Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film Tuesday: MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (1959) starring Frederic March and Kim Novak

MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (1959) is a film directed by Delbert Mann with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky based on his own play. It stars Frederic March and Kim Novak with a stellar cast of secondary character actors including Albert Dekker, Glenda Farrell, Martin Balsam and Lee Grant. (Edward G. Robinson starred in the Broadway production.)

It was Jacqueline's splendid review of MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT a while ago (at Another Old Movie Blog), that  brought it all back to mind, a film I'd long forgotten but suddenly craved to see again. Last seen: either on the big screen or perhaps on TV - can't remember. But I know it was in the dark ages.

Thanks to Jacqueline's kindness, my viewing is now a fait accompli.

MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT is the engrossing story of a May/December romance, a bit shocking then - not so much now.

I must say my first reaction while watching the opening credits was a total feeling of deja vu all over again, if you know what I mean - just seeing the busy streets of the city's garment district made for an unsettling kind of emotional time travel. The film is set in that busy few blocks of Manhattan's West 30's - the sidewalks cluttered with garment racks and hand trucks - where I too toiled for a time many eons ago - scrambling down the street in high heels (!), rushing to work at a dress manufacturer very similar to that shown in the movie. (I was later fired for disconnecting the owner's overseas phone call to his son. An understatement: I've never been technically inclined.)

A few years later I would return again to the garment district (though in an entirely different capacity) while working in the fashion department of a major magazine. So the setting of the film was very familiar to me.

But I don't remember it all being so damned bleak. Maybe because I prefer to remember New York as it appears in the 1949 MGM musical ON THE TOWN. I know, I know, I live in a dream world. But in truth growing up in Manhattan was a great deal of fun.

Back to the movie:

The black and white camera work by Joseph C. Brun has that gritty, sweaty quality reminiscent of most films shot in this era. But direct lighting, harsh shadows and a general unkempt air is not the way I like to remember my carefree youth. Were women that unattractive or was it the make-up and the fashions? Were the clothes really that clunky? Did everyone look older than they were? Were the men all pear shaped? These are questions I ask myself.

I'm very much afraid the answer is YES. Looking backwards is always dangerous and it's easy to feel superior, but except for Kim Novak, most everyone in this film looks pretty ancient or else has that 'used up' desperate look so popular at the time. I think it was all that smoking and drinking. As for that telltale 'pear shape' I speak of - well that's what made so many men look old beyond their time. And maybe the hats.

At any rate, Academy Award winning actor Frederic March seems ancient, or at least that's how his character has come to feel in the bosom of his quarrelsome, meddling, well-meaning, but ultimately selfish family. March - though he looks older - is supposed to be 56 (and right now 56 sounds pretty good to me, let me tell you) and he is right smack dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis, fighting the strangle-hold of creeping old age. His melancholy friends and fellow workers speak as if they are at death's door - comfortably complaining about their various aches and pains and who's who in the obituary columns.

March plays widower Jerry Kingsley, a self-made man, proud owner of a successful dress manufacturing business. He is a hands-on boss, always on the scene, pitching in, dealing with the unions, handling clients, cutting patterns if he must, sweating the details and in general making sure everything is working the way it's supposed to. The business is his life.

Kingsley's employees toil in a cramped, dark workplace, the men in suspenders and rolled up shirt sleeves, the women in dowdy clothing. It is an apparently window-less, airless enclosure wall to wall with samples on hangers and large wooden pattern tables. Even the small showroom has the same dismal ambience. Yet we know it's a successful business. But thinking back on my own experience, the place I worked in had a similar look - except for the showroom. So that must have been how things were.

One of the employees, a middle-aged hustler named Walter Lockman (played by Albert Dekker) is a sleaze of a salesman, unhappily married and forever chasing after young 'tootsies' in an attempt to recapture his youth and stave off his terrible loneliness. Walter is the direct opposite of his friend Jerry Kingsley who internalizes his unhappiness in a more quiet, dignified way.

Kim Novak, an actress known more for her beauty than her acting prowess (she confounds expectations by being quite good), plays Betty Preisser and when we first see her, we assume she's playing against type, attempting to seem awkward and plain. But something else is at work. She is Kinglsey's receptionist/model, uncomfortable in her own skin, wary of men who see her as just another 'tootsie' and suffering still, from the aftershocks of a recent divorce. She's bristly and nervous and kind of a hairs' breadth away from some sort of breakdown. At least so she seemed to me. She's supposed to be 24 (Marsh never tires of calling her a 'kid') though in truth, she looks older as - all together now - everyone did back then.

Speaking of 'everyone' - here's something you have to know: EVERYONE in this movie is unhappy. I mean, EVERYONE. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's words: 'We're all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.'

Well, can't think who in this film might be looking at stars, maybe Frederic Marsh. But let me tell you, it takes him a while.

