LONELYHEARTS (Vincent J. Donehue, 1958)

It is remarkable how oppressively dark Vincent J. Donehue’s film of Nathanael West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, by way of Howard Teichmann’s 1957 stage adaptation, remains. Updated to the present, it spares the protagonist, an idealistic young advice-giving newspaper columnist, the death to which a trail of ironies pitilessly leads in the book; and, indeed, all other strands of plot resolve themselves hopefully or relatively hopefully—although a couple of them must be content to do so off-screen. Yet, somehow, West’s dark, embittered vision of Depression-era despair and desperation persists, prevails. The considerable darkness washes by and carries away the plethora of more or less “happy endings.”
     John Alton’s black-and-white cinematography, darker than in any film noir, contributes to this spirit as well as visual tenor. However, most determinate is the angst, the almost intolerable moral pain, that Montgomery Clift crams into his role of the man who calls himself Adam White, to indicate the blank slate he wishes to will himself into being, who already suffers the burden of having had his mother killed when he was three by his currently incarcerated father, and whose sensibility is further shredded by the pain disclosed in the letters he must respond to as “Miss Lonelyhearts.” His cynical editor, William Shrike, who “enjoy[s] seeing youth betray their promise,” has dared him to discover just what frauds these letter-writers are by contacting and meeting any one of them at random; Fay Doyle (Maureen Stapleton, in her film debut) does the trick, beseeching such tenderness that they have sex, cuckolding Fay’s impotent spouse, whose jealousy is his only claim to love. Shrike, meanwhile, has the same dim view of women—they are “tramps”—that Fay’s husband, Pat, has; once, Shrike’s wife, Florence, betrayed him—and, despite his own numerous marital infidelities before hers, he hasn’t forgiven her. Throughout the film, though, Adam influences Bill as much as Bill tries to influence Adam.
     Helping West’s expressionistic darkness to stay put despite plot-lightening is this: the exclusion of West’s (however mordant) wit.
     Good, enjoyable film, this, with one inept performance: Dolores Hart’s as Justy, Adam’s much-deceived self-righteous, hysterical girlfriend. Hart would find her true calling in a nunnery.
     Robert Ryan and Myrna Loy are fine as the Shrikes. Dore Schary wrote and produced. One upshot of the update: much talk about the nuclear end to which the world may be headed.

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