The most frustrating thing about Lonelyhearts is Donehue’s direction. While not a television production, Donehue directs it like one. He’ll have these shots of star Montgomery Clift baring his soul to girlfriend Dolores Hart and Donehue will stick with Clift, no reaction shot on Hart much less letting her hear the whole thing. Of course, less reaction shots in Lonelyhearts isn’t a bad thing. Donehue shoots them terribly. The first scene has one, while Clift is sitting in a booth with Myrna Loy and Robert Ryan and cuts from the three shot to a medium shot of Clift in his seat… obviously alone at the table. Coverage isn’t Donehue’s strong suit. Nothing is Donehue’s strong suit.
Lonelyhearts is based on a novel and a play, but producer and writer Dore Schary’s screenplay seems to favor the play. Unless the Robert Ryan character spoke in incessant monologue in the novel too. Not to complain about Ryan, who kind of gives the film’s best performance as a cruel newspaper editor who enjoys torturing his discontented staff almost as much as he likes torturing suffering wife Loy. She cheated on him once ten years ago, as a response to his multiple affairs, and has been waiting for him to forgive her since.
Yeah, Lonelyhearts has a lot of misogyny issues, even when it tries not to have them. While Ryan’s not a good guy because his cruelty, Loy’s only sympathetic because so she’s so contrite (and has been for so long).
Ryan gives the best performance throughout–he’s incredibly believable in his cynicism and loathing and self-loathing–and occasionally steals scenes from Clift. Only Ryan and Clift are guaranteed close-ups. They’re not the two top-billed for nothing. But once Clift’s story gets going and he starts collapsing in on himself, once he gets to make that self-loathing Ryan wants to engender in him physical, Clift’s got some great scenes. But he’s also got a somewhat crappy part.
Clift’s a young man with gumption (clearly not playing his thirty-eight years) who gets stuck writing the advice column because Ryan thinks he’s an idealist and Ryan likes breaking idealists. Clift’s also attractive and nice to Loy, so it gives Ryan a chance to be cruel to her about something else. Hart–Clift’s girlfriend and de facto fiancée–is twenty. Clift looks too old for her as the movie starts and he always looks older than her, but once he starts getting broken down, it’s like it takes the years off him.
The first half of the movie is everyone telling Clift he cares too much about the people writing to the advice column. It’s most effective when it’s Hart telling him he’s too empathetic because it just seems like Clift’s life is lose-lose. Then we find out he’s an orphan, then we find out he’s not really an orphan, his dad (Onslow Stevens) is just in jail for killing his mom for she cheating on him. The scene with Clift and Stevens facing off ought to be a lot better. It’s poorly directed and paced, but at that moment Clift looks way too old for the scene, even though Stevens actually is old enough to be his father.
Lonelyhearts has some terribly bland lighting from John Alton. It’s visually tedious, with these occasional moments when–somehow–Donehue manages to hold the shot on Clift or Ryan and get something good. Then it’ll cut away and Alton won’t match the lighting. But still, the actors are there to work. So it’s really unfortunate Loy gets squat and poorly directed squat at that. And it’s even more unfortunate Hart gets the “faithful girlfriend” role, only for Donehue to avoid her during her character development scenes, and her most frequent costars–Frank Overton (two years Clift’s senior) as her dad, Don and Johnny Washbrook as her brothers–give shockingly inept performances. Particularly bad writing for them as well. Schary’s not comfortable with silences, but he also doesn’t write background chatter well.
And the film’s use of sound effects to suggest they’re not shooting on a sound stage or an empty bar set? Inept. If Lonelyhearts were a television production upgraded to feature, it’d have some excuses. But as a feature made with television production standards? It’s got none.
The real drama in the film involves Maureen Stapleton and Frnak Maxwell. She writes to the column, devastated about the state of her marriage to handicapped Maxwell. Clift feels sympathy for her. Ryan says she’s a tramp wife on the make and demands he meet her in person. Things get complicated.
All Lonelyhearts needs is better direction. The script, albeit problematic, is more than passable–it doesn’t seem likely a film of its era would be able to get rid of the undercurrent of passive misogyny, given the subject matter–maybe some awareness of it would be nice. Though Hart getting a reasonable character arc and Clift or Ryan showing some real self-awareness instead of just implied future self-awareness would do a lot too. But Donehue’s direction sinks it.
The film starts low and claws its way up through its stagy production, poor technical efforts, wonky screenplay, all thanks to the cast. Ryan’s outstanding, Clift’s is occasionally but usually excellent. Both Stapleton and Maxwell have great moments; it’s unfortunate higher billed Hart and Loy don’t get the same courtesy.
A real musical score might’ve helped too. Conrad Salinger’s credited with one but it’s beyond sparse.
For having so many problems, Lonelyhearts is a kind of achievement. Acting-wise, anyway.
Directed by Vincent J. Donehue; screenplay by Dore Schary, based on a play by Howard Teichmann and a novel by Nathanael West; director of photography, John Alton; edited by John Faure and Aaron Stell; music by Conrad Salinger; produced by Schary; released by United Artists.
Starring Montgomery Clift (Adam White), Robert Ryan (William Shrike), Myrna Loy (Florence Shrike), Dolores Hart (Justy Sargeant), Maureen Stapleton (Fay Doyle), Frank Maxwell (Pat Doyle), Frank Overton (Mr. Sargeant), Jackie Coogan (Ned Gates), Mike Kellin (Frank Goldsmith), and Onslow Stevens (Mr. Lassiter).
THIS POST IS PART OF FROM THE STARS TO A STAR: CELEBRATING DOLORES HART HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.