Monday, May 29, 2017


Character actor Cameron Mitchell gave the performance of his career for co-directors Roland Kibbee and Burt Lancaster in their complicated but intriguing murder mystery "The Midnight Man," co-starring Susan Clark, Morgan Woodward, Harris Yulin, Lawrence Dobkin, Robert Quarry, Ed Lauter, and Catherine Bach. For the record, Kibbee and Lancaster had collaborated before, principally with Kibbee penning screenplays for Lancaster epics, such as "Ten Tall Men" (1951), "The Crimson Pirate" (1952), "Vera Cruz" (1954), "The Devil's Disciple" (1959), and "Valdez Is Coming" (1971). Together, Kibbee and Lancaster adapted David Anthony's novel "The Midnight Lady and the Mourning Man." Considering the abundance of talent involved in this melodrama, "The Midnight Man" (*** OUT OF ****) should have been a superior whodunit. Indeed, everything about this solidly scripted but formulaic murder mystery is done with efficiency. Kibbee received an Emmy not only for a "Columbo" episode, but he also won one for a "Barney Miller" episode. Kibbee's output ranks as above-average. The chief problem with "The Midnight Man" is the lackluster quality of their action. The events take place at a remote college in South Carolina so nothing that happens can affect the fate of West Civilization. Although the characters are as sturdy as the gifted cast that incarnates them, Kibbee and Lancaster's movie seems mundane despite its narrative strengths.

The characters in "The Midnight Man" comprise an interesting group. Burt Lancaster plays Jim Slade; he is a former Chicago cop who served three years in prison because he shot the man that he caught in bed with his wife. This makes him a flawed character searching for redemption. Slade's old friend Quartz (Cameron Mitchell of "Garden of Evil") is a former policeman who heads up the security of a small college, and he gives Slade a job as a night watchman. Susan Clark is cast as Slade's parole officer Linda Thorpe. Ms. Thorpe constantly clashes with County Sheriff Casey (Harris Yulin of "Scarface") over his treatment of her parolees. Casey wears a white cowboy hat, and at times "The Midnight Man" resembles an episode of "In the Heat of the Night." The action unfolds when Slade learns that somebody broke into his office of Psychology Professor Swanson (Quinn K. Redeker of "Ordinary People") and stole three audio cassettes. These cassettes contain monologues from troubled students who recorded them for Swanson so he could listen to them at a later date and counsel them. Slade interviews the three students. One of the three students, Natalie (Catherine Bach of "Thunderbolt & Lightfoot"), dies under mysterious circumstances, and Slade sets out to expose the murderer. Sheriff Casey arrests the most obvious candidate, Ewing (Charles Tyner of "The Longest Yard"), a fire-and-brimstone religious fanatic who has evidence that implicates him in the slaying. Naturally, our hero doesn't believe that the unsavory Ewing could have committed the crime. While Casey is constantly at his throat, Quartz and Slade's parole officer do their best to shield him from the county sheriff.

Unraveling the narrative threads of "The Midnight Man" to disclose the identities of the villains would constitute a crime. Slade encounters a number of likely suspects as he searches for the villain that killed Natalie. Meantime, he collides with three grimy, redneck dastards that do their best to kill him. The scene in the barn is terrific, especially when Slade commandeers a tractor to smash through walls and run over his adversaries. The revelations that our hero uncovers distinguishes this movie and virtually everybody is implicated in one way or another. Slade's chief opponent Sheriff Casey winds up being his strongest ally, and Harris Yulin gives a good account of himself. Lancaster was on his last legs as a leading man when he made "The Midnight Man," but he gives another of his ultra-efficient performances, and this movie is a polished affair despite its largely ordinary setting and revelations.

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