In the season of "Sophie's Choice" it's only natural that "Still of the Night," a vacuous psychological thriller from Robert Benton, should be stigmatized as The Wrong Meryl Streep Movie. Now at area theaters, it's a wrongie in several lamentable respects.
Benton seems to have fabricated the first slasher melodrama for chichi consumption. People who would never dream of sampling "Friday the 13th" or "Halloween" may acquire a sufficiently graphic notion of what that stuff is all about if they drift into "Still of the Night" unawares.
"Still of the Night" emerges as not only failed, synthetic Hitchcock but also failed, synthetic slasher and failed, synthetic love story. Its prevailing emotional tepidness is embodied by Roy Scheider as the protagonist, Dr. Sam Rice, a psychiatrist who becomes infatuated with jumpy, platinum-tressed Brooke Reynolds (Streep), an auction gallery employe, whom he suspects of having murdered one of his patients.
The most entertaining character in the story turns out to be this murder victim, George Bynum, a smugly insinuating lech who returns in flashbacks, smartly played by Josef Sommer (who also does the narration in "Sophie's Choice," incidentally), teasing Dr. Rice with accounts, which may or may not be trustworthy, of an affair-in-progress with the newly hired Miss Reynolds. While Rice recollects these fragments of privileged information from Bynum, he finds it necessary to be evasive with a none too aggressive homicide detective (Joe Grifasi). Rice also develops a fascination with Reynolds, who pays an office call urging him to help protect her from police suspicion, a move that naturally makes her look more suspicious.
In fact, the fundamental shortcoming of "Still of the Night" as a murder mystery is that it remains a one-suspect case that the director fails to finesse through artfully misleading devices. Unlike "Dressed to Kill," for example, in which Brian De Palma contrived to divert attention from the fact that there was never more than one plausible killer in view, "Still of the Night" never does obscure this limitation. If Brooke Reynolds is not the murderer we're led to believe she might (and even must) be, then Benton is obliged to drag the real culprit from the margins of the story rather too late in the plot.
There doesn't seem to be any erotic tension between the leading characters as written. While the costars present exceptionally flinty visages to the camera, they don't strike any romantic sparks on their own. The absence of a genuine cause for suspense or excitation presumably contributes to the excess of bogus scare effects. The red herrings seem to be swarming upstream during the set piece sequences devoted to throwing gratuitous scares into the audience -- Dr. Rice being stalked (or is he?) in the basement of his apartment and along the paths of Central Park after dark (where he foolishly tails a figure he believes to be Brooke, an episode that must cause hoots of disbelieving derision in New York City); George Bynum's "enigmatic" dream with its premonition of murder; and the climactic sequences calculated to bring the dream to life.
After lurking or slinking about enigmatically for most of the film, Streep is forced to hold the camera for an excruciating three or four minutes of belated, breathlessly self-explanatory monologue, a let's-clear-up-all-this-deliberate-misunderstanding-about-the-character speech so desperately synthetic that you can't help cringing for her.
Benton, who seems to misplace most of the astuteness he showed in both "The Late Show" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" with this fiasco, does a couple of variations on Hitchcock situations that might seem agreeably deft in a less stupefying context. For example, he contrives to merge two bits from "North By Northwest"--the bidding at a posh auction gallery and the passing of a note of warning from hero to heroine -- in a clever fashion. Also, the movie begins with a sight gag about the discovery of a corpse in a car that recalls Hitchcock's cherished, unrealized gag for the opening of a film -- he wanted to show a car being put together on a Detroit assembly line, climaxed by the discovery of a stiff in the front seat. Not that Benton can work in the assembly line, either, but he comes up with a workable variation.