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Morning After, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Fine Character-Driven Mystery"
4 stars

A solid Christmas Day release back in the day that still holds up.

In the Sidney Lumet-directed murder mystery The Morning After Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges give such outstanding performances portraying such memorable characters they alone make the movie worth seeing. Fonda plays Alexander "Alex" Sternbergen, alcoholic washed-up actress who wakes up one morning after a booze-filled night next to a dead man with a knife still stuck in his chest; Alex is prone to blackouts, and for the life of her she can't remember who on earth this man is - that is, until she catches sight of him on the left-on TV, revealing him to be a photographer of controversial pictures of woman. Naturally she eschews the possibility of contacting the police directly knowing perfectly well she'll be the chief and only suspect; added to which, we find out she has something of a criminal history having attacked one of her former husbands with a knife - she didn't injure him, but she still has a yellow sheet on file with the Los Angeles authorities. Fearing fingerprints she gets cleaning supplies out and wipes down every conceivable surface in this downtown loft, and then leaves, flags down a cab, goes home, packs a suitcase and makes her way to the airport trying to get a plane to San Francisco. But it's Thanksgiving Day, so all the flights are booked, and, with her car being ticketed by the police, she encounters Bridges's Turner Kendall, who's busy getting his shoddy excuse of a car to start yet happy to give her a ride, but not before innocently asking, "This isn't a pick-up, is it?" Soon thereafter it's revealed that Turner is, ironically enough, an ex-cop from Bakersfield on disability - he was knifed by a teenager, cutting some ligaments in his arm ("Can't draw my weapon right...feels awkward," he confesses). From here the two become entangled trying to figure out a crime with no clear motive - all Alex can say in her defense is that from seeing this lech on TV she wouldn't have slept with him, but who knows what with Alex's shoddy recall. In the movie's best section, Turner drops Alex off at her apartment, goes to the grocery store, and returns with the stuff for a makeshift holiday meal, and a drunken Alex (she has numerous bottles of Thunderbird in her fridge) informs Turner she could have "been a contender" in Hollywood if not for her drinking ("I was supposed to be the next Vera Miles"). When these two interesting people just sit back and talk The Morning After is itself a contender, with screenwriter James Hicks's sharp dialogue a consistent pleasure to listen to, with the exchanges between the two ringing completely true. Turner used to investigate homicides, and Bridges instills in him such engaging good-naturedness that when he remarks "spade in a Caddy" referring to a black man and his car thought to be the cause of a fender-bender back at the airport (he also refers to Hispanics as "beaners") he doesn't really mean it in derogatory terms in that we sense this is just how he grew up talking, and perfectly complimenting him is the more-civilized Alex, who Turner deems with fascinated curiosity given her Tinseltown background.

Critics have ripped the movie for being weak on plot, and though it's far from dexterous I found it a rather nifty whodunit all things considered. There's a secondary character in Alex's ex-husband, the posh Beverly Hills hairdresser Jackie (Raul Julia), who's been romancing the socialite daughter of a powerful federal judge and defends Alex's innate decency to the police. Driving a red Jeep with a mobile phone, Jackie is quite the enigmatic figure, a hotshot in his profession in catering to the wealthy yet still an outcast in the eyes of his fiancee's stodgy parents due to either his profession or his race (an investigating officer refuses to believe he's "straight" and callously taunts him with this). Julia, who I thought pushed too hard in Kiss of the Spider Woman, is seductively relaxed this time around - we can't quite get a sure-fire reading on Jackie, never sure if he's playing some kind of angle. Is he genuinely concerned with Alex's well-being or using this as a subterfuge for an ulterior motive? This is Hicks's first script, and he's constructed it cleverly - he doesn't give too much away but not too less so as to cheat on the audience; he doesn't insult us by not playing fair. And then there's director Lumet, a veteran of gritty New York films by the likes of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and whose first L A -set production this is. Working with the invaluable cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak he succeeds in making the blinding blue-skies sunlight ominous - there's a stunning long shot of Alex outside a massive building trying to hail a cab accentuating her vulnerability. Lumet has been largely overrated in my opinion, but this is his most smoothly-engineered, fluid piece of work. He's visually expressive for once, and he stages a couple of heart-stopping moments (one involving a cat in a closed closet and the other a body in a shower) that have been engineered for maximum suspense. And his respectful work with actors has remained unchanged. Bridges was fit and trim the year before in Jagged Edge and haggard earlier in the year in 8 Million Ways to Die; here, he's brawny and imposing and chock-full of unbridled moxie in his desire to act. He matches up well with Fonda, who contributes her finest work since her Oscar-winning turn as the high-class prostitute in 1971's Klute. She's simply incapable of a false note and opens herself up to the camera with the utmost confidence in her abilities - Fonda never has to push things because her abilities as a thespian are seemingly bountiful. She's willing to make Alex both pathetic yet on-the-ball at the same time, and when Alex has to progress from being a victim to someone who has her stuff together, the transition is admirably seamless. She's nothing short of a powerhouse in The Morning After, and all the more so being that you never catch her reaching for effects while remaining incredibly vivid. She grounds the movie in gravitas, and you can't imagine her role possibly being bettered. This is an example of screen acting at its finest, with quite possibly the all-time greatest closing close-up of an actress ever.

Take a chance and seek this underrated effort out.

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originally posted: 09/13/20 09:32:33
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USA
  25-Dec-1986 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Sidney Lumet

Written by
  James Hicks

Cast
  Jane Fonda
  Jeff Bridges
  Raul Julia
  Diane Salinger
  Richard Foronjy



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