The Incoherence of ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar’ Only Makes It More Compelling


The eminent film critic Robin Wood once classified Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) — about a single woman whose virtuous profession (she’s a beloved instructor of deaf first-graders) seems wholly incompatible with her nightly habit of picking up men in bars — as an “incoherent text,” an illustration of “works that do not know what they want to say.”

Wood’s label, though, isn’t meant to be entirely censorious: What makes the film — which Richard Brooks directed and scripted, adapting Judith Rossner’s bestselling 1975 novel of the same name — so fascinating and repellent at once is precisely the confusion and anxiety it articulates about women’s sexual freedom.

Rossner’s book was based on the real-life Roseann Quinn, a 28-year-old Upper West Side–dwelling schoolteacher stabbed to death in her own bed by a man she had met and brought home that night; Quinn’s surrogate, Theresa Dunn, is played by Diane Keaton, who seems not to have fully shed the quirks and tics she deployed in Annie Hall, released six months earlier. The city that Theresa inhabits is unplaceable: She rides what is clearly Chicago’s L but wanders along boulevards teeming with pleasure dens indigenous to the Sunset Strip or the Deuce, the geographic jumble just one part of the movie’s larger unintelligibility.

Scored to some of the most succulent disco tracks of ’76, Looking for Mr. Goodbar simultaneously celebrates Theresa for rejecting the miserable matrimonial model of her devout Irish-Catholic parents and deems her murder the logical conclusion of her nocturnal pursuits. The movie screens as part of the adventurously assembled series “Labor of Love: 100 Years of Movie Dates,” which runs at BAMcinématek May 4–17, and which includes another title in Wood’s knotty pantheon, one that Looking for Mr. Goodbar obliquely anticipates: William Friedkin’s Cruising.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Directed by Richard Brooks

BAMcinématek, May 7