This was not the film I’d intended to review this week. I’d something very different lined up. But you know what they say about serendipity? That it can suddenly come out of nowhere, and bowl you completely over. I won’t say The Midnight Story totally mesmerised me, but it made me change my mind about what my post was going to be about.
This film is set in San Francisco, bang in the heart of the Italian quarter—all the main characters in the story are Italian, and there’s a delightfully authentic whiff of Italia through it all. From the seafood eatery run by the suspect, to the very Latin loveliness of the female lead, to the Catholic church at the heart of the community…
…to the gentle priest, Father Tomasino, who is murdered in a dark alley one night, as the credits roll. Within the next minute, as the names of the cast and crew fill much of the screen, we see police cars arriving, Forensics getting to work, and finally—at the police chief’s office—a bunch of journalists trying to get a word with the chief, Lt. Kilrain (Ted de Corsia). Just before Kilrain shoos them away, in comes traffic cop Joe Martini (Tony Curtis).
Sgt Gillen (Jay C Flippen), who’s on duty, sees that Joe is looking rather shaken. Joe admits to him that he’s heard about Father Tomasino’s murder. Joe was very close to the priest, and the man’s death has hit him really hard. He asks Sgt Gillen if he (Joe) can be transferred to Homicide, so that he can help find the murderer. Out of the question, says Gillen firmly (he’s not brutal, though; he understands why Joe would want to be involved in this investigation—but Joe, after all, is a traffic cop. He’d be out of his depth in Homicide).
Lt Kilrain too refuses, when Joe approaches him.
A disappointed Joe leaves the office and goes to the place which was once home for him: St Eustace’s Orphanage. When a six-year old Joe’s parents had died, Father Tomasino had brought Joe here. Though it’s been years since Joe left, he still comes back a couple of times a week, and is hugely popular with the little boys around.
This time, Joe has a brief chat with Mother Catherine (Helen Wallace), who urges him to pray for Father Tomasino’s soul and for the soul of the man who killed him. Joe is too distressed to pay heed.
But, at Father Tomasino’s funeral, Joe (who is one of the pall bearers) sees a man even more distressed than he is. The man looks as if he’s crumbling to bits on the inside; the rosary wrapped around his knuckles is so tight that it’s digging into his flesh; and he eventually flees the funeral.
There is more to this, thinks Joe, who is immediately suspicious. Yes, Father Tomasino was well-liked by everybody in the neighbourhood—but on nobody has his death had such a dramatic effect. Surely there’s something fishy here?
Once the funeral is over, Joe goes to Lt Kilrain to describe what he’s just seen. He admits that he recognises the man in question—a certain Sylvio Malatesta (Gilbert Roland); he also admits that this is just a hunch, no more.
Lt Kilrain again refuses; a hunch isn’t proof. And, as has already been verified by Father Tomasino’s colleague, Father Guiseppe (John Cliff), Father Tomasino was universally liked. Why should they suspect Malatesta?
A deflated Joe leaves Kilrain’s office—and, in the corridor outside, hands over his badge to Sgt Gillen. If he cannot investigate Father Tomasino’s murder as part of his job (he’s been ordered not to), he’ll do it as a private individual.
Gillen advises Joe against this rash decision; if he wants to get reinstated in the police at a later stage, it’s going to be a long and tedious process. But Joe has his mind made up.
Next, Joe goes to meet Sylvio Malatesta. Malatesto runs a small seafood eatery overlooking the bay. It’s a tiny countertop place; Sylvio does his fishing and his own cooking and service.
Sylvio doesn’t know Joe, but they get to chatting—Sylvio is a friendly sort—and Joe spins him a yarn about being broke, new in town, and looking for a job. Joe tells Sylvio that a friend of Joe’s had recommended trying to ask Sylvio for a job. Would that be possible?
Sylvio is regretful; he doesn’t need anybody right now. He offers to let Joe know if something comes up—where should he contact Joe?
