There was this strange period beginning in the mid-60s and lasting through the late ‘70s where classic matinee idols felt forcibly removed from their “comfortable” periods and jammed headlong into the modern day. Sometimes, I refer to this displacement as “whitesploitation”, but that’s hardly accurate. While younger actors like Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis and, later, Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood, seemed at home in movies that were both culturally relevant to the times they were made, others of the strong jawed hero variety didn’t fare too well. Watching guys like John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Mitchum, even Carey Grant, share screen time with hippies and yippies, dealing with “modern” drama, drugs and free love just seemed… uncomfortable. These weren’t guys who lived in the present. They were cowboys, pirates, gangsters. They belonged in their suits, their chaps and spurs, their hats of many styles. We grew up watching them gun down bad guys, not fight off co-ed chippies many, many years their younger. Maybe Wayne and Douglas and their ilk lived a past that never happened, invented by the studios and the directors who crafted the worlds, but that’s how we thought of “the past”, shaped by the movies encapsulating them. Take those guys out of the “then”, as artificial as it may have been, and shoehorn them into the—also artificicial—now just never felt right.
To put it in modern terms, how many people out there prefer the Harrison Ford of Working Girl as compared to his Indiana Jones—or even his comedic cowboy in The ‘Frisco Kid? Put Ford in a suit, he just looks uncomfortable, and that makes us uncomfortable. Sure, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a misfire for multiple reasons, but it wasn’t because Indy looked out of place.
In 1973, Burt Lancaster stepped out of the foggy ‘40s and oppressive ‘50s and joined the modern world of the ‘70s by starring in and co-directing a here-and-now thriller titled The Midnight Man. Lancaster even co-wrote the script with his directing partner, Roland Kibbee, as well as author David Anthony, who wrote the book said script was based on, The Midnight Lady and the Morning Man. Who’s to say who excised the “Lady and the Mourning” from the title?
Set in then present day, Lancaster is an anachronism the minute he steps off a bus in the opening sequence, but for good reason—his Jim Slade is both an ex-cop and an ex-con, older and weary from his time spent in the joint. He takes a job as a night watchman at Jordan College (played by South Carolina’s Clemson University) and almost immediately steps into the middle of a murder conspiracy involving a Senator’s screwed-up daughter, blackmail, backwoods thugs, betrayal and profanity. (No greater shock have I had in my life than witnessing a long-haired hippie-freak tell stalwart Lancaster to “Fuck off” and retain his teeth.)
Burt’s charisma conveys him through a network of character actors including Cameron Mitchell, Charles Tyner, Ed Lauter, Harris Yulin and the future Daisy Duke, Catherine Bach, making her feature film debut. The central mystery begins with a late-night break-in. Several cassette tapes have been stolen from the psych professor’s office, containing the innermost confessions of a handful of students. Slade quickly dismisses two of the suspects—one of whom confesses to being “queer” in order to mess with the professor—and figures out that the target recording belonged to young, nubile Natalie, the emotionally-unstable daughter of a powerful politician. When she is subsequently murdered, Slade is drawn further into the labyrinth where he is frequently accused of various crimes, suspected of others due to his ex-con status, and involved in numerous late-night shenanigans. Meanwhile, he hangs out with his best friend from his police days (Mitchell) and attempts a romance with his fetching parole officer (Susan Clark).
During the course of this overlong movie, we are subjected to the horrors of Lancaster interacting with the various subversive college types straight out of Hair and the creeping discontent smears itself over the viewer by the end. When Lancaster is not attired in his night watchman uniform, he’s in a costume familiar to us: simple suit and fedora, as if he’d brought his wardrobe with him from the set of Sweet Smell of Success. But all around him is paisley and tie-dyed and groovy, long hair, bell-bottoms, joints are smoked and Burt is constantly disrespected. Regardless of your political leanings, you await the eventual hippie-beatdown but it never comes. The movie’s tension comes from the viewer’s disconnect with matinee Burt and the Burt before us, crammed into a world he should never be a part of.
You don’t put John Wayne in a Hawaiian shirt and you don’t surround Burt Lancaster with hippies. It may not be a law of Hollywood, but it should be.
Eventually, this Gordian knot of a drama that doesn’t so much unravel as it is solved using King Soloman’s methodology. So convoluted, the mystery can’t be “solved” so much as “summed up”, and Slade provides a voice-over that cleaves our knot in twain, literally explaining the preceding events, double-dealings, criss-crossings and nighttime muddlings. And even with Lancaster straight-out telling us what happened, the story still makes precious little sense, resisting all attempts to stuff it into the box labeled “hard boiled mystery”. The story, like Lancaster, doesn’t fit the ‘70s trappings either. It’s drunken, listing Chandler unfolded in a post-political South.
The Midnight Man was not a box office success, though likely for reasons other than existential disconnect, and Lancaster would never direct another film. It would be years before he returned to his rightful place in the past in Zulu Dawn (let’s forget his brief role as Ned Buntline in Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians), but it was too late to go back. Despite a brief stay in the old west in the largely unmemorable cowbrat adventure Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Lancaster never did find his foothold in the previous times. It wasn’t until he embraced himself as an anachronism—re-inventing his Birdman of Alcatraz Robert Stroud character in Atlantic City, a more subdued Elmer Gantry in Local Hero—that a glimmer of “classic” Burt was re-established. He even poked fun at his (and Douglas’s) matinee image in the hit-or-miss action comedy Tough Guys. But until Lancaster settled in the present, succumbing to distinguished dignity in later roles, did he finally make peace with the modern movies. He may not have gone out with a bang in Field of Dreams (transformed into a young Frank Whalley and back) and his later TV roles, but he went out like we expected: head held high, back straight, teeth gleaming.
In the movie afterlife, you can be sure no one ever again got away with telling Burt Lancaster to “fuck off”.
Oh, The Midnight Man pops up on TCM every now and then. It’s not currently available on domestic DVD but there's an expensive PAL Import available on Amazon.