Like farce, the mystery genre is a space where convoluted plotting is not necessarily a detriment. Consider The Midnight Man, a twisty thriller starring, cowritten, coproduced, and codirected by the venerable Burt Lancaster, who adapted the picture from a novel by David Anthony. Set on a college campus, the movie features an offbeat leading man—a former cop turned ex-con who becomes a night watchman on the campus of a small college because his old police buddy runs the school’s security detail. Shortly after beginning his new job, Jim Slade (Lancaster) responds to the discovery of a dead coed. Thereafter, Jim battles with an obnoxious small-town sheriff, Casey (Harris Yulin), who determines that a creepy campus janitor was the culprit. Unsatisfied with Casey’s hasty resolution, Jim investigates further and discovers a complex web of conspiracies, lies, and secrets involving a United States Senator and several people connected with the college. Before long, Jim becomes a target, even as he begins a romance with his parole officer, Linda (Susan Clark), who may or may not be connected to various prime murder suspects.
Although The Midnight Man is unquestionably too complicated for its own good—since it’s occasionally difficult to keep track of who’s doing what to whom and why—the movie is enjoyably melancholy and seedy on a moment-to-moment basis. Lancaster underplays, always a relief given his usual tendency toward grandiosity, and he generates an easygoing vibe with veteran supporting player Cameron Mitchell, who plays Slade’s boss/friend. Each of the significant performers in the cast delivers exactly what’s needed for his or her character, lending the whole piece depth and tonal variations. Clark is tough but vulnerable as the seen-it-all parole officer who fights to protect ex-cons from being needlessly hassled; Yulin is formidable and oily as the shoot-first/ask-questions-later sheriff; Catherine Bach, later of Dukes of Hazard fame, is intriguing as the sexy but troubled coed whose tragic fate drives the story; Charles Tyner is believably squirrely as the Bible-thumping, porn-reading janitor; and Morgan Woodward oozes smug confidence as the senator with one too many dirty secrets. Furthermore, Dave Grusin’s moody score, which is dominated by buttery electric-piano melodies, is as comfortingly smooth, warm, and unmistakably ’70s as a V-neck pullover.
So, even if the story gets stuck in the mud of double-crosses and reversals and surprises, the vibe of the piece and the seriousness with which actors play their roles carry the day. The Midnight Man isn’t a superlative ’70s noir on the order of The Long Goodbye (1973) or Night Moves (1975), but it’s an interesting distraction with plenty of pessimism and a smattering of sleaze.
The Midnight Man: GROOVY