“It’s my neck and I’ve got to do it my way.”
When a line like that is spoken with a firm tone by Burt Lancaster you step back and let this one of a kind cinema legend do his thing. Even if the film doesn’t come off as one of his better efforts overall.
For the record I think Burt delivers a finely honed old dog performance as a nightshift security guard at a small town college campus. He’s a world weary ex-cop/ex-con looking to live his life quietly and I suspect uneventfully. Newly released from prison the job is waiting for him thanks to old pal Cameron Mitchell and a parole officer played by Susan Clark who will easily serve as a love interest for our leading man. I must say she’s a hell of a lot more attractive than his parole officer in 1986’s Tough Guys, Dana Carvey.
A mystery is to unfold when student Catherine Bach’s (prior to her Daisy Duke’s) private thoughts on a cassette tape are stolen. Thoughts and confessions that are going to ensnare a cast of familiar names and faces to movie goers of the day into murder and blackmail.
Joining Lancaster alongside Susan and Cam are Harris Yulin as the local Sheriff, Morgan Woodward as both Bach’s father and a State Senator, Robert Quarry as a college professor, Charles Tyner as a sexually frustrated janitor and one of my favorite character actors of the era, Ed Lauter, as a local hood.
I may as well point out that The Midnight Man represents the second and final film that Burt directed over his forty plus year career. The first was 1955’s entertaining The Kentuckian. This time he’s taken a co-directing credit with associate Roland Kibbee. They actually shared credits on directing, writing and producing the film which was released under the Universal banner.
The heavily plotted film kicks into overdrive when Bach is found murdered in her dorm. Yulin arrives and proves to be a real hard ass on the outside but you’ll come around to liking him as the film progresses. Tyner is the obvious red herring but Burt isn’t so sure and he keeps digging around the campus despite Tyner’s arrest. Burt will even question a young long haired dude on campus who just happened to be his own real life son, Bill, cast in the film. To his everlasting credit, Bill, would earn the screenplay credit for John Carpenter’s The Thing.
The plot continues to get thicker over the course of the 119 minute running time when Woodward shows up more concerned with what’s on the cassette tape then he appears to be with the loss of his daughter. It won’t be long before his own henchman takes a bullet to the head. One meant for Burt. So yeah the plot thickens yet again.
Yes that’s the knock against the film. It plays out as if we’re expecting Columbo or McCloud to drop in and why shouldn’t we think that. Burt’s pal Kibbee was a credited writer on a couple of Peter Falk mysteries so I think it’s fair to say they were hoping to score at the box office with a similar mystery that’s been spiced up with some added foul language and violence.
Most of the violence that occurs in the film feels as if it’s been inserted to make sure Burt’s fans see the man do his thing. In this case he’s run afoul of a trio of deadheads and their Mom. Ed Lauter being the number one goon accompanied by a young Mills Watson. Once Burt gets his mojo working it won’t end well for the backwoods clan. Yeah I love to see Burt smashing heads 70’s style but will admit that with the movie’s length in question this whole stretch of the plot could have been trimmed as it feels like it’s been lifted from a Dirty Harry movie where a clan of creeps have decided to put Harry six feet under with predictable results. Totally meaningless piece of movie trivia? Both Lauter and Watson would again meet their maker at the gnashing teeth of a vicious St. Bernard in a certain 1983 Stephen King adaptation.
Regardless of the negatives I might toss at the film, I hadn’t seen it in many years and watching Lancaster do his thing in an understated way has a calming effect on this long time fan of the one time Oscar winner and veteran of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Yeah the film likely would have worked better as a straight out TV mystery of the week but then it wouldn’t have had a name of Burt’s magnitude attached to it but rather a popular television star. Robert Culp or maybe Darren McGavin come to mind.
Don’t deny the fine performances of those working with Burt either. Susan Clark is a good fit in her second film opposite Burt, the first being the superior Valdez Is Coming in 1971. Morgan Woodward? He’ll always remain the silent stone faced Man With No Eyes from Cool Hand Luke. Harris Yulin likely comes off best and I was left wishing he could have had more screen time. I like how his on screen banter progressed with Burt as the film moved along from being antagonistic to respectful.
By this point in his career, Cam Mitchell, had returned from overseas where he had made plenty of genre pictures including Bava’s, Blood and Black Lace, and was alternating between feature films and playing the guest of the week on series television shows like McMillan and Wife, Ironside and Medical Center.
He’d remain busy into the late 80’s in low budget fodder much like his costar here the one time Count Yorga, Robert Quarry, who would also find himself continuing his career in direct to VHS titles like Warlords and Evil Spirits.
Midnight Man probably plays better today then it did upon it’s release where it wasn’t well received by fans or critics. Now it’s nostalgic and if you like the actors involved you can make your way through it. For a good read on the production pick up a copy of Gary Fishgall’s bio on Burt “Against Type” as it includes interviews with both Miss Clark and Yulin who explains that Burt essentially directed the film with Kibbee the primary writer.
The film has recently resurfaced on blu ray thanks once again to Kino Lorber Studio Classics as have many other Lancaster films. The poster? With Burt involved, surely you might have guessed I had one tucked away.