The Morning After

December 3, 2019

morningafterAmericans are in the midst of a surging love affair with the mystery story; the hard-boiled novel is booming, and television sleuths proliferate. The movies, however, have not had much to be proud of in the genre lately, but audiences were so hungry for the form that they made Jagged Edge, a bad movie, one of the surprise hits of 1985.

The Morning After is much in the Jagged Edge vein. It even borrows the star of that film, Jeff Bridges, for another shifty role.

The set-up is good, and the stuff of classic mystery: A woman (Jane Fonda) wakes up one morning in a strange apartment, with no idea how she got there. That’s not unusual; she’s a boozy has-been actress who has seen one too many mornings like this. She looks over at the man next to her, who seems to be in a dead sleep. Except that, as it turns out, he’s not asleep, just dead. There’s a huge knife sticking out of his chest, and she doesn’t know how it got there.

She’s got to find out whodunit while avoiding the attention of the police. Her husband (Raul Julia), from whom she is separated, is some help. An unlikely ally is the redneck ex-cop (Bridges) she bumps into. 

This is a perfectly adequate way to launch a thriller. But director Sidney Lumet does not know quite how to treat the tawdry story, and the film unravels early on.

Many such suspense films take place in a night world, full of shadows and darkness. Lumet places this story in the harsh Los Angeles sunlight, presumably in keeping with the title, and to remain thematically consistent with the heroine’s spiritual enlightenment. Unfortunately, this bleaches any atmosphere out of the film; the daylight has a dulling effect on the mystery.

There is one nice scene – at night – when the newly acquainted Fonda and Bridges share a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey cold cuts and Thunderbird wine. She talks of her starlet past, and tells him that “they were grooming me to be the next Vera Miles.” (“Who?” he says.)

But Lumet flubs the mystery. The movie cheats on its characters – one crucial person isn’t introduced until the film is almost over – and logical lapses abound.

Bridges is his professional self, though he doesn’t have very much to do. He seems to be single-handedly bringing back the suspenseful thriller tradition of film noir, with his roles in Cutter’s Way, Against All Odds, Jagged Edge, and 8 Million Ways to Die in the last few years. It’s a good cause, but the films need to get better.

Fonda, whose production company helped make the movie, all too obviously considers this role a stretch (no pun on her exercise regimen intended). She has a few good scenes, but most of her performance is laid on too thick.

Lumet is completing a family circle. His first feature film, Twelve Angry Men, starred and was produced by Fonda’s father. Henry insisted the young Lumet be given the directorial shot then, and the kid was off to a busy career. Not necessarily a progressive career, however. Twelve Angry Men will be remembered a lot longer than The Morning After.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

I wonder if this films looks better today; it certainly hasn’t been remembered much, as I suggested. Someone should really do a series devoted to 80s Bridges Noir, even if the results (save for Cutter’s Way, a masterpiece) were not individually satisfying. The hard-boiled revival I refer to must have included the re-discovery of writers such as Jim Thompson at this time, which was an exciting moment.


Power

August 27, 2012

Power is one of those behind-the-scenes peeks at the wheeling and dealing of political campaigns, always a ripe subject for movies (after all, so little madness needs to be invented). As it happens, Power is not an unusually distinguished essay on the cutthroat gamesmanship that we all know and love, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough.

The main player in this drama is Peter St. John (Richard Gere), a high-stakes public relations wizard with an 85 percent success rate with political candidates. He is introduced to us in a series of glimpses at his various projects.

First, he’s attending the speech of a South American candidate/client, whose rally is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist bomb. When the candidate gets a little blood on his shirt, St. John rushes over with his camera crew, fairly exultant with the public relations possibilities. He excitedly tells the candidate to wear the blood-stained shirt at every subsequent public appearance.

Next, St. John is off to New Mexico, where he oversees the candidacy of a Senate hopeful (Fritz Weaver), then to Seattle for a meeting with the incumbent governor (Michael Learned, once the mother on “The Waltons”). She needs special help in smoothing over her recent divorce, and its impact on the fall campaign.

But St. John’s most pressing public relations gig is the Ohio Senate race. The incumbent (E.G. Marshall), an old friend, pulls out of the running, abruptly. St. John is pursued by a mysterious power broker (Denzel Washington of “St. Elsewhere”) to back another Ohio candidate, one whose resources are vast, but whose intentions are suspect.

