The Midnight Man is one of the eerier and more startling mystery films of its period, sustaining for nearly two hours a mood that veers very carefully between seductive, quiet lyricism and lurking violence and despair. It was something of a tour de force for Burt Lancaster, who not only starred in it, but also co-directed the movie (with Roland Kibbee, who did most of the directing) and co-authored the screenplay, also with Kibbee. The plot is one of the more violent and complex in a mystery of this era, hinged around a series of seemingly unrelated events, starting with a robbery that turns more vicious than it needs to for no good reason, and leading to a series of shootings, bludgeonings, and other mayhem that leaves a bloody stain across its small border-state college-town setting.
The direction, the script, and the acting give the characters a surprising degree of depth, which makes the violence all the more striking when it occurs — even Catherine Bach, an actress identified in subsequent years for her portrayal of Daisy on The Dukes of Hazzard, turns in a hauntingly credible performance as the victim whose background of abuse and wealth is central to the plot; and Susan Clark gives an equally fine performance — one of her best — as one of the most quietly manipulative women ever seen onscreen, worthy of the most venal characters out of classic film noir. They get excellent back-up from Harris Yulin, Ed Lauter, Cameron Mitchell, and an array of superb supporting players (and if you look closely, you can even spot Lancaster’s old acrobatic screen partner Nick Cravat). The uncensored version of the movie (which has aired on A&E and other cable channels) is also something of a revelation to those who’ve only seen the network/broadcast version, absorbing and striking not only for its violence — the attempted escape of Jim Slade (Burt Lancaster) from the farm house being shown in especially bone-crunching detail — but also its language. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the plot of The Midnight Man, if it were done today, would be almost certain to offend a certain constituency that was also outraged by movies such as Basic Instinct. All of that, plus the use of a seductive ballad sung by Yvonne Elliman on David Grusin’s soundtrack — which adds to the sense of unease and despair of these characters, who are worthy of a Jim Thompson story — makes this a very full cinematic meal and more. One can only hope for a video and DVD release someday.