Saturday 9 November 2019

Movie Review: The Midnight Man (1974)

A convoluted low-key murder mystery, The Midnight Man is overstuffed with plot but lacks any sense of mood or relatable characters.

Released on parole after serving a prison sentence, ex-Chicago police officer Jim Slade (Burt Lancaster) accepts a position as a night watchman at Jordon College, the job arranged for him by his pal and the college's head of security Quartz Willinger (Cameron Mitchell). Jim reports to parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark), who is constantly bickering with local sheriff Jack Casey (Harris Yulin) about his deputy Virgil's goonish methods.

Slade stumbles upon a psychiatry department break-in and the theft of sensitive cassette tapes. One of the students involved is the troubled Natalie Clayborne (Catherine Bach), and soon she turns up dead. Casey arrests creepy janitor Ewing (Charles Tyner), but Slade starts his own unauthorized investigation. Natalie's boyfriend, a professor and a local artist are among the suspects, while a trio of local redneck goons start to threaten Slade. When Natalie's father Senator Phillip Clayborne (Morgan Woodward) arrives in town, the death count escalates rapidly.

An adaptation of a book by David Anthony filmed on location at Clemson University in South Carolina, The Midnight Man is co-directed, co-produced and co-written (all with Roland Kibbee) by star Burt Lancaster. Unfortunately he glides through the film in an essentially comatose state, as an almost impossible to follow plot clatters all around him.

The deep flaws are obvious throughout. Key events take place off-screen and are then verbosely explained. For the purpose of expanding the pool of suspects a multitude of individuals are introduced in snippets, creating an avalanche of indistinct characters. The result is a go-through-the-motions whodunnit crammed with creeps, with no individual rounded into anything more than a plastic representation.

Actions and motivations are eye-poppingly dreadful, from blatant police brutality to a parole officer jumping into bed with her parolee passing through professors lusting after their young students. And somehow the film takes a detour to Deliverance inspired bayou territory, a trio of inbred idiots (including Ed Lauter) complete with their own Ma Baker styled leader unleashing their version of primitive chaos on the pristine college campus town for reasons that never quite make sense.

At least the rednecks do provide a platform for the one energetic sequence in the film, as Slade bulldozes his way out of farm captivity. As for resolving the actual murder-blackmail-abuse crime fiasco, pick any suspect, they all deserve to be locked up.

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