St. John’s main business is image-bending. As he tells the hopeless Weaver (a rich city boy whom St. John puts in a cowboy suit before a herd of cattle), “We’ve got to align perception with reality.”

In other words, quit worrying about the issues and concentrate on the makeup and the hair. St. John creates the kind of devious TV commercials and publicity ploys with which we’ve become all too familiar over the years.

But strange things are happening: St. John’s rooms are bugged, his plane is searched, and his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a reporter, is finding some fishy finances connected with Marshall’s wife (Beatrice Straight).

It all sounds complicated, and it is, but it’s enjoyably mounted. Sidney Lumet (and his fine photographer, Andrej Bartkowiak) can orchestrate this sort of intricate setup with clarity, if little subtlety (The Verdict and Prince of the City are other examples). And he recognizes the satire of much of David Himmelstein’s script.

Gere is well-cast as the shallow media hypester, although he does less well with the character’s moral awakening. Gene Hackman does some tasty work as Gere’s friend/competitor. Kate Capshaw is attractive decoration as Gere’s assistant.

An irony surrounds the film that may or may not be apparent to the people who made it. Power is being marketed in just the way Peter St. John might market a film that was a hard sell. It’s a teasing, uninformative ad campaign that doesn’t really tell you what the movie’s about, but merely suggests something sexy and glittering along the lines of “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” (You know: “Power—the ultimate aphrodisiac.” That sort of thing.)

It’s the kind of aggressive slickery that, by rights, ought to make Lumet, Himmelstein, and co., just a bit queasy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It didn’t land like Network, that’s for sure. The political stuff looks like child’s play from a perspective 25 years on, and sort of looked like child’s play then. Karl Rove, where were you in ’86?


Family Business

June 29, 2012

For a movie that boasts three big-money leading men, Family Business is a surprisingly underwhelming affair.

Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick have all lent their talents, but their participation in this movie prompts more head-scratching than anything else. Why’d they do it?

It’s not a bad film, exactly. Connery, very much in his roguish element, plays a lifetime crook named Jesse McMullin, who’s always conducted himself by his own code of honor. He’s spent plenty of time in jail over the years, yet he’s respected and even loved by nearly everyone who knows him.

Everyone, that is, except his middle-aged son, played by Hoffman. (Because the elder McMullin was married to a Sicilian woman, their son was named Vito, a fact that continues to rankle the old man.) Vito, after briefly following his father’s criminal ways as a young man, has painstakingly built up a Manhattan meat business, which he loathes. But it is a badge of accomplishment to him that he has shut out his father’s life. The fact that Vito does not seem particularly happy is, to him, beside the point.

Vito’s son Adam, played by Broderick, has been strictly raised. Nothing but the best for this boy, the better to shield him from the family’s criminal streak. True to form, however, the kid has dropped out of college, just before getting his master’s degree. It seems he has an itch to try something a bit more dramatic.

Adam has a scheme cooked up whereby a cool million can be made by robbing a big chemical company. He enlists the aid of his wily grandfather, who suggests bringing Vito into the caper. After much reluctance, Vito joins up.

The rest of the movie is the robbery, plus the inevitably tangled consequences. Vincent Patrick’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, has a lot of scenes of people talking, and a static quality regularly creeps into the movie. Still, much of the talk is good and the actors who deliver it are just fine, so a lot of it works.

There’s just this sense of blandness about the whole thing. Even the ad campaign, three men in suits and ties staring at the camera, is dull. Director Sidney Lumet, who has made so many films in New York, gets an effective feeling for the city, and a nice contrast between Vito’s blue-collar business and his antiseptic, stylish high-rise apartment. There’s also a fitting clash of acting styles, in Connery’s juicy straightforwardness against Hoffman’s catch-in-the-throat Methodizing.

But Lumet can’t conquer a central flatness. Family Business finally washes itself out, as bland as a suit and a tie.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1989

Tell you the truth, a suit and tie look pretty hotsy compared to this thing. The review is too generous. The movie is a stiff. It has some kind of writer’s strike vagueness to it, although I don’t know whether it was actually affected by such an event.