There are a lot of pauses in the dialogue in this film. Not just the dialogue, even the acting is peppered with considered pauses. It is by no means a narrative inefficiency though - it is a deliberate feature. “Still of the Night” is a slow burner with precisely measured performances from Meryl Streep and Roy Scheider. These pauses they take characterize their roles with fear and desire. This direction is perfect, for when the movie begins, we meet Scheider’s Sam and Streep’s Brooke at times of their lives that are riddled with insecurities. A recently divorced Sam finds out one of his psychiatric patients has been murdered, who happens to be Brooke’s lover (who naturally becomes a prime suspect).
Strange as it may, this tense movie had a calming effect on me, owing to its slower, deliberate narrative. Most modern potboilers or whodunits have a ratcheted up pace - a plot peppered with twists, quick cut edits, overdone stylization, the works. “Still of the Night” chooses to beat a different drum. In a very 80s sense, the movie is slow and focused, giving each scene its due time and weightage. It almost plays out like a horror film, where you see one of the actors descend slowly into a seductive stupor fueled by infatuation for the other - which could only end badly. Yes, it even employs some cheap thrills and jump scares, but they are few and far apart and accompany artistic strokes. The only thing missing from the movie is a jarring score reminiscent of “Eyes Wide Shut”.
Streep plays a stunning damsel in distress, tentative on the surface but with a determined air of vice and fatality that pops out vividly in the film’s careful voyeurism. Schneider’s Sam is effective as a helpless romantic, slowly getting sucked into the obvious charm and the subterranean melancholy of his predicament.
The best way to experience the delicate craft of this movie is through an auction scene that happens in the second half. Brooke is an art dealer at a gallery, in the midst of a heated auction, working aggressively with clients on the phone to place bids. The cops may be convinced that she is the culprit and are there to get her. Sam wants to alert her, help her escape, but is stuck in the auction on the last row - polite enough to not disrupt the show’s proceedings, scared enough to not expose himself to the cops, yet desperate enough to catch her attention. In this twist, he starts placing bids on an item he doesn’t even care about. The scene plays out long, slowly building up the tension. No extravagant disruptions here - just a tightly drawn long string of moments that keep us sweating at the brow. This is a mark of great screenwriting and film making, of artists being confident in their setup and delivery, and not resorting to post-production antics like flashy editing or a thunderous score.
Maybe that explains the movie’s relative lack of background score. The stillness in sound, in movement, and the anticipation of the blow around the corner - that irresistible wait, that is the real draw. As proclaimed in its title, this movie is all about stillness, and the horrors that lurk beyond it.
Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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