With the exception of my much loved and much missed colleague, the late V. F. Perkins, academics tend to shy away from the issue of badness, even when actively dealing with questions of evaluation:
Despite renewed interest in aesthetic questions, there remains a nervousness in our field about aesthetic evaluation, based on a fear that it must always and only set out to authorise sets of tastes and preferences which work to sustain privilege. In this view, reflected in a concern with the canonical, evaluation has a primary purpose to establish or defend orders of rank between the esteemed and the despised, to validate a scale that has such as La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) at its top, and such as Madonna of the Seven Moons (Arthur Crabtree, 1944) at its base. Against this concentration on preference and hierarchy (Shakespeare over Titanic? Oasis over Schubert?) I stress another aspect – evaluation as the articulation of value, the grateful effort to spell out the nature of a significant achievement.
I suggest also that issues of evaluation may be approached freshly and usefully from the opposite angle, through a consideration of badness. Is it our experience that movies may have the attributes of bad communications, being for instance bigoted, deceitful, vindictive, hypocritical or self-serving? If so, then surely it is necessary to find terms in which we may discuss the badness of films which are bad as works of art rather than in their presumed or demonstrated social effects. A scene from Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) provides an emblematic instance of cinematic badness which is distinct both from ideological offensiveness and (since it is made with great proficiency) from ineptitude (p.34).
The Midnight Man is not the ideal vehicle through which to discuss the nuances of the concept such as Perkins does in his analysis of Dead Poets Society. It is, if I may, too bad for that. Vincent Canby, who wasn´t an academic and thus didn´t suffer from its knotty compunctions, wrote in The New York Times that it was ‘the second worst film of 1974’ (Buford, loc. 3296). What was the first? Buford, doesn´t tell us and I´d love to know,
Thematically The Midnight Man is a noir. Burt Lancaster is Jim Slade, a cop fresh from jail after serving time for killing his wife´s lover. He goes to stay with Quartz (Cameron Mitchell) an old friend from the force, in a university town where his parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark) has gotten him a job as a security person. Whilst he´s there a young coed (Catherine Bach) gets murdered. The reason is a videotape that incriminates her father, a powerful senator, and other people in the university. The tape is being used for blackmail and Slade can´t resist trying to find out.
The film is a sordid, convoluted story, which would have made a punchy film had it been done properly. It was very much a joint venture with Roland Kibbee and Lancaster, co-writing, co-producing and co-directing. According to Robyn Karney, ´The film was a convoluted thriller….With a poor screenplay and impenetrable plot. The film, which Variety, predicted had a fair outlook in the popcorn trade´, was a dismal failure. Kibbee gallantly shouldered the blame, saying that ‘It was a concession to me because I wanted to make some money. It certainly wasn´t the kind of project Burt would have picked out for himself…he has no taste for pulp fiction, and his reading is on a high level (Robyn Karney, p. 171
I began with the excerpt from Victor Perkins´essay on badness because this film is almost an ur-example of it, particularly in the clip I´ve chosen below, which appears almost at the very end of the film. Narratively, the film hasn´t dramatised or shown so for an interminable four minutes, Burt as Jim Slade has to tie up all the various plot point for us verbally. It´s really atrocious.
Howerd Kissel in Women´s Wear Daily, upon the film´s initial release, wrote, ´Íf the studios were still operating as they used to, there would have been whole departments to tell Burt´that the story had too many holes, his costume too many sags, the movie too many reels´. This might explain the difference in the quality of the direction evident in The Kentuckian, Lancaster´s previous work as a director, and here. The film does nothing visually nor rhythmically, and he´s not particularly good with the actors, who´ve all been better elsewhere. There are misjudgments of tone too. Do we have to see Cameron Mitchell´s ageing ass. What does it do to the actor. What does it add to the scene. If we´re supposed to find it cheeky and funny it fails.
Burford writes that Kissel then isolated what kept Lancaster, ethos or politics aside, from becoming some kind of older Eastwood variant (in the 1970s)’– his image was ´too heroic´for the ´cool, low-keyed style of today.´A hero in what he once called ´the hero business´, he was now an anachronism (loc. 5349). But that is at least arguable. Time for example, noted ‘Burt Lancaster (is) turning into an attractive, hard-working actor as superstardom fades.´ Time.
For Bruce Crowther, in his book on the actor, ´Lancaster does well enough but his role is an uneasy one, carrying as it does the burdensome problem of trying to be incorruptibly pure and honest while swimming through a cesspool of sexual and moral depravity. Some of the muck should have stuck. it was a problem which did not exist in the novel because the Jim Slade character there is a private eye with no illusions about his own or anyone else´s morality (Crowthe, pp. 123-124)
What´s interesting to me is that even discussion of ´the second worst film of 1974), through up insights on cinema, on the times, on aesthetics, that are interesting.
According to Perkins:
Evaluation need not be a process of ranking the cinema’s achievements in a hierarchy, nor of praising one group of movies at the expense of another. Instead it is part of the effort to understand, to exchange and to share the understanding of the value that works of art have for us. Good criticism is motivated by gratitude for the achievement of the filmmakers. It tries to present an accurate and sincere account of the meaning that films have for us. Critical understanding is most importantly an understanding of excellence. Criticism is an effort that we join in together to explain why films matter to us. I believe it is also our communal attempt to reward the courage, wisdom and generosity of the artists. The goal is to understand and to give words to the precision and subtlety that film can achieve, and finally to reward the artist’s attention to detail with an equal attentiveness in the viewing.
I agree with all of that. Yet, we live in a world where we have much more available to see than we have time for. And sometimes evaluation can serve the perfectly simple job of saying, unless you are a Burt Lancaster fan or have some other concrete reason for watching this film, like thinking through the various ways a film can be ´bad´,´feel free to give this one a miss.
2 thoughts on “The Midnight Man (Roland Kibbee/ Burt Lancaster, USA, 1974)”
I remember this one from BBC 2 screenings in the 80’s. Hard to fathom, and yet watchable; it’s not helpful to say it’s a ‘bad’ movie, because there’s lots of reasons for a movie to be asthetically bad. For a Lancaster fan, or even a casual watcher, it’s an interesting film that’s lasted longer than the critical minds behind the Women’s Wear Daily.
We were just debating this on facebook