Psychiatrist Doctor Sam Rice (Roy Scheider) has had a bad time of it lately, what with his wife divorcing him and a patient, George Bynum (Josef Sommer), found stabbed to death in his car the other night. Nevertheless, despite these setbacks he is resolved not to let his other patients down, and when a woman, Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep), enters his office with a watch owned by Bynum she wishes Rice to return to the dead man's wife, he is doubly intrigued. This woman seems like she knows something about the killing, but also that she might be a promising study for his care, and the more he thinks about how haunted she seems the further he feels an attraction...
Once Alfred Hitchcock had died in 1980, the floodgates of imitators opened and we still have filmmakers attempting to emulate his style to this day. Such was his variety of work that there was plenty to pick up on as an homage, or you could do what Robert Benton (and co-scripter David Newman) did with this, and pack as many references to the great director's classics as you could into ninety minutes. It was sort of like Mel Brooks' High Anxiety had it been played completely seriously, and there was a very good reason why Brooks turned his tribute into a comedy: as you could see here, leaving out Hitch's sense of humour could fatally undermine the entire tone of the piece.
Therefore, there was not one laugh in Still of the Night, in fact it was so humourless that it came across as constipated and airless, no matter the intricacies the screenplay had placed in the storyline, which was more or less a "Did she or didn't she?" murder mystery. If you wanted to check off the instances of a Hitchcock thriller being nodded to - a spot of Spellbound here, a dash of Marnie there, ooh, is that a menacing bird? - then there was a degree of diversion inherent in that, but you didn't go to see movies to mark the connections to other movies, you wanted something that was its own entity rather than what amounted to the director's list of personal favourites.
That story had Scheider's shrink try to work out if Streep's auction assistant was capable of murder, a poser you may well lose interest in well before the end considering she was so blatantly set up as a red herring that it was merely a matter of divining who else could be the murderer. The answer to that was admittedly well-hidden, yet that was only because everyone was so two-dimensionally developed, even, it had to be said, the two leads who crept through countless darkened rooms purely in the service of the mystery and not because they were believable as living, breathing characters. With this much care going into juggling the various aspects of what turned out to be fairly arbitrary as a conundrum, Benton neglected to serve up the amusement aspect of a thriller: this was sober stuff.
If you wanted it to take off and get really exciting, you would be disappointed that the anticipated thrills only really occurred come the last five minutes, and as the previous eighty-five had dragged their feet sluggishly, it wasn't enough. Scheider was OK within the limits of what he was given as the doc, though you never quite believed he would have been as unprofessional to get up to his neck in this mess, but Streep was stuck with a role that required her to be enigmatic and nothing else: you could well understand that those who found her robotic in her approach would probably have this film in mind as exhibit one (and she was not a fan of the end result either, to her credit). There was a dream sequence thrown in, with the same effect as the rest of this, treading water until the big reveal and bringing the phrase "Get on with it!" to the forefront of the thoughts. For a film supposedly resting so much on the labyrinth of the human mind, it didn't have the courage of its convictions when you boiled it down. Music by John Kander.