Murder strikes a private college. In the new security guard’s efforts to find the killer, he uncovers sordid secrets and multiple unsavory conspiracies. Triple-threat Burt Lancaster boasts directing and screenwriting credits here, and heads a large, exemplary cast of suspects in a mystery that implicates practically all of them in something illegal.
The Midnight Man
KL Studio Classics
1974 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 117 min. / Street Date February 26, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Linda Thorpe, Cameron Mitchell, Morgan Woodward, Harris Yulin, Robert Quarry, Joan Lorring, Lawrence Dobkin, Ed Lauter, Mills Watson, Charles Tyner, Catherine Bach, Bill Lancaster, Quinn K. Redeker, Peter Dane, Linda Kelsey, William Splawn, Nick Cravat.
Cinematography: Jack Priestley
Film Editor: Frank Moriss
Original Music: Dave Grusin
Written by Roland Kibbee, Burt Lancaster from a book by David Anthony
Produced and Directed by Roland Kibbee & Burt Lancaster
Carrying a reputation as an intelligent low-key murder mystery, 1975’s The Midnight Man found most of its audience on TV, in syndication prints that tamed its dialogue down a bit. A common reaction is that it looks like a TV movie anyway, and is the kind of murder mystery that might crop up on any number of TV detective shows. Some of the criminal activity introduced is a little raw for 1974, but only verbally. In the final act Burt Lancaster gets to show off his physical prowess in a nifty action scene, escaping from murderous lowlifes on a run-down farm. Aside for that and a couple of confrontations here and there, the show is mostly all dialogue and interaction between a rather large cast of characters.
Burt Lancaster gets co-writing, producing and directing credit with Roland Kibbee, a veteran writer credited on Burt’s classic
The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz and The Devil’s Disciple. All Kibbee had directed before was a TV special so it’s possible that Lancaster called most of the shots. Legends abound about how the intimidating Lancaster star took over the directorial decision-making on Frank Perry’s The Swimmer from ten years before.
It’s hard to believe that David Anthony’s novel was simplified for the screen, for what’s here has plenty of complications. The setting is a rural Southern college in a town with an active art presence. Parolee Jim Slade (Lancaster) is an ex-homicide detective who served time for killing his wife’s lover. He’s taken a low-grade job as a nighttime security man at Jordon College, working under a friend, ex-cop Quartz (Cameron Mitchell). But Quartz is laid up with a leg in a cast, after coming upon a robbery at a local restaurant, so Jim goes on school patrol on his own the first night. His parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark) gets along with Quartz but butts heads frequently with the old-school Sheriff Casey (Harris Yulin). The mystery is fuzzy from the start. Some missing voice tapes of a campus psychologist (Robert Quarry) lead Jim to Natale Clayborne (Catherine Bach of The Dukes of Hazzard), a co-ed apparently disturbed by her politician father (Morgan Woodward): she’s taken up with several faculty members as substitute father figures, and a local artist (Peter Dane) has painted her in the nude. Jim Slade sees Natalie’s distress but she rejects his offer of help. A subsequent murder soon muddies the water with more suspects, including Jim; the parties under suspicion include Linda’s boyfriend Lamar (William Splawn) and the trio of holdup men that broke Quartz’s leg. Jim feels certain that Sheriff Casey’s initial suspect Ewing, the school janitor (Charles Tyner) is innocent. Against Linda’s advice, Jim digs deeper, and finds himself on the receiving end of a subsequent murder attempt.
One look at the ‘Jordon College’ signage on Quartz’s patrol car and we wonder if the school was endowed by a certain dead femme fatale from a classic noir. There are enough crooked doings on and around this campus to turn The Midnight Man into a full miniseries of local skulduggery. Although the tone is completely different, the kinds of themes that are afoot align closely with TV’s later series Twin Peaks. Several male faculty members at Jordon are augmenting their sex lives from the co-ed population. One instructor (Lawrence Dobkin) is quick to add that his dates are all eighteen years old, as if he’s a hunter talking to a game warden. A murdered student has borrowed his copy of Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis; Jim Slade sees her roommate (Linda Kelsey, before TV’s Lou Grant) tearfully returning it, and realizes that the professor has been having sex with both of them.
