Sunday, May 18, 2014

Midnight (1934)

Director: Chester Erskine                               Writers: Paul & Claire Sifton
Music: William Spielter                                  Cinematography: William O. Steiner
Starring: Sydney Fox, O.P. Heggie, Henry Hull and Humphrey Bogart

Midnight is an independent B-movie production released by Universal in 1934. It was Humphrey Bogart’s last film before heading back to New York certain that he’d never work in films again. Two years later, on the strength of his performance in the Broadway production--and at the insistence of Leslie Howard--he came back to Hollywood for The Petrified Forest at Warner Brothers and never looked back. After Bogart became a star, and Universal let the copyright lapse, the film was re-released by Guaranteed Pictures who retitled it Call It Murder with Humphrey Bogart’s name above the title. The film is in the tradition of Hitchcock’s Murder, with a woman set to be executed, and one of the members of the jury who convicted her begins to have second thoughts. The similarity ends there, however, as this film is much more a character study of the juror rather than a search for the real killer.

The film begins in the courtroom with Helen Flint on trial for murder. Her story is a pathetic one, afraid of being left by a man she kills him in a panic. But when juror O.P. Heggie asks the defendant if she took the money, she admits she did and it seals her fate. In the courtroom is reporter Henry Hull, who is angling to get into the house to see Heggie’s reaction to the execution. Also there is small-time hood Humphrey Bogart who happens to be sitting next to Heggie’s daughter, Sydney Fox, and by the time of the execution they have become an item. The rest of the story takes place on the day Flint is to be executed, at the home of Heggie who has become an object of intense fascination for convincing the rest of the jury to convict her. Hull has bribed Heggie’s son in law to let him into the house, ostensibly to listen to the radio, and while the reports keep coming the guilt begins to wear on Heggie who suddenly begins to feel more and more responsible for the woman’s impending death the closer it gets to midnight.

As with a lot of low-budget pictures, the lack of a soundtrack is unfortunate but tolerable. The obvious weakness of the production is the script. The story is fairly banal, and while the tension grows throughout the running time, the four separate story lines tend to dilute the suspense. It has a wonderfully ironic ending, but then drags on for far too long to the conclusion. For the most part the acting is good but Fox is the worst, as her interpretation is far too broad in conveying her troubles and she tends to yell her lines as if she were on stage. Bogart is good, but since most of his scenes are opposite Fox she tends to drag him down. O.P. Heggie is best known for his small but memorable role in The Bride of Frankenstein as the blind hermit who befriends Karloff. He has a certain haunted quality to his eyes that works very well here. Henry Hull is confident as ever and is commanding when he’s on the screen. Lynne Overman, as the son in law, is the only other actor of distinction, providing a dash of comedy relief in an otherwise heavy moral picture.

Bogart has a tiny role, so the film will be of only passing interest to fans of his. And while it’s not an especially good film, it does hold interest. And there is one aspect that is incredibly impressive. This was Chester Erskine’s first film as a director and he shows some real artistic flair throughout. During the entire scene in the jury room, for instance, the camera focuses only on the hands of the jurors. The camera is also very mobile as it pans around the courtroom in the opening scene and throughout the house later. There are some nice framing devices in the jail scenes as well as at the house. The set ups are also nice, shooting from the floor on occasion, or having actors walk directly toward the camera. And to keep attention from drifting he continues to shift back and forth between Heggie’s house and Flint in her jail cell awaiting her execution, eventually paralleling Fox with Flint. Midnight focuses on a fascinating ethical point, and O.P. Heggie does a terrific job with it. Bogart fans will want to be forewarned that his role is a small one, but it’s definitely worth watching.

No comments:

Post a Comment