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MIDNIGHT (Universal, 1934), directed by Chester Erskine, based on a
stage play, is reproduced as such in this screen adaptation reportedly
filmed and produced in New York City. Headed by Sidney Fox, in one of
her final screen roles and last for Universal, she plays Stella, the
daughter of Edward Weldon, a jury foreman (O.P. Heggie, the actor most
famous today for his role as the blind hermit in THE BRIDE OF
FRANKENSTEIN (1935)) at a trial where a woman, Ethel Saxon (Helen
Flint) is accused of murdering a man who betrayed her. Because Weldon
is solely responsible for the verdict that convicts Saxon to be later
executed at midnight in the electric chair, his personal life changes
dramatically. Weldon is not only hounded by reporters after the trial,
particularly one named Nolan (Henry Hull, the future WEREWOLF OF London
also in 1935) who manages to be a guest at his home on the night of
Saxon's execution, but he must stand firm with his decision regardless.
Stella, who had become acquainted with a man at the trial named Garboni
(Humphrey Bogart), becomes interested in him, unaware that he is a
gangster, but learns about him later on in the story when she notices
that he carries a gun. When Garboni finds himself having to be forced
to leave town, Stella wants to go away with him, but he refuses to let
her do so, but agrees on meeting her one last time before he goes. On
the very night of Ethel Saxon's execution, Stella and Garboni have a
farewell meeting in his car. As the switch is being pulled on Saxon, a
gun shoots off on Garboni. Returning home to her father with the gun in
her hand, Stella admits to shooting Garboni, which puts the old man
into a real predicament as to what to do. Should he stand by his own
merits and have his own daughter arrested for the crime, or find a way
to violate the law and shield her?
Although the story premise is very interesting, especially the subject about a man who feels a murderer must pay the price, only to have his own daughter commit the same kind of crime of passion, MIDNIGHT fails to deliver mainly because of stiff, stagy production with not so convincing dialog. Under capable hands of a more suitable director, for instance, William Wyler, for example, MIDNIGHT might have worked as a tense and moving drama. Sidney Fox, who usually gives a satisfactory performance, seems to be the weakest link here, talking somewhat shaky at times for no reason. She's not very convincing, especially during her emotional scenes. Occasionally the camera shots moving at different angles keeps the pace moving, but not enough to hold one's interest at 73 minutes.
Other capable members of the cast include Margaret Wycherly as Mrs. Weldon; future director Richard Wholf as Stella's brother, Arthur; Lynne Overman and Katherine Wilson as Joe and Ada Biggers, tenants of the Weldon household; Granville Bates, Cora Witherspoon, Henry O'Neill, and Moffatt Johnston as a district attorney who is called to the Weldon home to solve the mystery to Garboni's murder.
To capitalize on the success of future film star Humphrey Bogart, MIDNIGHT was later reissued in 1946 as CALL IT MURDER with Bogey being given star billing, the very print available to video cassette and DVD. It's the former Blackhawk Video Company of Davenport, Iowa, that distributed the movie on videotape with it's original "Midnight" title, opening credits headed by SIdney Fox, O.P. Heggie and Henry Hill, with Bogart's name listed eighth in the cast, as initially presented in theaters in 1934.
MIDNIGHT will never be listed in Hollywood's Top Ten Best list, but it's worth viewing for being an early screen appearance of future superstar Humphrey Bogart or a rediscovery of Sidney Fox, whose movie career (mostly at Universal) lasted only three years. Fox and Bogart had worked together earlier in THE BAD SISTER (1931), which not only became Fox's movie debut, but the future two-time Academy Award winning actress, Bette Davis. (***)
Interesting film that explores the outcome of a murder trial on the jury formant and his family. A drama unfolds in the jury formans house on the night of the execution with surprising results for the legalistic jury forman who swayed the jurys verdict. Also interesting because the film features a very young Humphrey Bogart in a small role. The only disapointment is that Bogart didnt have more screen time. A better than average early message movie.
MIDNIGHT (reissued by "Guaranteed Pictures" in 1947 as CALL IT MURDER
with eighth billed Humphrey Bogart - now famous - elevated to top
billing for his supporting role) was originally filmed at the Biograph
Studios in Queens, New York, for Universal Pictures, based on a Theatre
Guild production of the same name (but called IN THE MEANTIME during
its tryout tour).
While the stage production disappointed the critics and was not extended beyond its initial subscription run (48 perf., December 29, 1930 - Feb. 1931 at the Guild Theatre), Claire and Paul Sifton's examination of the flaws in the idea that "the law is the law" regardless of justice or tempering with mercy was interesting enough to justify Universal's committing a cast from the top of their second tier to turning out a decent "programmer" to fill the demand for films to keep the screens they controlled occupied between their major releases and training stars in the making (like Bogart and Sidney Fox).
The original play concerned the foreman of a jury, a man named Edward Weldon (O.P. Heggie on screen), which had condemned a woman for the murder of a man who was leaving her - only to find, two acts later, his daughter (Fox) in a similar situation.
Director Chester Erskine (at the start of a career which would see well remembered work on such "A" releases as THE EGG AND I, ALL MY SONS and ANDROCLES AND THE LION, working as director, writer and producer for another 40 years), while unable to produce the figurative "silk purse" out of a possible "sow's ear" of a melodrama, opened up the play, originally set only in the Weldon living room, with excellent - and given the period, surprisingly sophisticated - crosscutting between the condemned woman, the daughter's developing affair and the moral quandary around the Weldon himself.
