09 February 2010

Lonelyhearts (1958)

Lonelyhearts Heavy and Monty-riffic
By Kristin Battestella

Lonelyhearts [VHS]I’ve been making a point to upgrade my Montgomery Clift VHS collection to DVD, but alas, some of his movies-like 1958’s Lonelyhearts- are not available on DVD, much less blu-ray. For shame!

Adam White (Clift) is an idealistic young journalist looking for his big break at The Chronicle. Adam’s boss, a cynical and sour husband William Shrike (Robert Ryan) contests his protégé’s hopeful outlook by giving him the ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ column. Citizens write to Adam with their troubles-everything from the lovelorn to the ill, injured, or worse. Instead of laughing the letters off or answering with popular, witty advice, Adam grows very conflicted about the column and the people needing his help. Shrike’s unhappy wife Florence (Myrna Loy) hates to see the growing change in Adam, as does his waiting girlfriend Justy (Dolores Hart). When Adam decides to contact one of his letter writers, Fay Doyle (Maureen Stapleton), complications arise that could destroy the already distraught and emotionally fragile Adam.

Today, Lonelyhearts would probably be played as a romantic comedy or witty insight into relationships and love. Television director Vincent J. Donehue’s (Peter Pan) approach, however, is a little melancholy to say the least. The examination of adultery, sin, idealism and cynicism is somewhat heavy-handed, but also a little too close to home. We don’t like facing the loss of love, innocence, loyalty, and honor. Modern audiences will either love Lonelyhearts’ well-played drama and realism or just hate the melodrama and dismiss it as depressing drivel. The fifties stylings may also hamper this brooding flick. The action here is largely played like the stage-understandably as Lonelyhearts is based on the Broadway adaptation of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West. The women are very dated to the time as well. Even though the film examines the troubles of the displeased housewife, these women are meant to be content waiting for their husbands, and Justy is very happy when she’s promoted from ‘file clerk’ to ‘secretary’!

I’m getting the hang-ups out of the way because once you accept Lonelyhearts as the disillusionment that it is, you can see that it’s not a bad movie. The pacing and editing is a little uneven, and the lesser characters aren’t given much room to shine, but Montgomery Clift once again puts his tormented heart and soul into what seems like his perfect part. Though tough living and a deforming car accident hampered what could have been of Montgomery Clift and his filmmaking, he’s still pretty and dang talented enough to carry Lonelyhearts. His Adam is charming, loveable, an everyman trying to make his way in the industry. Unfortunately, we slowly see-just like Adam- that he can’t fight the system without destroying himself. Knowing what we know of the ‘mincemeated’ Monty, Lonelyhearts takes on a new examination of shattered dreams and conflicts. Where does the drunken and depressed Adam begin and the injured and pained Monty end? You never get the feeling Clift is merely playing himself-oh no. Where another actor of the day could bubble over and ham it up for such a role, Monty’s methodical talent wins out with one hundred percent believability.

I’m sure there were budgetary concerns, but I dare say Lonelyhearts is a black and white picture due to the inability to film graceful up close shots due to Clift’s facial damage. Some of his finest films-exceptional films in their own right, really, like From Here to Eternity and A Place in the Sun and Red River- are all black and white. Yes, we have to consider the accident, but even so, Monty doesn’t seem to belong in color pictures-he only made three anyway. Though tragic, he seems the last of the fifties old school gents before James Dean and Marlon Brando took his method style towards youth and the rebellious sixties. Montgomery Clift has been alluded to in songs and pop culture, but he’s still a little unloved by the movie laymen in comparison to later method actors. Audiences and viewers I implore you, rectify this error immediately!

Well, now that I’ve taken care of the Clift showcase, let’s talk about the rest of Lonelyhearts’ ensemble. Some of the newspaper office and boozing, bar hopping clientele are fairly stereotypical of 1950s dames and wise talkers, but it is kind of neat to see this time capsule of clickety clicking typewriters and cigarettes and stoles again. Robert Ryan (The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch) is a little too fast talking for modern young audiences who may not understand all the old school colloquialisms, but there’s a lot of truth in his cynicism. Cruel boss Shrike belittles everything from his wife to religion-but he sure can name all Ten Commandments, can’t he? Is he tough on Adam out of his own sorry outlook on life, or is he looking out for the unlearned youth in his own harsh but endearing way? Ryan’s antagonism fuels the onscreen spirals and train wrecks wonderfully.

Unfortunately, the lovely Myrna Loy (Best Years of Our Lives, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Thin Man) doesn’t have as much to do at the trapped Mrs. Shrike. Whatever complexity she could add is cut off by too little screen time. Likewise, Dolores Hart (King Creole) is a little mismatched as Montgomery Clift’s love interest. He seems older due to his injuries, but it’s also tough to discern Justy’s age as well-why is she always wearing drab housecoats and pinafores? She’s little more than a loving secretary who’s set her life aside to wait on her father and brothers and men in general it seems. Maureen Stapleton (Reds, Airport, Bye Bye Birdie) received a Supporting Actress nomination for her ambiguous Fay, but again, there’s only two or three critical scenes for her-not really enough to get to the meat of her desperate wifeness.

It’s a little too fifties and maybe Monty isn’t as pretty as he once was, but Lonelyhearts still packs a powerful punch in its examination of love and adultery. Folks looking for sex and abusive angst won’t find all that visually desensitizing glory here-but this is also one that probably can’t be appreciated or understood by the kiddies. Classic film fans can enjoy the old school filming style and the pushing the taboo envelope of what’s a relatively tame discussion today. Fans of Montgomery Clift certainly know and love his more famous pictures, but Lonelyhearts is not mere filler in a fine career that was cut all too short. Not only do we only have seventeen Clift movies to treasure, but again, this is another VHS to hang onto! Look for this one on television and pop in the blank tape or set up your DVRs. Study, pout, and watch Lonelyhearts whenever possible.


phcube said...

I agree with you about Monty. I've never understood how he didn't win an Oscar. If you look at his work you can see how damned talented he was AND how he stands miles high above popular actors of the era, whose performances now look stilted/dated/unconvincing. Monty was and still is an excellent actor. I hope you've found peace sweet man.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Ph! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Yes, poor misunderstood and underrated and unloved Monty! Though he didn't make a lot of movies, all are still watchable and he stands out in every one.

I have to write more on him soon!