Kingsley lives in a large Manhattan apartment with his sister, a meddling 'spinster' who moved in when Kingley's wife passed away. She is unhappy unless she is fussing over her brother, telling him what to do and trying to set him up with lonely widows of a certain age.

There is a rather unsettling scene in which Kingsley rushes home in the afternoon to change a soiled shirt before heading out again and he is corraled by a friend of his sister's brought over to the apartment for the express purpose of catching his interest. She is played beautifully in a rather heart-breaking way by Betty Walker as a desperate, lonely, impervious woman who just can't stop talking. All the while trying to be a gentleman (he is a nice man), Kingsley is forced to run into the bathroom for a moment's breather - a sad/funny moment.

Kingsley has a grown married daughter, Lillian, and a new grandson. Lillian (Joan Copeland) and her hubby Jack (Martin Balsam) live in New Rochelle but spend an awful lot of time hanging around daddy's apartment. Naturally enough, hubby resents this. He is unhappy because he feels slighted since the baby's birth (back then hubbies had little to do with babies) and what's more, it's implied that Lillian is too busy worrying about her father to pay much attention to his (Jack's) needs. He wants to go to Florida on vacation - just the two of them. Lillian resists because 'her father needs her'. More unhappiness.

Here's the basic plot: Up until one fateful day, Kinglsey has paid little attention to Betty (Kim Novak), treating her as just another employee. But when one afternoon he has to stop at her apartment to pick up some papers she inadvertently took home (she wasn't feeling well and fled the workplace), he is drawn into her slightly incoherent tale of woe and spends the rest of the day listening to her talk about her loveless marriage and the nuts and bolts of her divorce.

To me she seems jumpy and ill at ease as if she's on some kind of drug, but that's how she plays the scene and it appears that Kinglsey is intrigued enough to notice that hey, she's a pretty little gal who's had a sad time of it.

A short time later, he asks Betty out to dinner and the die is cast. He is bowled over by her beauty seen in a new light, her neediness, her youthful gaucheness and well, her beauty - did I say that already?

Betty is one needy, unhappy woman. But sometimes that's the attraction and in this case, we have need on both sides. Betty was abandoned by her father when she was a child and her mother, played caustically by Glenda Farrell is not all she should be. Betty is attracted to an older man because she equates age with wisdom (she's the type that needs to be told what to do and what's going to happen) and besides Jerry Kingsley is a nice gentle man and not just some lout looking for a good time.

Jerry is in love. He asks Betty to marry him despite the age difference and despite the fact that there is just the slightest chance that Betty is still hung up on her ex-husband, a musician played by Lee Phillips.

Anyway, once the respective families find out about Jerry and Betty, there is hell to pay. Betty's mom calls Jerry 'a dirty old man'. Jerry's sister is appalled - 'You are making a decision that you will regret for the rest of your life!' Jerry's daughter Lillian is resentful and miserable - Betty is younger than she is. Lillian is full of psycho-babble and unresolved issues. She can't go to Florida her father needs her, she tells her furious hubby, Jack - he's already postponed the initial trip. Their's is not a marriage made in heaven, but maybe that's the way marriages were then. The two seem so unhappy and ill-at-ease with each other. Jack realizes suddenly that Lillian doesn't consider him 'family'. He is told to bow out when he offers his advice on the upcoming marriage.

In the meantime, Betty's friend Marilyn (Lee Grant) thinks she's crazy to even think about marrying 'an old man'. 'In ten years he'll be 66!' She tells Betty that life isn't meant to be happy - you get up in the morning, you struggle and then you die (I'm paraphrasing, but close enough). This is another unhappy, brittle woman whose misery is tangible. I warned you about everyone in this film.

Jeez, no wonder Betty wants to find shelter in Jerry's arms - ancient though they may be. Even if she is still confused and unsure if she loves him. But she likes to think that events have spiraled along and swept her up. Most of all, she hates being lonely and unsure of her next step.

One evening Betty's sleazy ex-husband George (Lee Phillips) shows up at the apartment wanting another chance. She tells him no but allows him to make love to her.

When Jerry finds out (because Betty tells him thinking it will be all right since it meant nothing to her) he is humiliated and breaks off the engagement - he was having second thoughts anyhow what with all the drama back at his apartment. They argue and he tells her he must have some peace, that this is all too much for him. He tells her that hers is a lousy kind of love. And she tells him that it's the only kind of love she knows.

But when his unhappy friend Walter Lockman, facing the ugly truth about himself, attempts suicide. Jerry rushes to his side and decides then and there to seize at happiness with Betty no matter what. He'll have enough peace of mind when he's dead.

A compelling movie with the feel of the old Playhouse 90 telecasts (you of a certain age will know of which I speak) and fabulous acting from Frederic March and the entire cast.

