Sidney Lumet is one of the great American directors. Network, Long Day's Journey into Night, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon--just a few mentions of his amazing filmography illustrate his place in the directing pantheon. So what could he do with a screenplay from a one-and-done producer turned writer, set in a city 3000 miles from his normal New York City milieu?
Jane Fonda plays Alex Sternbergen, stage name Viveca Van Loren, who wakes up from an alcohol induced blackout to find she's in bed with a murdered man. It's interesting to revisit this premise because it's a familiar inciting incident. HBO's excellent The Night Of has young Nasir as its did-he-or-didn't he protagonist, and of course for the Corleone family Tommy Hagen gets the crooked congressman under his thumb with a frame for murder. However, just as Alex stumbles through the film in a chemically induced haze, so does the film lack clarity of purpose.
As a thriller, it never quite gets the tension to take hold until the final showdown. There are too few characters to make an effective whodunit. Alex's attempt to flee plays as farce. It provides the bare bones of a procedural, but there are too few dots to connect. I've seen it described as a neo-noir, and it does have a certain fatalist point of view, but perhaps the label might fit better if Jeff Bridges' washed up cop Turner Kendall were the lead and Alex the femme fatale.
But he is not. It's Alex's choices that lead the film from point A to point B, and it's in Fonda's performance that the Lumet magic appears. He films her in long, unbroken shots that serve as visual monologues. She goes from confusion to terror, hangover to humor all within the same scene. It's a brilliant partnership.
Lumet also comes to a compromise with LA as a setting. Lumet's best work is in his home town of New York, and he films LA as if using outsiders' impressions. Everything is lit to the extreme-the sunlight is impossibly bright, interior lights are harsh floodlights, and even Alex's bedroom is a glowing neon pink. At the top of the film Alex awakens to a stripe of bright light clawing its way in through the blinds. There is nowhere to hide in this LA, no shadows to duck into.
There are elements of Lumet's greater, earlier works inside The Morning After. Alex's addiction and broken psyche reflects Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey. The question of whether or not Alex's hispanic ex-husband Joaquin can get a fair trial is straight out of 12 Angry Men. Even the motive for the crime, the fear of compromising photos being leaked by a sleazy photographer caught in a media frenzy has a touch of Network about it. If the screenplay had leaned into any one of these ideas further, it might have strengthened the film as a whole.
It's not terribly unique to state that the joy of this film is in the performances. Jeff Bridges provides the only bit of softness in the harsh, jagged LA setting, and Raul Julia does a masterful job of playing both ends against the middle as Joaquin. It's a performance that gains depth once the murder is solved. Lumet was known for directing actors to award nominations and wins, and his influence is evident here. It's just too bad that there were so many missed opportunities in the writing.