a word. Bynum even tauntingly implies that Sam himself has become obsessed with Brooke. Score one for Bynum: against his better judgment, Sam finds himself falling in love with the gentle, fragile Brooke, and it seems the feeling is mutual. That makes Sam all the more determined to prove Brooke isn’t the killer. Quiet, methodical Sam becomes an increasingly obsessed amateur sleuth, snooping around in Brooke’s drawers (in her desk at work, smarty, though snooping in the other type of drawers might have added more sizzle to the story), and following her around Manhattan on a trail leading him to Central Park—and a mugger. Sam gives the creep his coat in hopes of leaving the park alive. He does, but the mugger isn’t so lucky. Detective Vitucci points out that the pattern of the dead mugger’s wounds is the same as Bynum’s. Sam’s gonna need more than a new coat to get out of this mess!

Brooke looks less and less like Ms. Right as Vitucci deduces that the killer is a woman. With the help of his spunky mom and fellow therapist Dr. Grace Rice (Tandy), Sam decodes Bynum’s dream. Sam isn’t the happiest of campers when the dream evidence seems to prove that Bynum must have been afraid of a jealous woman. Grace asserts that this woman “seems childlike and innocent but is capable of extreme violence.” Sam walks in on a naked Brooke during one of her meetings with the Asian man. Turns out he’s only her masseur, treating her chronic back problems. As Brooke mmms and oohs over his magic hands and Sam somehow manages to maintain a gentlemanly demeanor, she invites him to an auction at Crispin’s that night. While Brooke fields bids, Sam swipes her keys, goes through her desk, and finds pictures of Brooke and clippings from an Italian newspaper about a man’s suspicious death. Now it’s Brooke who’s the unhappy camper when she walks in on Sam and the clippings. Still, when Vitucci arrives with a bartender who can I.D. Brooke as the lady who’d quarreled with Bynum, Sam goes north by northwest, bidding on a Jim Dine painting in order to pass Brooke a warning note on his receipt.

Brooke flees so fast, even Sam doesn’t know where she went, until Brooke’s coworker Gail Phillips (Botsford), who’d given him a tour of Crispin’s earlier in the film, reveals that Brooke probably went to her Glen Cove weekend home. Sam arrives to find an upset Brooke sitting in the dark, smoking. She still feels betrayed after the way Sam went through her desk. The increasingly fed-up Sam gives her the ol’ “Come to Jesus” talk in my favorite bit of SotN dialogue:
Now listen to me! On account of you, I’m an accessory to something—I don’t know what. I’m withholding evidence. I’m obstructing justice. I’m gonna get my license revoked if I’m not thrown into jail first. And on top of that, I’ve just spent fifteen thousand dollars for a painting I don’t even like!”

Relieved, Brooke falls into Sam’s arms. As they embrace, she finally spills her guts—no, not literally! For a movie almost titled Stab, SotN doesn’t have much bloodshed (or suspense, I’m afraid, but more on that in a moment). Brooke’s subsequent lengthy monologue could have come off like a speech in an student actor’s handbook, but Streep performs it quite poignantly and made me feel for her.

Brooke explains that the man in the Italian newspaper was her father. Papa married alcoholic Mama for her wealth and moved to Florence with young Brooke after Mama’s demise. In a note among her personal effects, Mom revealed that Pops was a charming but dangerous schemer who’d do anything for the money Brooke inherited. Daddy Dearest brought Brooke to a bell tower, never a safe place for any Hitchcock character. When he found out about the incriminating note and tried to push her to her death, she leapt aside in time for Bad Dad to take the fall. Despite surviving the murder attempt, Brooke has been racked with guilt (and cigarette coughs?) ever since Bynum found out and held the guilty secret over her head, hence her nervous loner nature.

SotN gets a much-needed jump-start when Brooke finally turns on the lights, and Sam realizes that this is the house in Bynum’s dream, which he proceeds to recount to his beloved. Brooke has a different interpretation of the green box in the dream. Her Crispin’s coworker Gail has a bank phobia (nowadays, who could blame her?), and she carries her entire cashed paycheck around with her, leading Bynum to nickname her “Greenbacks”! Sam tries to call Vitucci with this info, but the knife in the detective’s back makes it awfully hard to reach his beeper. Yes, Gail was the killer after all, and now that she’s bumped off poor Vitucci, she’s on her way to Glen Cove to kill Brooke. Looks like it doesn’t pay to make friends with your coworkers, either!

The climax takes us viewers into slasher territory as Brooke runs from a knife-wielding Gail while Sam lies unconscious from a stab wound. “Jump!” Gail growls as she pins Brooke against her balcony overlooking the surf. Luckily, Sam regains consciousness before Gail gets too into her Mrs. Danvers routine, startling the murderess into conveniently falling over the side. Brooke tries to save Gail by grabbing her sleeve a la Saboteur, but perhaps Gail’s Crispin’s salary wasn’t enough to buy really well-made clothes. Sleeve rips, Gail plummets to her death, and the movie ends on a lingering shot of a weeping Brooke and an exhausted Sam embracing as the theme song timidly starts up again.

"How many times do I have to tell you:
there's nobody named 'George Kaplan' here!"
To paraphrase the old NYNEX Yellow Pages commercial, SotN could have been beautiful in the right hands; unfortunately, in this case, Benton didn’t seem to have the right hands.  I could have forgiven the killer’s identity coming out of left field if only the film had more life of its own. All too often, I got the feeling that Benton figured all he had to do was trot out the Hitchcock homages, and the nostalgic audience would be so enthralled that they’d add the spark and emotion themselves. If only it were that easy!

It seemed to me as if Benton and Newman, stuck for an ending, happened to peer over somewhere in the middle of the screenplay and, snapping their fingers, said “Hey, Gail doesn’t have much to do. Let’s make her the killer!” Since then, however, I’ve been told by usually reliable sources that on an awards show, Streep had jokingly spilled the beans before the film’s release, revealing that Brooke was indeed the killer. Oops! Back to the drawing board, er, editing room!

Next Time: Part 2, in which I suggest what I'd do if I had the money and clout to remake Still of the Night!


  1. Wouldn't it be great if STILL OF THE NIGHT had been as cool as the original movie ads? :-)

  2. Arrrgh! I feel your pain!! How could this movie - with this cast - go so wrong? Was it in the planning? A spoof that became serious?

    I have a friend who says he's seen every single Meryl Streep movie, but I'm gonna stump him with this one!

    1. Ruth, thanks for understanding my frustration with STILL OF THE NIGHT, and for giving me the opportunity to vent! :-) I look forward to hearing what your friend think! :-) Our pal and fellow blogger Yvette Banek felt I should just move past it and write more of my own fiction, and really, she's right; I just find missed opportunities frustrating. No wonder I'm "...Easily Distracted"! :-)

      That said, if you're a completist like me, feel free to check out how I'd fix STILL OF THE NIGHT, just for fun! Thanks for listening, my friend!

    2. Hey, TCM is showing THE LATE SHOW with Lily Tomlin, and STILL OF THE NIGHT starring Roy Schieder and Meryl Streep! :-D