As this is the ‘seventies this questionable sexual conduct is not taken as abnormal. Neither Slade nor Sheriff Casey seems concerned about the predatory aspect, no more than they are outraged that the janitor Ewing is a Bible-spouting maniac who ogles a collection of porn magazines and calls the co-eds around him ‘whores.’ The law enforcement officers call him a ‘dirty old man,’ but don’t seem to mind that such a hostile pervert is in such direct contact with the young students.
Lancaster’s Jim Slade shows his years yet looks trim and muscular in his uniform. He still walks like a panther, and stays polite and businesslike with everyone. The suspicious Sheriff takes a liking to Jim, as does the insultingly prepossessing politician Clayborne, who of course immediately tries to buy him. When the redneck bandits return to attack Jim and Linda, we’re really lost: who are they working for? Why hasn’t anybody connected them to the earlier holdup?
Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace) and Joan Lorring (Stranger on the Prowl) are the engaging couple that host Jim Slade for his first job on parole. Mitchell plays the entire picture with an awkward leg cast, which reminds us a bit of the Edward Binns character in the next year’s Night Moves.
Harris Yulin and Susan Clark are the standout actors under Lancaster. Yulin’s sheriff is a pain in the neck yet still a decent guy. At this time Yulin was associated with semi-experimental features like Doc and End of the Road; he doesn’t try to be likable.
Susan Clark seemed to dominate Universal product in the years before this — she won good roles opposite Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, James Garner and Gene Hackman. She’s fine in all the movies, but we wonder if she had a some kind of special, mutually beneficial contract with Universal. Dick Dinman covered Susan Clark’s career in an interview at his DVD Classics Corner on the Air podcast show.
When it comes time for our loyal rent-a-cop’s life to be threatened, the show manages a good action scene, with Burt defeating three killers and a vicious Doberman. One of the gags is a real winner — look closely and you’ll see killer Ed Lauter (Executive Action) replaced by a stunt man wearing a bald cap. Lancaster’s old circus buddy Nick Cravat has a small role, but doesn’t take part in any of the action scenes; I’ll bet that he assisted on the side. Gorgeous Catherine Bach is a key player, sort of the ‘Laura Palmer’ of The Midnight Man. It’s disappointing when she makes an early exit. A young male student is played by Lancaster’s son Bill, now respected by film fans as the writer of The Bad News Bears and John Carpenter’s The Thing.
We’re almost exhausted by the time the basic mystery is solved — it involves a tangential lesbian connection (oh no!) and some gray-area incestuous abuse. The show is no testimonial for higher learning: everybody in this college town seems to be in the business of exploiting young female students. Although the story is said to be simplified, The Midnight Man winds up with a tangle of post-arrest revelations that implicate practically the whole cast. The ending finishes on a note that could indeed have set up a Lancaster TV show about the future adventures of Jim Slade, crime-solving security guard. At this time though, Lancaster was still on tap for fairly big theatrical work, for Italian directors Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci, plus Hollywood’s Robert Aldrich and Robert Altman.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Midnight Man is a fine encoding of a film I caught only on TBS back in the early 1980s — and since my VHS recording ran out before the show finished, I’ve waited over thirty years to find out how it ends. I’ve also discovered that the old TV print dubbed away the film’s abundant profanity.
The film’s score is by Dave Grusin, and sounds quite a bit like his work for the Sydney Pollack picture The Yakuza. Grusin also wrote the film’s theme song “Come On Back Were You Belong,” which is heard more than once sung by a welcome voice, Yvonne Elliman of Jesus Christ Superstar.
On their feature commentary Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson take on the film in an entirely conversational tone. Thompson dispenses information, while Berger tends to go off on personal tangents and sometimes interrupts things we’d like to hear more about. Although we understand if a copy of the original David Anthony book The Midnight Lady and the Mourning Man could not be obtained (I’ve been there), Berger feels the need to apologize. Thompson knows the South Carolina location, and does dispense good information about the filming. Berger is surely correct that co-director Kibbee did more writing and Lancaster more directing; I’d imagine that Kibbee was essential when Lancaster was acting, which is 80% of the picture. Kino’s package winds up with a number of Burt Lancaster trailers.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Midnight Man
Supplements: Commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson; Trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 3, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson