What makes The Morning After worth watching is Jane Fonda's performance and Sidney Lumet's direction. What makes the movie irritating to watch is Alexandra Sternbergen (Fonda's character) and Sidney Lumet's direction.
Alex (Fonda) is an over-the-hill actress and a drunk, who wakes up one morning with no memory of how she wound up in bed with the stranger. The stranger is bloody and dead, with a knife sticking out of his chest. Alex runs, and winds up with an ex-cop, Turner Kendall (Jeff Bridges), who eventually thinks she's innocent. Also helping her is her husband, Jackie Manero (Raul Julia), a successful hair salon owner who serves the wealthy. Manero is competent, confidant and wants "in" after years of being an outsider. "Being a hairdresser is what he does," Alex says to Kendall, "not what he is." Jackie and Alex have been friends for years, but married in name only for ten of them. The Morning After tells us of Alex's panic, of the realization that a killer is setting her up, and of the violent but not too surprising climax.
Alex, as Viveca Van Loren, once had an acting career but it slipped away with booze and time. "I saw you on Channel 13 with Richard Egan," a friendly bartender tells her. "You sure were something, babe." Now she's a brittle lush who has blackouts, although resourceful in a selfish kind of way. She knows she had a chance at stardom and can't get over not making it. She has moments of realism.
"They were grooming me to be the next Vera Miles," Alex says. "I was going to replace someone the public didn't even know was missing." Now she's an aging, needy, defensive drunk.
The chemistry between Fonda and Bridges works well. Bridges plays Kendall as smart, open, drawn to Alex but cautious for his own reasons. He was a detective for 10 years in Bakersfield until he was stabbed by an under-age hooker. He resigned when he couldn't get his arm working well again. He's divorced with a daughter he sees occasionally. He's younger than Alex and probably just as worn around the edges as she. What do you do now, Alex asks, what keeps you busy?
"Oh, you know," he says, "nothin', daily life." He lives in a worn-out quonset hut and buys used books, often by the pound, which he plans to read some time.
During the day and a half after they meet, Alex and Kendall get close to each other, but cautiously. They also learn who has set up Alex and why. The mystery may not be much, but there is a nice twist at the end. Lumet keeps things moving and gives the movie a nice look at Los Angeles. I wish, though, that he had worked with the screenwriter for a tighter, more forceful plot. The movie doesn't sag, exactly, but it seems to get distracted at times, especially when dealing with Alex Sternbergen.
The Morning After is dependent on Jane Fonda's skills and appeal. She's a brave actress; Alex may be a thin, attractive woman, but she's also past any bloom of youth. With a hangover, smudged make-up and the wrinkles showing, Fonda isn't afraid to show the woman as she is. Fonda is such a strong actress, however, that after a bit I found myself losing some sympathy for Alex. Self-pitying drunks are hard to like. Fonda (or Lumet) doesn't leave room for much affection toward Alex until the end of the film. In fact, I found myself imagining Alex as being Bree Daniel 15 years after Klute. It made me warm up to her a little.