john cribbs

sidney lumet's THE MORNING AFTER

This is an experiment I've been mulling over for some time. It's dedicated to great directors. Great directors...who've transgressed. Disappointed. Befuddled. But not to the point of being written off entirely. In the course of long careers these filmmakers have made the occasional slip, and the intent behind this ongoing column will be to try and figure out what their motivation might have been in choosing projects that proved questionable, wrongheaded or outright embarrassing. The purpose of this experiment is not to deride, but to understand.


The subject: Sidney Lumet

The movie: The Morning After

Woah woah woah hold it a second there chief. We're kicking this off with Sidney Lumet? Come on – the man's so prolific you've got to allow him the inevitable handful of stinkers. What's the point in sullying the reputation of the man who made Network, Serpico and recently the excellent Before the Devil Knows You're Dead? Hasn't he earned the right to create a clunker here and there? Goddammit...this experiment is controversial already.

And is The Morning After really a dud? It was a financial success, won favor with top critics like Roger Ebert and The New York Times' Vincent Canby and scored Jane Fonda an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. If we gotta start with Lumet why not use as example of his less-lauded efforts the overcooked, universally-reviled political drama Power, made for the same company (Lorimar) and released the same year? Why not A Stranger Among Us, the notoriously bad film with Melanie Griffith going undercover in the Jewish community to bust a killer? Why not The Wiz?

I don't know – while obviously blights on Lumet's largely-loved oeuvre, at least the themes of those films fit within his overall body of work. Corruption and cynicism permeate throughout Power, and its failings are purely a result of the director striking the usual bars a little too hard this time. While undeniably preachy and winded it's driven by a typically strong Lumet ensemble (including NAACP Image Award winning Denzel Washington) and supplemented by dexterous knowledge of its subject. And honestly, I can understand why the director of The Pawnbroker and Bye Bye Braverman would be attracted to a Witness-esque thriller set in the Hasidic world that doubles as a policier a'la Serpico. Even Stranger's twin 90’s flop Guilty as Sin was a chance to get Lumet back into the courtroom, a stage which served him well in 12 Angry Men and The Verdict. The meal was lousy, but it wasn't cooked with the wrong ingredients.

As for The Wiz...well, we'll get back to The Wiz. Maybe after the media blitz over Michael Jackson's death simmers down a little (unlike my colleague Chris Funderburg, who heartlessly skewered Ryan O'Neal in his "Awful Performances" column the same week the poor talentless bastard lost his girlfriend, I thought I’d take it easy on MJ for the time being.)


But why would the director of such essential New York movies as Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City want to go out to LA to helm a tacky murder mystery/addiction drama that's ostensibly an acting vehicle for Fonda? For answers I relied heavily on Lumet’s dvd commentary – and I imagine very few of the auteurs I’m going to be scrutinizing in this project are going to have the benefit of one to serve in their defense.

In the movie, Fonda plays a washed-up boozy actress in a bad blonde wig who after a hard night of drinking and insulting a "greasy diesel dyke" wakes up in a strange studio apartment next to a strange man - something her casual attitude would suggest is not new to her. What does manage to get a reaction out of the jaded former starlet as she hunts for a bottle with a drop of liquor left in it is the knife sticking out of the strange man's chest. Now how'd that get there? If the premise seems kind of antiquated for an 80s movie it's because it was liberally borrowed from Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia in which Anne Baxter wakes up post-binge to find herself accused of murdering Raymond Burr's sleazy Harry Prebble. The similarities between the two movies end there but Lumet has already dug himself into a hole: he's set up a specific "whodunit" (or rather "dididunit") scenario within the first scene, and nothing but full concentration on this plot is going to keep the movie at the high level of intrigue it's set for itself. Lumet defiantly (if not exactly boldy) attempts to avoid this trap by almost immediately outsourcing the story to a romantic subplot involving Jeff Bridges' former cop who Fonda runs into as she's on the run.

Let's face it: straight-forward thrillers are not exactly Lumet's strong suit. Murder on the Orient Express gave his all-star cast an excuse to ham up the railways but couldn't transcend its confined set. Deathtrap, a weird Ira Levin Diabolique-parody, had the similar problem of never letting its audience out the front door of Michael Caine's house. On the commentary Lumet refers to Morning After repeatedly as a “melodrama,” however he goes on to categorize Orient Express and Deathtrap as melodramas as well so it’s possible he’s just referring to genre pictures in general. Although reputed for his successful theatrical adaptations, Lumet is much better when he shakes off stagy locations and gets off the soundstage out into the street. He must have realized this and compensates in this flick by sending Fonda all over LA, rarely returning to any one location (although an overlong sequence set in her home makes for an interminable stretch of self-pitying ennui for her miserable alcoholic.)

(continued on page 2 of Frustrating Filmographies #1: Sidney Lumet's The Morning After)

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