Since it's Tuesday, please remember to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other films and/or audio visuals, other bloggers are posting about. Due to a family emergency, Todd will be playing catch-up with the listings at some point but feel free to check last week's list and the weeks before that. Lots of interesting stuff there.


  1. Smashing review, and I love your comments about the opening few moments of the movie. I think of you when I see them and I wondered if you'd relate to those shots of the city streets in the garment district. I like hearing about your memories of your career there.

  2. Thanks so much, Jacqueline. :) Yes, I had a most interesting working life eons ago. One day I may write my memoirs. Ha!

  3. The movie is such a well-acted piece, but not one you turn to for pleasure. These are people I don't want to spend a lot of time with, but they are unforgettable. I really enjoyed your take on "Middle of the Night".

    1. Thanks, C.W. You are SO right about these being people one wouldn't want to spend a great lot of time with. (That was true of a lot of films of that era, I think.) I tried to imagine what the marriage would be like a few years in and couldn't really. But I hope Jerry found some happiness.

  4. Good review of a movie that seemed different to me when I've seen it in different stages of my life, Yvette. When I was a teenager, I thought it was kind of gross, such an old man, such a young girl. When I was in my 30's, I thought it was so romantic, the older man, a needy younger woman. Then when I was 50, I was angry -- what the hell? Old man, couldn't stand a woman his own age, had to have the pretty young thing. Now I'm a little older -- both people are so needy, the ages really aren't the issue at all. Paddy Chayefsky is such an incredible playwright, his work so layered with the psychology of life, that we see more and more in it as we learn more and more ourselves. This is a good example.

    1. I think I probably felt the same way, Becky. Along the line, I mean. A movie is only as good as what you, yourself, bring to it.

      Need is a great motivator.

  5. Thanks for the great comment. How did I ever miss this movie? Have to see it. I don't know about you, but I am a movie goer. That Hollywood group sucks,
    they are either making an awful redo or the movies or making them for teens. I have walked out of 3 this year.
    Maybe the producers are doing drugs and burnt out their brains, hee hee, haha. yvonne

    1. You're welcome, Yvonne. Most heartfelt.

      Burnt-out brains come with the territory, I think. Ha.

      I'm really surprised they haven't re-done this one.

  6. Yvette, I haven't seen this film but it sounds like a lovely film about an older man in love with a woman half his age and the tugs and pulls that come with such a relationship. I was tickled by your observation about everyone looking older than they were in the film, Oscar Wilde's unforgettable quote, and that everyone in the movie is unhappy. I see a common thread running through it all. As ever, thanks for an excellent review, Yvette.

    1. You're most welcome, Prashant. Glad you enjoyed reading it. It's not a movie for every taste, but it does, in its own way have something important to say about the need to be loved.

  7. I think I more enjoyed your nostalgia for NYC's garment district and your past jobs than the movie review. As always, an entertaining and uplifting read despite the melancholy subject matter. Damn! Fredric March looks like her GREAT-grandfather in that still of Novak with her head on his shoulder. How did anyone believe this romance? I think I'd watch it just to see young Lee Grant who was always one of my favorites.

    Novak gets a bad rap for her lack of acting talent. In her early career she had some good roles where she showed her stuff. Her debut, PUSHOVER alongside Fred MacMurray, was rather impressive, I thought. Was she ALWAYS cast opposite men much older than her? Stewart, Holden, Sinatra, March, etc. Geez!

  8. It seems that way, doesn't it, John. Now that you mention it, that is. I think she was a large screen presence - tended to swallow all the air up there. Hence her co-stars were of the same type and back in the day, that meant older chaps. Only reason I can think of. In the film, Frederic March is so good he makes it work.

    Remember when Novak was dating Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sinatra and his pals broke it up? Well, it was really racist orders from someone else, but everyone feared for Sammy. At least that was the excuse they gave. That's how I remember it, anyway. Those were ugly times.

  9. Great cast as far as I'm concerned.

    I saw this movie years ago, and what I remember is the depressing tone of the movie. I may need to watch it now and evaluate it.

    Too bad about Sammy Davis, Jr. and Kim Novak. I had read the same story about Davis and another woman, too, that their relationship was broken up due to racist threats.

    I would hope that kind of stuff doesn't go on any more.

  10. So, Wikipedia says the studio head, Harry Cohn, wanted to break up Novak and Davis' relationship, and he hired a gangster to not only tell Davis, but to kidnap him for a few hours! Horrible stuff!

  11. Harry Cohn was a thug. He had a horrible rep. I think Kim Novak and Sammy Davis were really in love (at least according to what I remember) so it must have been gut-wrenching. Those were awful times.

    Eventually Davis married Swedish actress May Britt. The marriage lasted 8 years and caused a great deal of controversy at the time.

  12. Just read that Kim Novak married a veteranarian, and they live on a farm, raising horses and llamas. She was injured in an accident but recovered, and has battled breast cancer.

    Interestingly, she also paints and sculpts.


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