I cringed slightly upon spotting a quote hailing “The Night Listener” as a “Hitchcockian” film. Usually when someone says this, it means that there are shadows and a certain degree of suspense. That term has become a film critic’s cliché. However, while I would compare this film more to M. Night Shyamalan than the great Alfred Hitchcock, the reviewer has a point. There are lots of scenes involving stairs that call “Suspicion” and “Vertigo” to mind, along with the chilly cinematography and score. But, as Robin Williams said in an interview, the film “plays with your perceptions” as Hitchcock’s films did.
Robin Williams stars as Gabriel Noone, a host of a nightly radio show of short fiction. As he begins reading a story, it becomes a voiceover for the rest of the movie. An editor friend of Gabriel’s has passed along a manuscript to him. It is the memoirs of a terminally ill 14-year-old boy, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin). Pete is a victim of horrifying sexual abuse and has been adopted by a social worker, Donna (Toni Colette), who encouraged him to write as means for catharsis. Gabriel is sucked into the book and so moved that he decides to contact Pete. The two begin a telephone friendship, which soon includes Donna as well.
In the midst of all of this, Gabriel has been dumped by his live-in boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale). In the process of moving out, Gabriel plays him some voicemails left by the Logands and Jess makes a startling observation. Pete and Donna’s voices sound very similar – so similar they may be coming from one person. Gabriel at first denies it, but soon realizes that Jess has a point. And so begins an obsessive cat-and-mouse quest to find the truth.
The film is based on co-screenwriter Armistead Maupin’s best seller. The book itself is taken from real events in Maupin’s life, and the audience is treated to a simple, creepy story. I don’t mean “simple” in that there are no layers or deeper themes – it is an intelligent film. There are a few unanswered questions at the end, but one is still left with a safe degree of closure. The film is also barely 90 minutes, so it feels like a satisfying short story (much like the ones Gabriel reads on the air).
All of the main characters in “The Night Listener” are vulnerable and lonely. Gabriel makes a living telling stories by himself in a studio late at night. The one person who was close to him, Jess, has left him. He has one friend, (Sandra Oh), but is even disconnected from her. Pete has led such a harrowing life; there is no question as to where his feelings of isolation come from. Donna is a single mom in a small town. They all have their handicaps, physical and emotional. And so the three of them find each other, and for a while they don’t feel so alone. This is what is so upsetting to Gabriel – if Pete and Donna aren’t real, then he really is alone.
I would advise you to check the film out. This is not a slasher flick, but it will keep you entertained. There are only two special feature selections on the disc, a brief documentary about the making of the film and a deleted scene. They’re quick, fun little add-ons to the movie, but if you skip them you aren’t missing much. So grab a bowl of popcorn, turn off the lights, and put in “The Night Listener.”
And on the classic film front, my top four favorite Hitchcock movies:
1) “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) – In his second version of this film, Hitchcock directs Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as Ben and Jo McKenna, parents vacationing in Morocco with their son, Hank. They meet a mysterious man named Louis Bernard, who is later murdered in front of them in the local marketplace. Before he dies, he whispers details of an assassination plot to Ben. The assassins kidnap Hank in order to keep the McKenna family silent, but Ben and Jo decide to take matters into their own hands. Great performances (Doris Day sheds the cutesy good girl image and shows some real acting chops) and incredible suspense. The scene at the Royal Albert Hall is not to be missed.
2) “North By Northwest” – One of his absolute masterpieces. Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising man who is mistaken for a secret government agent. He finds himself caught in a whirlwind of misadventures and is pursued across the country by spies, the government and a blonde (Eva Marie Saint). Grant is at his most dashing. There is plenty of comedy to mix in with the plot twists.
3) “Psycho” – The Hitchcock film that everybody knows. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) runs the Bates Hotel with his mother. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) disappears, her boyfriend (John Gavin) and sister (Vera Miles) hire a private detective (Martin Balsam) to find her. When he disappears, the two come down to investigate for themselves. Treat yourself to great cinematography, a brilliant score, and the infamous shower scene.
4) “Vertigo” – Some hail this as Hitchcock’s best. Jimmy Stewart appears in one of the darkest roles of his career. He plays Scottie Ferguson, a retired policeman, haunted by the death of his partner and battling a serious case of vertigo. He is hired by an old friend to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). The friend fears she has become possessed by a dead woman, and Scottie is determined to find out. He ends up falling in love and becoming obsessed with her, leading to tragic results. San Francisco is so much a part of the movie it’s like another character.
Also on DVD this week: “The Illusionist” (Edward Norton, Jessica Biel); “Crank” (Jason Statham, Amy Start); “Idiocracy” (Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph); and “Barnyard” (voices of Kevin James & Sam Elliott).