Occasionally referred to by the relatively few who have seen it as a Southern precursor to David Lynch's Twin Peaks, 1974's The Midnight Man is an exceptional neo-noir starring the one and only Burt Lancaster as Jim Slade: an ex-cop from Chicago, who also happens to be an ex-con. Released from stir after serving a stint over a crime of passion (which is, thankfully, only alluded to), Slade accepts a job as a night watchman at a college in a tiny, sleepy-eyed town in the South; an invitation for a new life extended by his old friend, fellow ex-cop Quartz (the great Cameron Mitchell, who either dominates or hams up every scene he's in). Quartz himself, meanwhile, is laid up after receiving a broken leg while attempting to spoil a restaurant robbery he happens to walk in on.
But random restaurant robberies are the least of anyone's concern, for this tiny little college town has an awful lot to offer in terms of mayhem and murder. First, an audio cassette revealing the secret of a tormented coed (young Catherine Bach, in one of her earliest roles) is stolen. Next, said coed herself is murdered ‒ prompting the "once a cop, always a cop" Slade to start an unofficial investigation into just what the heck is going on, despite being unable to do so due to his felon status. Joining the cast of surrealistic characters in this subtly wild, sometimes downright shocking mystery (complete with a dose of hicksploitation!) are Susan Clark as Lancaster's probation officer, Harris Yulin as the yokel sheriff, Morgan Woodward, Robert Quarry, Ed Lauter, and Quinn Redeker.
Unlike many neo-noir titles of the time, The Midnight Man offers something more important than the usual amount of twists and turns: a well-written script, solid direction (both of which come to us courtesy Mr. Lancaster himself, who co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed the movie with Columbo regular Roland Kibbee), and an utterly amazing assembling of actors and actresses who not only know their characters inside and out, but know how to play them. Naturally, it was all too much for audiences of the mid '70s, most of whom dismissed the title as being too "convoluted" (read: intelligent). Thus, The Midnight Man was forced into an early retirement; it would never see the light of day on home video in the U.S. Until now.
Apart from a long-standing partnership with Shout! Factory, it isn't common for other home video labels to issue Universal properties on disc. And that right there makes Kino Lorber's release of The Midnight Man all the more exceptional. Presented in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, Kino Lorber's transfer is as sublimely beautiful to behold as was the movie itself for me. A clear DTS-HD soundtrack accompanies the film, and an audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson to boot. Much like they did with Gold, the pair pack the track with fun facts and anecdotes surrounding the film ‒ save for when Cameron Mitchell's nekkid backside leaves them speechless (and a few brief instances where the track has obviously been edited).
Optional English subtitles are also included, as is the original theatrical trailer and previews for several other (mostly Lancaster-oriented) features. All in all, there's a lot to be found in this fabulous forgotten flick from the '70s ‒ be it a brief supporting role by Burt Lancaster's son Bill (who is perhaps best known for penning the screenplay for John Carpenter's The Thing) or Dave Grusin' oft-funky score (to say nothing of that hilariously hideous theme song performed by a marvelously off-key Yvonne Elliman). Ultimately, of course, it's the actual film itself that is so darn intriguing. So much so, that ‒ just like Jim Slade can't stop being a detective ‒ I cannot help but recommended it to those who not only love a great mystery, but who love a great movie as well.
The Midnight Man arrives strikes Blu-ray and DVD on February 26, 2019 from Kino Lorber.