A Manhattan psychiatrist probes a patient's murder and falls for the victim's mysterious mistress.
Meryl Streep made two movies in 1982. One immortalized the now legendary actress and brought her a well-deserved second Academy Award. The other, a slick but sterile thriller in the Hitchcockian vein, couldn't compete with 'Sophie's Choice' and wound up a forgotten footnote on Streep's impressive cinematic résumé. A blatant but respectful homage to the Master of Suspense, 'Still of the Night' weaves a few jolting thrills into its psychological fabric, but hard as it tries to stoke the intellect, Robert Benton's by-the-numbers whodunit favors style over substance at every turn and winds up a largely run-of-the-mill Manhattan murder mystery.
Benton also employed the Big Apple to great advantage in his previous film, the Oscar-winning divorce and child custody drama 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' which earned two gold statuettes for the writer-director and one each for Dustin Hoffman and Streep. Benton reportedly wrote 'Still of the Night' with Meryl in mind, and though the star had advanced beyond the role's limited range by the time the project went before the cameras, she agreed to appear in the movie as a favor to the director who helped mold her screen persona. And without Streep as a drawing card, 'Still of the Night' wouldn't have much cachet, despite the fine work of a stellar cast that also includes Roy Scheider and Jessica Tandy.
When auction house executive George Bynum (Josef Sommer) is found brutally murdered in a parked car on New York's fashionable Upper East Side, detective Joseph Vitucci (Joe Grifasi) interviews everyone who knew and worked with him, including his recently divorced shrink, Dr. Sam Rice (Scheider). Just before Vitucci's visit, a mysterious woman named Brooke Reynolds (Streep) appears in Sam's office and asks the soft-spoken psychiatrist to return Bynum's watch to his widow without any mention of Bynum's involvement with her. Sam agrees and, much like the unfortunate Bynum, becomes instantly intrigued by the nervous, demure, and breathtakingly beautiful Brooke. As Sam later reviews the notes of his sessions with Bynum, he recalls the victim's distasteful personality as details of Bynum's clandestine affair with Brooke come to the forefront.
Brooke's intimate relationship with Bynum quickly makes her the prime suspect in the case, and her odd, anxious behavior fuels the speculation. The smitten Sam, however, isn't so sure she's the culprit, and begins doing some digging of his own in an attempt to clear her name. As tensions mount, the two grow closer, but is the guarded Brooke (who's clearly hiding something) merely setting a trap for Sam or is she being framed by someone else? And is Sam's burgeoning affection for Brooke clouding his judgment and needlessly putting him in the path of a psychotic killer?
Though the idea of dissecting a seemingly innocuous dream to unravel a tangled murder mystery may be far-fetched, 'Still of the Night' largely plays fair and the story holds up under close scrutiny. What constantly threatens to sabotage it is the utter lack of chemistry between Scheider and Streep, whose stilted embraces and chilly interactions are devoid of even a hint of passion. Benton tries hard to mold Meryl into a sexy femme fatale (a steamy naked rubdown by an Asian masseur and a series of glamorous close-ups help), but imbues her character with too much child-like vulnerability and icy reserve to successfully sell the vision. Although she's rarely seemed more alluring on screen, Streep projects a distinct standoffishness that may heighten the air of duplicity hanging over Brooke, but keeps her performance at arm's length. She also at times adopts an affected dialect that detracts from her usually stellar work.
Scheider is stiff, too, playing the cerebral, brooding psychiatrist with more reserve than necessary, and the always marvelous Tandy is all but wasted in a brief, thankless role that squanders her considerable talent. Sommer is appropriately creepy as the lewd, slithery Bynum, and Grifasi makes a nice impression as the stereotypical tough-talking urban cop. All the portrayals beef up the weak story, as does Benton's accomplished direction, which evokes Hitchcock without blatantly copying him. (Fans of Sir Alfred will spot allusions to 'North by Northwest,' 'Rear Window,' 'Vertigo,' and 'Spellbound.') Benton also adopts the shadowy elements of film noir, but goes overboard with cigarette smoking. Almost every character, with the exception of Sam, possesses an unquenchable penchant for tobacco - including Sam's mother! - and all the puffing becomes mechanical and gimmicky over time.
Several suspenseful moments, good performances, and stylish trimmings distinguish 'Still of the Night,' but its chilly demeanor prevents us from connecting to its characters. Benton, quite wisely, strove to distance himself from the emotional 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' but this emotionless mystery goes too far in the other direction. Though it's slightly better (and infinitely more elegant) than a garden variety thriller, it's beauty is only skin deep.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Still of the Night' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I wasn't expecting much from the 'Still of the Night' transfer, and it's a good thing, because Kino Lorber's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation is all over the map. At times, the cinematography by the accomplished Nestor Almendros truly shines, but more often than not, images that should look lush appear washed out and faded. Though occasional instances of strong detail, stunning boldness, and palpable depth punch up the picture, any euphoria such positive elements engender is quickly tempered by nagging negatives like wildly fluctuating grain (the backgrounds of several shots often flaunt an annoying noisiness), varying color intensity (reds are potent, but the pivotal green box looks almost blue), and overly soft edges, all of which drain the life out of an already sterile story. Close-ups are pleasantly sharp and render fine facial features well, but Streep, who was lovingly photographed by Almendros, rarely achieves the intended degree of seductive glamour. Blacks are fairly deep and shadow detail is good (crush is rarely an issue), but flesh tones tend to shift depending on the brightness of the shot. While far from a disaster, this transfer lets the film down, robbing a potentially stylish thriller of much of its style.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies adequate sound, but boosting the volume above typical listening levels is required to achieve any degree of fidelity. Sonic accents, such as footsteps crunching against the pavement, a screeching bird, rumbling elevator door, and shrill pager alarm, are crisp and distinct, but dialogue can be a bit muted and mumbled lines are often unintelligible. Slight distortion occurs periodically, but John Kander's simple, elegant score sounds rich and full, and subtle atmospherics come across well. Much like the video transfer, the audio rarely rises above the mundane, and though such mediocrity is disappointing, it's not at all unexpected.
Lucky for Meryl Streep, 'Sophie's Choice' completely overshadowed 'Still of the Night' at the time of its release, but time has been kind to Robert Benton's homage to Alfred Hitchcock. The story may be subpar, but the slick direction, attractive cast, and solid performances make this tepid romantic thriller seem better than it is. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray presentation doesn't do the film any favors, with fair-to-middling video and audio dulling its impact and no substantive extras to sweeten its pot, but fans of Streep and Scheider will welcome the high-def release of this carefully constructed mystery, which remains worth a look.