“Somewhere between passion and fear, reason and revenge, love and terror…something’s happening.”
Bob Odenkirk’s foray into leading man roles looks to come with a ready-made audience thanks to the non-stop popularity of Better Call Saul and the early response from Nobody, in which he stars as a man pushed to the brink following a violent attack. With rumblings of a John Wick-like universe in the making, it’s safe to say the movie will be a nice tidy hit thanks in no small part to its premise.
There’s something incredibly visceral and palpable about a man safely nestled in the life he’s made who suddenly finds himself having to become someone else entirely when thrust into a situation completely alien and dangerous to him. My favorite example of this specific motif features Roy Scheider battling not a shark, but a femme fatale and a killer on the loose in the 1982 thriller Still of the Night.
Written and directed by Robert Benton, Still of the Night casts Scheider as Dr. Sam Rice, a psychiatrist who awakens to news one morning that one of his longtime patients George Bynum (Josef Sommer) has been found murdered. Not long after, a tall beautiful woman named Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep) comes to Sam’s office and introduces herself as George’s mistress before asking him if he would be willing to return the wristwatch the deceased left in her apartment back to his wife before quickly disappearing. As Sam looks over the notes from his past sessions with George, he begins to suspect that Brooke may have had just as much to do with his patient’s death as she did with his life.
Still of the Night was constructed in the Hitchcockian vein almost from conception with a healthy dose of neo-noir thrown in for good measure. Sam is the quintessential everyman built to be instantly trusted by all who encounter him. He is a man defined by reason, logic and an order to his life, which is all but shaken thanks to Brooke. The film’s female lead is the epitome of the icy cool blonde made famous by Grace Kelly. She’s alluring and inviting to everyone who meets her, yet keeps them all at a carefully measured distance. Still of the Night puts both of these prototypes through plenty of suspenseful sequences which prove more than worthy of the genre. A tense scene down a darkened basement floor of an apartment building and a late night cat-and-mouse sequence through Central Park punctuated only by the sound of footsteps both give the film the kind of atmosphere it needs in order for the suspense element to thrive. All of it culminates in a finale (wonderfully set in a large, darkened seaside house) which may lean more heavily into the thriller side more than what’s come before, but makes for such a rewarding, suspense-filled payoff.
But Benton’s script goes far deeper than the average genre piece thanks to the emphasis it places on people in the film. A recurring dream sequence with ties into the psychology of both of the main characters is chilling, surreal and borderline disturbing in its stark effectiveness and haunting images. When it comes to Sam and Brooke, the script makes sure that neither character is seen as a straight up carbon copy of people we’ve seen before. Enough care is given to the reason behind the kind of autopilot existence Sam finds himself in due to his divorce and the place of invisibility he wishes to inhabit within society. Likewise, Brooke’s facade masks a woman who has had to endure her own troubled past, itself given its own moment in a sprawling monologue which takes everything we’ve assumed about the character and turns it on its head. In a well-made fashion, Still of the Night offers up two characters who are both broken and guarded and links them as they plunge into the other side of the mirror together.
Still of the Night benefits from a pair of leads like Scheider and Streep. Neither actor is necessarily known for any one genre making their presence here both interesting and an asset. Scheider approaches Sam as a man caught between maintaining a hold on his sanity while allowing himself to be drawn further into the darkness. The actor’s naturalistic approach is the right tone for such a genre-heavy film and makes a good contrast to Streep’s affected turn. For her part, the actress exhibits one of the earliest examples of how much of a chameleon she could be. In her hands, Brooke isn’t just a beautiful femme fatale, but a genuinely wounded soul with a guardedness Streep understands and inhabits. Excellent supporting work from Jessica Tandy as Sam’s mother, Joe Grifasi as the detective investigating the case and the always reliable Josef Sommer as the muder victim (seen in flashbacks) all add solid contributions to the proceedings.
Several years back, Streep was asked to name one film she would consider less than her best. After a beat, she named Still of the Night. When asked what the film was about, she merely said: “Never mind.” It seems critics and audiences felt the same way as the actress. The movie was a bomb and those who saw it were left thoroughly unimpressed. Still, the movie has its defenders who are attracted to its slight non-linear fashion, its art world backdrop and blending of both genre and character. The second of Benton’s unofficial mystery trilogy after 1977’s The Late Show and 1998’s Twilight, there’s a real sophistication and curiosity to Still of the Night in its effort to be both an homage and a worthwhile entry in its own right that’s very much deserving of praise today.