Middle of the Night (1959): Chayefsky Does May-December Romance

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Middle of The Night proves instantly placeable thanks to its black-and-white, New York streets aesthetic. Although the name Paddy Chayefsky, emblazoned over the credits, gives us as much of an inclination of the story we are about to experience.

Because to this day, his name carries with it a hallowed note of reverence and a few distinctives. Not only did he garner the unprecedented acclaim of The Academy, his films were also always centered on characters in their individual spaces and mundane lives. His prose propelled the script into a place of primacy and his words were a form of gospel to center the story around.

While he did time in the nascent days of television where the lines between stage, screen, and theater were relatively thin, he ultimately propelled himself into the movies by maintaining his personal ethos and letting his words speak for themselves.

You might term them kitchen sink dramas, but whatever the phrase, they tackle issues of life as they happen in unfiltered ways. Analogous examples might be Marty, A Catered Affair, even a non-Chayesfy piece like Love With The Proper Stranger.

These roles were delivered on the stage by stalwarts E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint, then another illustrious pair: Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands. In the film, they fall to Frederic March and Kim Novak. Who you like most might fall to personal preference.

Far from having ice in her veins, Novak is nervous and skittish in all circumstances. It almost takes some getting used to and yet when you do, she feels more relatable than any other point in her career. Because she’s given up her self-assured cool and husky tones for a voice of a far more timorous nature.

March is always a splendid performer — he has a likability and an innate honesty to his characterizations. In principle, the same can be said of his overall performance here, but the element getting in the way at times is his lapses into an ethnic patois. Authentic backstory or not, it doesn’t quite suit him nor does he need it. But then my feelings started to evolve.

Because I became aware he seems to change how he speaks depending on who he’s talking to. After all, it’s not too farfetched as I have friends who lapse back into shorthand and slang to accommodate certain friends or family from a certain cultural subset. Whether or not this holds true in Middle of The Night, it hints at the complicated patchwork of interpersonal relationships human beings are constantly grappling with.

Recently I watched another Kim Novak romance, Strangers When We Meet, and its strengths fall to its extravagant Technicolor and a certain Hollywood opulence augmenting the middle-class romantic drama burning between Novak and Kirk Douglas. It is a West Coast counterpart to Middle of The Night because they are poles apart, both thematically and in the environments they take time depicting.

Here our main tension builds out of a May-December romance between an aging widower (March) and his beautiful young secretary (Novak). But while it gives the pretense of a superficial affair on the page, the brilliance of Chayefsky’s script is how he’s able to tease out the warm and tentative love budding between two people.

Lee Grant and Martin Balsam’s screentime might only accumulate to a few scenes each. However, even on the outskirts of the drama like they are, they still manage to leave a lasting impact on the story. It’s a testament to the scripting and the veteran caliber of the performers.

One scene, in particular, feels like a masterclass in stringing conversations together through overlapping ideas, cut-off sentences, and the types of asides that dot real-life conversation. Jack (Balsam) is talking about getting a sitter so they can take a vacation before tax season hits him. His wife Marilyn (Grant) — Jerry’s daughter — is preoccupied with her father’s romances. They are mismatched and going off on their own separate tangents.

Jerry doesn’t want to end up like his contemporary, the ostentatious shell-of a man (Albert Dekker), who talks a big talk about his romantic exploits while feeling generally regretful of the life he’s led. Jerry’s far from envious, especially as his live-in sister constantly tries to subtly influence his love life in unwanted ways.

Despite their mutual affinity, the disparate couple has their share of reservations. Because for the here and now, they are happy; they need each other and they love each other. But they can’t help but consider the obvious barriers around them.

If I’m remembering the underlying themes of Marty, the same elements hold true here too: the imprint of family and related peer pressure shape our decisions and ultimately our happiness. Since the days of Romeo & Juliet oftentimes family influence only serves to make matters all the more confusing. If romance happened in a vacuum, it might be a lot more manageable.

Because Betty and Jerry get away together and have a grand ol’ time at a rambunctious New Year’s party where everyone and their wife seems to be their new best friend. The age gap feels inconsequential when you’re full up on bubbly and at the top of the world.

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Still, they must return home to reality and with their mutual feelings not quite sorted out. They tell themselves the only thing that matters is them, and yet that’s a fallacy because there are so many strings attached. It’s a reminder of how serious relationships make those involved come to terms with everything. Because every person brings with them a plethora of familial relationships they must navigate.

Mother raises hell yelling down the stairwell at her daughter’s suitor with all her nosy neighbors crammed in the hallway to get a good look at Betty’s Spencer Tracy. And that’s not the end of it. Everyone else is agitated and high-strung, compounded by their own problems, and it’s these prolonged scenes providing a platform for the talents of Grant and Balsam.

My heart really breaks for Novak when her scuzzy ex-husband stops by from the Vegas circuit to try and win her back along with the “half hours” she used to give him. But she’s tired of it. Tired of being desired or more exactly objectified in this manner. She deserves better.

With Jerry momentarily out of the picture, it gives us the time and space to realize the gravity of her individual predicament and the struggles of her own life. She desperately needs Jerry. Constantly clinging to him, wringing her hands, biting her thumb as signs of her constant uncertainty and distress. Because there has never been any type of stability in her life.

Meanwhile, he’s continually obsessed with her but also about how others perceive her — jealous of any younger man who might have eyes for her. His fits of temper become exacerbated over time as he’s overcome by chippiness on the turn of a dime. It’s inconsequential until it totally blinds him, almost crippling their relationship. You could call these neuroses or you could simply acknowledge them as traits of two frightened little people.

