Excavated from the Universal vaults and finally released on disc is The Midnight Man (1974), the second and last film directed by its star, Burt Lancaster. His first effort as director-producer-star, The Kentuckian (1955), was a rich, vigorous work of western Americana, violent yet optimistic. This second film, made 20 years later, reflects a wearier outlook of disillusion and regret within the trappings of gumshoe noir. Vietnam and Watergate aren’t mentioned; the only reference to contemporary issues is a college kid’s comment on the generation gap. Still, the zeitgeist of disenchantment and malaise over “the system” hangs around the movie’s neck like a dead Maltese falcon.
Lancaster co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced with Roland Kibbee, a successful TV writer-producer who’d worked on several Lancaster films. According to research provided in the commentary by Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger, Kibbee originated the project based on David Anthony’s novel The Midnight Lady and the Mourning Man (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969) Kibbee seems to have felt the project was a solid commercial prospect in this second phase of noir, when its practitioners had learned what to call it from the French critics who named it.
This more self-conscious era had begun around Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap (1965) and Buzz Kulik’s Warning Shot (1967) and was often driven by people from TV; indeed, the gumshoe would find a steady home in such ’70s series as Harry O and The Rockford Files. Except for profanity and a brutal interlude on a farm, not to mention a glimpse of rear nudity from Cameron Mitchell, the film adopts a straight, un-ornamented TV-movie style, the better for us to concentrate on one of the more elaborately duplicitous plots in a genre known for them.
Lancaster plays Jim Slade, who gets off the bus in a southern town (played by Clemson, South Carolina) and reports to his parole officer, Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark). She runs around hectically and loudly, being tough with the sheriff (Harris Yulin) on behalf of her parolees, while Jim remains quiet, contained, polite, almost stoop-shouldered under the burden of a past we don’t learn for a while (he’s an ex-cop from Chicago who killed his wife’s lover). He observes everyone with what we learn is an almost Sherlockian insight, and he’s our POV character except for persistent delicate forays into scenes without him, which are just enough to make us think we know where we are in the story.
For example, the opening scene finds Quartz (Mitchell) accidentally stumbling into an armed robbery in a nightclub where Linda is among the patrons being robbed. He tries to swagger into the situation by identifying himself as a cop, but when the masked trio of miscreants finds out he’s only a security guard at the local college, they break his leg for him and proceed. We’ll soon learn that Quartz, an old colleague of Slade (who hasn’t entered the movie yet), is sponsoring his parole by giving him a place to stay and a job as night watchman as Jordon College. The spelling of “Jordon” may tell us that this fresh start for Slade won’t quite be the Promised Land.
The plot starts in earnest when three audiocassettes are stolen from a psychology professor’s office. Each tape was made by a student discussing personal secrets, and the relevant co-ed is the mouthy, messed-up Natalie Clayborne (Catherine Bach), a senator’s daughter who quickly winds up dead. While the sheriff is ready to railroad a creepy janitor, Slade embarks on an investigation that will lead to numerous corpses and so many secrets and double-crosses and cross-purposes, sometimes on the part of people who don’t even realize they’re in bed with each other, that you need a blackboard and slide rule to work it out.
That kind of dizzying multi-leveled web of motives is par for the genre at this phase. If you don’t believe me, check out such contemporary perplexities as Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Dick Richards’ Farewell My Lovely (1975), Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974) and Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1977) and make a stab at diagramming those plots. By comparison, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (1974) is a masterpiece of stripped-down clarity. (Hint: at least one of these titles shares an unsavory revelation with The Midnight Man.)
Also par for the genre, unfortunately, are some of the transparent delaying tactics, of which we’ll cite two. Natalie has left a poem with fancy mythological words in it. Slade makes a point of memorizing and jotting it down, even underlining the words he doesn’t know. At this point, most people would pick up a dictionary. His method is to show the poem to Natalie’s boyfriend (played by Bill Lancaster, Burt’s son) and learn that Janus is a two-faced god, appropriate as a symbol for seemingly everyone Slade meets. The other word doesn’t get explained and won’t until the end of the movie, when Slade finally asks a professor and makes a discovery he could have found several days and bodies earlier.
Meanwhile, the boyfriend has the gall to pull one of the most wince-worthy tricks in the book: the phone call where he says “I’ve figured something out, no I won’t tell you over the phone but meet me in half an hour.” Such characters, or perhaps their writers, deserve to be strangled at birth.
While these caveats must surely cross the viewer’s mind, Lancaster is so magnetic in his beaten-down moodiness, his supporting cast is so engaging, and the location photography by Jack Priestly so clean and attractive, and the story so bustling and confusing that we can’t help following to the bitter end — or multiple endings, since it takes several scenes to explain the ever-expanding backstory to the last exhausted reversal.
Filling out the plot are familiar character players Morgan Woodward, Robert Quarry, Joan Lorring, Lawrence Dobkin, Ed Lauter, Mills Watson, Quinn Redeker and Charles Tyner. Eleanor Ross, who wasn’t a professional actress, basically steals her scenes as a hard-bitten hillbilly. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray looks good and, aside from a commentary that makes a few allusions to “Twin Peaks” and other items, offers only a trailer as an extra.
Additional reading on PopMatters:
James Garner’s 10 Greatest Film Performances, Bill Gibron (22 Jul 2014)