Montgomery Clift Learns About Life From Mean Boss Robert Ryan
DIRECTED BY: VINCENT DONEHUE/1958
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 25, 2022/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
We know from the first moments that this is not the usual, carefully-curated Kino Lorber outing. Perhaps one snapped up for cheap and dropped unceremoniously on a stack of discs for, say, the Monty Clift completists, or maybe the few who meant to order Lonely Are the Brave one line up. The print is fair but bedraggled despite the new upgrade; the sound requires some up-voluming; there is no commentary, no interviews, no docs; nothing but a raft of trailers for other Clift joints found in an outpost extra off an otherwise forgotten title. None of this is intended as insult to the prolific company but to commend it for what might be the perfect packaging for this particular film – the kind of movie that its stars may have even known was sidebar work while the big scripts came into order. But from inside the quiet workings of the individual performances and scenes emerges a real testament to transcending aloneness, especially the kind you can only find in a relationship.
The heart of Lonelyhearts is the unmistakable fragility of Montgomery Clift, as Adam, loping stiff-backed and uncertain into a bar and toward the prim beauty of Florence, played by Myrna Loy, here having pushed past her lean wryness – that coy, knowing sleuthess that was game counterpoint to countless William Powell barbs – and is settled into her place as unflappable goddess-mother to frayed souls like Clift. Call him the latest thin man on her matronly journey. Clift wants a job writing for the paper Myrna/Florence’s husband runs, and she’s arranged a meet-up in scene one. But her husband is William Shrike, Robert Ryan in sardonic intellect mode. Tall, weather-worn, greedy for the one-up, high on his own big-throated wit, heavy with squinty condescension, and ever ready to squash you down to nothing with a dismissive pop eval. He’s William Powell curdled – smart and open, but not likable. In fact, instantly detestable. But he has all the power, so Adam squirms. Shrike gives him the job almost to spite the lust he assumes Florence must have for the younger man – she cheated on him a decade prior, but only in response to his wanton infidelity. Adam the innocent has walked into the already-spinning blades of a marriage in free fall.
Shrike’s offer to Adam predictably curdles, too, when the job he gives him is writing the paper’s new Miss Lonelyhearts column. It’s Shrike’s way of digging even deeper at his wife’s trust in new, heartfelt talent, but almost to spite the spite, Adam falls into the job. At first laughing at the sad struggles that would lead someone to find wisdom in a newspaper column, he soon senses – then begins responding in earnest to – the quiet underbelly of pain and anguish among the city’s unmarried, weeping, mangled, and forgotten. It nearly breaks him, but Shrike, sensing the younger man is edging closer to the cynicism Shrike feasts on, forces him to persist. Shrike sets himself up as the learned elder educating the boy in the ways of the world, but he instead finds, by the end, a stalwart savior, someone ready to lay down his own life (he’s at the point of a gun in a climactic scene) to ensure the redemption of another lost soul.
It’s the perfect role for Clift, here still visibly recovering from his infamous real-life car accident. That stiff approach to Loy in the beginning is less character choice as it is new, unwanted personal baggage. The accident, and the painful recovery, also allowed for a further spiral into his renowned alcoholism. Hard to know if it’s the film’s simple adherence to the original text (it’s based on a play that was based on a book) or an ironic glance at Clift’s recent history, but Adam and Florence’s first conversation reveals he’s a teetotaler, abstains from cigarettes, and, in a line that seems beholden to the already-flagging Hays Code, is just shy of admitting his virginity. He’s the high-pedestaled saint set up as a perfect bullseye for Shrike’s leering lust for the destruction of saints. The fun of the movie is watching the villain twist his way around his naive mark, but the punch of the movie is watching the hero evade it all, with only glancing awareness of the dangers underfoot.
Less winning, it’s the kind of movie, very play-like, where all the problems are so pronounced as to be unreal. You begin to relate to these characters only like the ones you’ve seen in other plays or movies, not as real people, with the paradox being that once you’ve detached yourself from the reality of the situations, you begin to watch the acting, and the acting inside of those situations, from these high caliber performers, is like watching cardboard constructs coming to life. The rather rote dramatic machinations are all there – the infidelity inside the corrupted marriage at the center of the story is reflected in the revelation that Adam’s father is in prison (Adam’s been telling everyone he’s an orphan) for shooting his cheating wife and her lover to death – but the actual scene of Adam talking to his dad at prison visitation is moving for the depth the two actors reveal in their awkwardly rote liturgy of guilt. And the movie is full of such too-easy parallels and reversals, the kind made exemplary in screenwriting courses but are a dime a dozen in actual practice. Yet all is made dimensional here in the earnest telling. Lonelyhearts is, in the end, like the date your friend has to dare you to take, that you then find out is someone much deeper and richer than you imagined.