One of my readers recently recommended the Montgomery Clift film Lonelyhearts. I was unfamiliar with it, so I settled in one rainy night last week with some take-out Chinese and took a look.
Dore Schary took over as head of MGM in 1951, after the legendary Louis B. Mayer resigned in protest over the direction the company was heading. Mayer believed that films should be wholesome entertainment, while Schary was interested in darker pictures with a message.
Schary’s own run as head of MGM was much shorter than Mayer’s, and when his films started losing money hand over fist he was pushed out in 1956. Though he found most of his post-MGM success writing and producing on Broadway, he wasn’t quite done with Hollywood yet.
He made very few films after MGM, but Lonelyhearts (1958) was his first independent venture.
Clift stars as Adam White, a young man who wants to write for the local newspaper. He hangs out in a known newspaper man bar, hoping to meet William Shrike, the Chronicle’s editor in chief. Instead he meets the editor’s wife, Florence, played by a lovely-looking 53 year old Myrna Loy.
William Shrike (Robert Ryan) is a bitter bastard of epic proportions, still seething with anger over an affair his wife had a decade ago. We get several all-too-short glimpses of their icy home life—Florence continuing to beg and wait for his forgiveness ten years on, and William taking every opportunity to punish and berate her. Loy does some fine acting with a small part, and if I have one quibble with the film, it’s that I’d have liked to have explored their marriage (and her past indiscretion) more deeply.
But this is Clift’s film, and his Adam White does get a job at the newspaper, though he is stunned—and appalled—when Shrike assigns him to the advice column. He is to act as Miss Lonelyhearts, and respond with advice to the public’s tales of heartbreak and woe.
Shrike gives him the assignment to punish him—he doesn’t like that his wife introduced them, and he despises Adam’s youth and idealism. It’s clear that Shrike wants to break the young man’s spirit for sport.
Adam does his best with the letters, but he’s the kind of guy who can’t push away the horrors of the world with cold detachment. Most of the letters are about broken hearts, and some are from the truly desperate. People who are blind, disabled, and so terribly lonely that they pour out their problems to a stranger at a newspaper.
Adam falls into despair—instead of taking an hour to furnish a response, he begins spending eight hours staring at his typewriter and working deep into the night.
He doesn’t know how to help them, and he can’t forget them.
This inside view to what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” is destroying Adam’s soul.
William Shrike relishes watching his unwilling protégé self-destruct. He encourages Adam to meet one of the letter writers in person, and Adam ends up meeting a woman starved for love since her husband came back from the war with an injury that prevents physical intimacy.
I won’t spoil how their encounter unfolds, or how Adam ultimately makes peace—or doesn’t—with the ills of the world.
It’s a “message” film, surely, but it’s a ride worth taking. It’s well-acted, well-paced, thought-provoking while still having an entertaining plot to carry it through.
Clift is perfect in this role, as it’s the kind of character he plays best—searching, unsure, painfully conflicted. A little whiny, if we’re being honest. Tortured. Adam wasn’t a happy-go-lucky guy, even before the newspaper job, and the film reveals the reason for his morosity.
Robert Ryan too deserves credit for his work as Shrike—there are few fictional characters I’ve ever wanted to slap across the face, but Shrike qualifies. I would’ve loved to see Loy as his wife do it for me.
Good story, good acting, and a satisfying ending.
A hidden gem for sure.