News and Commentary – Deep Cuts: The Midnight Man (1974)

We try and keep an eye on all things seventies film here at Mid Century Cinema, and so we were very pleased to procure a copy of a French DVD of The Midnight Man (1974), which was, irresistibly, co-produced, co-written, and co-directed by its star, Burt Lancaster.  In the words of David Thomson, who is not one to gush: “Brave, vigorous and handsome, and an actor of great range, Lancaster never yielded in his immaculate splendor . . . He was one of the great stars.”  From his impressive debut in The Killers, through countless other outstanding performances (Criss Cross, The Leopard, Seven Days in May, The Swimmer, and Atlantic City, to name a few), Lancaster was an invariably compelling screen presence. He also one of the first actors to form his own independent production company; one such incarnation, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, was responsible for the masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success, which included a consummate performance by its producer-star.

The notion of a quadruple-threat Lancaster seventies film, then, is simply irresistible.  And on top of that, Midnight Man features Harris Yulin and Susan Clarke, who would soon team up again for one of our All-Time-Favorites, Night Moves. Anticipation abounds. The results, on the other hand . . . not so much. Don’t get us wrong – it was very seventies, with pleasing heapings of cynicism, deep distrust of any institution you can think of, every cop a criminal (as the Rolling Stones put it), and an implicit critique of most walks of society. And it was often interesting, and more than worth a look for a seventies completest. The first third offered a solid set-up and the second often quite engaging . . . before things unraveled completely. All in all, much better than Vincent Canby would have you believe—writing in the New York Times he called it “the second worst film of 1974.”

But, certainly, there are problems.  Despite a handful of good lines, the film is often wincingly unsubtle, leans on gratuitous violence, and spends too much time with a group of narratively-unnecessary sadistic thugs who look like they wandered over from an installment of the Death Wish franschise. In addition, it must be acknowledged that Midnight Man does not offer a single thoughtful shot—it plays more like a (pretty good) TV movie of the era. Ultimately, we expected more from Lancaster and his co-writer/co-director (Roland Kibbee, among other credits, worked as a writer on seven Lancaster films, contributed to the script for the very fine Columbo episode "Candidate for Crime," and was the creator of the TV show To Catch a Thief).  

Still, The Midnight Man is a fascinating memento, and fans of seventies films will likely be entertained. Impressively, its impossibly complex plot does add up in the end, and steeped as it is in intimate betrayals which motivate the denouement, it has the ambiance of a Ross Macdonald novel. (Of the two principal betrayals in Midnight Man, one is unearned and a little too easy. But the other arrives as a surprise, and, most laudably, the movie does set down various markers that give the viewer a fair chance to make the call in advance, which makes the payoff somewhat stronger.)  And that moody-Macdonald-melancholy lingers in the mind; it led us to rather promptly re-screen Robert Benton’s Twilight.  Benton, a huge fan of Night Moves, named Paul Newman’s lead character in Twilight Harry Ross, an amalgamation of the names of Harry Moseby (from Night Moves) and Ross Macdonald. The Midnight Man is no Twilight—but we’re happy to have seen it.