When Joe says he hasn’t found a place to live yet, Sylvio insists that Joe come home for dinner. He can do that much, even if he can’t give Joe a job right now.
So Joe accompanies Sylvio home—and is introduced to Sylvio’s small but interesting family. There is Mama (Argentina Brunetti), motherly and sweet, and instantly likeable.
There is Sylvio’s teenaged younger brother Pietro ‘Peanuts’ (Richard Monda)…
… and there is Sylvio’s and Peanuts’s cousin, the lovely Anna (Marisa Pavan), who’s currently trying to teach herself shorthand so that she can get herself a job. Both Sylvio and Mama are hell-bent on finding a good husband for Anna—a mission that riles her immensely. Even more embarrassingly for Anna, both mother and son seem to have cottoned on to Joe’s eligibility as a prospective spouse for Anna.
At any rate, by the time dinner is over, Sylvio has decided he does have room at his eatery for an assistant; Joe can join the next day. And, since the Malatestas have a room to spare, Joe can shift in with them.
Which, naturally, is a windfall for Joe. If he can work and live in close proximity to Sylvio, it’ll hopefully just be a matter of time before Joe is able to find out what connection there was between Sylvio and Father Tomasino.
Sure enough, it’s not long before Joe sees definite signs of unease. Sylvio paces the floor late into the night, back and forth, back and forth, long after the rest of the household has gone to sleep…
…and Joe, staying with the man and his family, working with the man, slowly comes to realise that Sylvio is a very likeable, large-hearted man. Why would he have killed Father Tomasino (if he did, that is; Joe is becoming increasingly unsure of that hunch)? When Joe tries to drop subtle hints about his own sorrow at the priest’s death, Sylvio is understanding and empathetic, yet steady, not overly dramatic. Can this man be a murderer?
Joe had flung himself into this investigation with all the fervour of a man convinced of what he believed to be the truth. But as time passes—as he falls in love with Anna, becomes almost part of the family (something he’s craved for, all his life as an orphan)…
… he must face up to the fact that either way, he will not be contented. If Sylvio is the murderer, Joe will have to battle with himself to arrest the man. And if Sylvio isn’t the murderer, Joe will not be able to rest easy until he’s found the actual culprit.
When I started watching The Midnight Story, I thought this was going to be just another hard-boiled noir film. It is, in places. There is Joe’s quest to find clues, leading him to the sleazy Vida Pinelli (Peggy Maley), who seems to have a link to somebody who may have had something to do with the priest’s murder…
There is his collaboration with Sgt Gillen, and even Lt Kilrain, as he discovers truths and half-truths that might have some bearing on the case. There’s a little bit of police procedure, and some red herrings, some blind alleys.
But what sets The Midnight Story apart is the engrossing way in which the writer Edwin Blum and the director Joseph Pevney manage to make this not just a crime story, but one also of love (and not merely romance), and of dilemma—till the point where Joe is perhaps not sure he even wants to know the truth.
What I liked about the film:
The way it blends noir with other genres.
Interestingly, while watching The Midnight Story, the one film I was constantly reminded of was The Crimson Kimono. On a superficial level, there is the fact that the lead character in both is a cop, and that there’s a markedly ethnic feel to both films—Italian and Japanese, respectively. (Unlike The Crimson Kimono, though, The Midnight Story doesn’t touch on racism).
More importantly, both films go deeper than the crime and its investigation. There is dilemma, conflict, drama—and, in the case of Joe Martini, the bewildering way in which the lines between true and false, right and wrong, blur and sharpen and again blur so rapidly.
Tony Curtis. One of my favourite actors, and terribly underrated by being best known for his romantic comedies. I think of him as a very versatile actor, and here he gets a chance to show off his skill at drama. (Incidentally, Curtis himself spent part of his childhood in an orphanage along with his brother, when their parents were unable to support them any longer).
What I didn’t like:
Let’s skip this. I did like everything about this film, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes noir. Or drama. Or both.
Do note that this one’s a little hard to get hold of; but some kind soul has uploaded it on Youtube, here.