Lonelyhearts (Kino Lorber, NR)

Basing movies on popular pre-existing material is a game almost as old as the movies themselves. Sometimes the result is brilliant, if the movie uses the particular capabilities of cinema to provide a new and original take on material worth the trouble (I’d put the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol in this category). Sometimes you get a close adaptation of a current stage hit, giving a wide swath of the population (and later generations) a chance to see the original cast in something resembling the live production (The Bad Seed is a case in point; it’s of interest today not because it was a great movie, but for the way it serves as a time capsule capturing some of the assumptions and interests of Americans in 1956). 

Then there’s a more unfortunate category—films that are produced to capitalize on public interest in a piece of literature, but which miss the point of the original work and add nothing of comparable value in its place. Vincent J. Donehue’s 1958 flm Lonelyhearts, based on a 1957 Broadway play which was in turn based on Nathanael West’s 1933 novel, is that kind of adaptation. I know nothing of the Broadway adaptation, but I do know West’s novel, which is a marvel of scathing prose expressing a blackly comic view of humanity. None of West’s mastery is present in this film, which turns the material into a sentimental, toothless, and oddly optimistic film worth seeing only for its actors and cinematography.

Adam White (Montgomery Clift, not entirely convincing as he was 38 at the time, and much the worse for the wear following a serious automobile accident) is an earnest young man trying to break into the newspaper business while carrying on a chaste courtship with his girlfriend Justy Sargeant (Dolores Hart). He gets a break when he makes a good impression on Florence Shrike (a barely recognizable Myrna Loy), whose husband William (Robert Ryan) owns the local newspaper. Mr. Shrike, who is just as vicious as his surname implies, offers Adam a job that’s meant to be an insult—writing the “lonelyhearts” column, where readers write in to ask for solutions to their troubles.

Adam gives it the old college try, although he’s deeply disturbed by the tales of human misery crossing his desk. Most notable is the case of Fay Doyle (Maureen Stapleton in her film debut), who meets Adam in person and implores him to do what her husband, crippled and impotent due to his military service, can’t. Her problem is played for straight-up melodrama, which seems hopelessly dated today but apparently registered with Oscar voters at the time, since it won Stapleton a nomination for Best Supporting Actress (she lost out to Wendy Hiller in Separate Tables). Her performance is a good example of the actors making this film worth seeing: the material she has to work with is not the best, yet she managed to make it meaningful to a contemporary audience.

Another reason to give Lonelyhearts a look is the cinematography of John Alton, who made his name shooting films noir, then won an Oscar for his color work on An American in Paris in 1951. Lonelyhearts doesn’t offer him a chance to be as creative as he was in films like T-Men (1947) or He Walked by Night (1948) but he does a superbly professional job with a less than optimal property. | Sarah Boslaugh

Lonelyhearts is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, from a new HD Master by MGM. The only extra on the disc is the trailer.

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