Later, they share a fateful exchange in the snow. It looks like what they have has finally imploded. Can it be salvaged? We can’t be sure. He says, “It’s a lousy kind of love.” She replies tearfully, “It’s the only kind I know.” It’s pitiful and real and honest. Sometimes I feel like Chayefsky is on a soapbox — in a movie like The Americanization of Emily — here he just seems human.

This sums it up, doesn’t it? None of us are perfect at love. We have our own hangups, issues, and idiosyncracies getting in the way of loving our spouses and the significant people in our lives well. Whatever the outcome of The Middle of The Night, surely we can agree it intersects with all of us on some primeval level. This is the brilliance of Chayesky at his best. Because the humble origins allow him to shine through.

3.5.5 Stars

Divorce American Style (1967): Debbie and Dick Get Divorced

Divorce American Style starts out as a symphony of marital nagging, and it looks to build off this cacophony to make some sense of the current state of affairs in 1960s America. While the title doesn’t capture the same milieu of its Italian counterpart, it fits for a plethora of other reasons. It’s satire in the American mode and Norman Lear, who would become renowned for his brand of socially conscious comedy, is hard at work. In order to go about it, he hones in on one couple in particular: Richard and Barbara Harmon.

Off the top, it’s an important distinction to make. Creatively, it seems like a stroke of genius to cast Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as this bickering couple slowly tearing apart at the seams. I say this purely from the likability factor. Their entire career trajectory thus far from sunshiny MGM musicals to crowd-pleasing family sitcoms all banks on their likability quotient.

Here is a picture that tests all of that built-up reservoir of goodwill and fuzzy feelings we have for them. If you only accept them as the picture of Cathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain or Rob Petrie in Dick Van Dyke, there’s a reason to vehemently oppose what Lear has done with them here.

While it’s not my favorite pastime to see two such actors put each other through such hell, some part of me understands why they wanted to take a stab at it. Because it’s not safe, and it challenges the status quo and how we accept them as performers. To their credit, in stretching themselves, it’s an attempt to get past one-note characterizations.

True to form, their first full scene starts with a fight. It’s postponed due to the party they are throwing only to reconvene after all the friends have shuffled out the front door. They can drop the veneer and all pretense is cast off again.

She bemoans the fact he’s critical of everything, and he just doesn’t understand her anymore. He’s frustrated that when they finally get some of the things they always dreamed about, his wife seemed to turn unhappy, and he can’t figure it out. It was another picture from 1967 that famously acknowledged a failure to communicate. This one gives it a whole new domestic context.

We see their bedtime rituals and there’s something almost mechanical to them because there’s no intimacy between them even in this highly intimate space as they open cupboards, plug in razors, and do their bits of business…without a word and still somehow in perfect cadence.

By day, Barbara continues seeing a psychologist and Richard begrudgingly gives it a try, although he’s uncomfortable sharing his feelings with a stranger; the way he was brought up it just isn’t done. If we wanted to add something else to their marital complications, it’s their kids. Normally, their two boys would be trapped in the middle, but there’s a pollyanna-like understanding about them. They are so easy-going and well-adjusted as their own parents continue to go down the tubes.

One call to a lawyer and all of a sudden it’s like the trip wires have been set off on both sides. There are trips to joint bank accounts and friends on both sides supply their two cents worth, not to mention their respective legal counsel. It’s not a new phenomenon, but we are reminded how these things can escalate; this is divorce taken to outrageous proportions.

They sit at a table in the law office as their lawyers casually settle their case, mixing in chit-chat about their latest golf games and shared business associates. Then, Richard is taken under the wing of Nelson (Jason Robards), a fellow divorcee, who gives him advice about alimony and how to survive. His life is fairly abysmal and pretty soon Richard is going down the same path moving into his new digs and trying to find romantic direction.

Meanwhile, Barbara tries to make her own way with an oft-married family man (Tom Bosley), getting to know all his children. It devolves into another madcap orchestration, reminiscent of the opening prelude. This time we have the notes of parents and step-parents, kids and step-kids all being assembled for a day out.

With the robust cast, it’s rather curious the film was not better known in its day because it gradually introduces other familiar faces including Joe Flynn, Lee Grant, Robards, Jean Simmons, and Van Johnson.

In the epochal year of 66-67, it does make sense Divorce American Style never received the same plaudits as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate or Two for the Road. If not altogether a sitcom episode, it’s the American counterpart to its more high profile continental brethren starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Again, there is the sense of the middle-class malaise where things and stuff and cars are in one sense inconsequential compared to the relationship. And yet they mean everything when it comes to comfort and status.

To the very last frame, there’s something subversive about seeing sweet Debbie Reynolds and lovable Dyke Van Dyke as divorcees with a marriage hitting the skids. But if this is true, there might also be a kind of catharsis for Reynolds when a hypnotist puts her under on a stage in front of a whole host of people. She’s been through so much and there she is throwing off the shackles of all our preconceived notions. She heads off stage and goes to give Van Dyke a big ol’ kiss, effectively rekindling their romance.

The film hasn’t aged particularly well, but then again, what better way for it to remain as a testament to the social mores of the times and the prevalent anxieties? It’s probably better for it. Because all the fracturing, recoupling, and suburbanization of society definitely created a new kind of landscape.

It’s all there in the later scenes as all the stars couple up uneasily. Van Dyke is with Simmons who was Robards’s former spouse. He’s trying to marry her off so the alimony doesn’t break his back. Then, Robards and Simmons try and set up Reynolds with Johnson — a genial used car salesman — because that makes Van Dyke even more unattached.

I tried to make this all needlessly convoluted but hopefully, the point has been made. Love is strange. Love is messy. Love is complicated. If that’s true of love American style, then it’s true of divorce even more so.

3/5 Stars