If the 30's structure of the argument may strike many as dated today, and the "deus ex machina" solution to one of Weldon's problems too pat to be genuinely satisfying, they probably are - but the elder Weldon's overly strict, unbending interpretation of his moral and civic obligations is hardly unknown today as an excuse for lack of thought or bigotry. A remake with more "modern" technique might indeed be well received, but the implicit melodrama would be just as blatant.
While Humphrey Bogart's role is a relatively small one (although it is woven through most of the film), it makes for legitimately fascinating viewing as a transitional role for the handsome actor who had been playing stage juveniles. He had had 15 Broadway roles in the 12 years - and 9 films in the three years - before making this film, but would only have two more Broadway credits afterward (but 66 films). His Gar Boni in MIDNIGHT is very well done in a more modern style than many around him (see the similar effect the young Helen Hayes achieved with the same then "fresh" realistic style in 1932's FAREWELL TO ARMS) before finding the "world weary" persona that won career-making acclaim for his "Duke Mantee" opposite Leslie Howard on Broadway and screen just two years later.
It may be of some interest that on stage, the supporting role of Arthur Weldon (played in the film by future director Richard Whorf) was created by actor/playwright Clifford Odets.
Finding a good print of MIDNIGHT or even CALL IT MURDER may not be easy, but the search may be worth it. Don't expect a polished "modern" film, and shallow film buffs who don't appreciate history or context will probably hate it, but true film connoisseurs shouldn't miss this one for what IS there.
This early Bogart movie is only available on DVD/video in a reissue print entitled "Call it Murder". This print lists Bogart above the title instead of 8th in the cast as in the original release, and was obviously resurrected to cash in on Bogart's post 1930's fame. He is adequate in a small part, but the film is a slow-moving filming of a 1930 play that is interesting enough as a moral melodrama, but also mercifully short. The interest lies in the sequences in the courtroom and death chamber, which eschew the stage-bound grouping, and ponderous delivery of the body of the film, and uses the camera in an imaginative and cinematic way. Worth a look as a 30's melodrama, but don't expect a Bogart movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Midnight was a film shot in New York by a whole bunch of Broadway
players who had nothing else to do during afternoons when there were no
matinees. By coincidence nearly the whole cast went on to Hollywood and
appeared in productions better than this.
O.P. Heggie plays the foreman of a jury that convicted a woman of first degree murder, thereby advancing the career of the District Attorney. On the night that the convicted woman is to die, in fact at the stroke of midnight, Heggie's daughter, Sidney Fox, kills her gangster boyfriend Humphrey Bogart who's running out on her.
It's a crime of passion, just like the one that Heggie and the jury he led convicted that other woman for. I don't want to spoil the ending of this film if you're interested in seeing it. Let us just say that a District Attorney is a good friend to have.
Fans of Humphrey Bogart will of course want to see this. Right after this Bogey appeared in The Petrified Forest on Broadway and came to Hollywood to do the film version. The rest is history, but if Bogey hadn't scored such a hit in The Petrified Forest, Midnight might well have been his screen epitaph.
What a horrible thought.
One must judge this movie along-side its contemporaries. It is an outstanding example of the numerous "women with law problems" pictures of the Thirties. It avoids the sentimentality and masochistic suffering that the female lead predictably, and monotonously undergoes. Instead of a simple morality tale, with the focus on a single character's torment, we are presented with one of the earliest examples of Noir that I know, complete with dark despair, pessimism, and cynicism. The Law, in-laws, ambitious DAs, insensitive fourflushers and amoral bourgeois relatives, and an ambiguously moral reporter all serve to subvert the movie's latent sentimentality and cause us to question our moral bearings. Bogart is excellent in his brief role, but it is ridiculous to judge this movie by his screen time. All the acting is excellent (save Ms. Fox?) and the casting superb. The direction is inventive, especially considering the confining main set, with many startling close-ups, camera angles, and tableaux. Consider this movie in terms of the original "Chicago" (the play, 1927), its remake as the movie Roxie Hart (W. Wellman, 1942) and "Chicago," 2002. You'll see it has a lot to add to this theme, and is worthy of consideration in its own right.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It was somewhat comical to see the full screen opening credit given
Humphrey Bogart in this re-release version from Guaranteed Pictures.
One of the mainstays of the public domain bargain bin, "Call It Murder"
provides an early look at the future star in a limited role, which in
retrospect could have been played by virtually anyone.
Bogey's character is a minor hood named Gar Boni, caught in a predicament that requires him to leave town after getting involved with the daughter of a jury foreman. We don't find out much about his circumstances but they must be grim, an accomplice responds to Gar's penchant for baseball by asking - "Hey kid, they got any bulletproof grandstands out there?"
Throughout the trial, Stella Weldon (Sidney Fox) finds herself at odds with her father's role; he was able to steer the jury to find Ethel Saxon (Helen Flint) guilty of murder by virtue of pre-meditation. The entire film is used to explore Weldon's (O.P. Heggie) resolve with the verdict in the face of public disapproval and mounting controversy over Saxon's execution. It provides the set up for his own daughter's circumstances when she pulls the trigger on Gar, a case of the jilted lover lashing out. Did she have time to think about what she would do, or was it an instinctive crime of passion?
Overall, the film could have used better pacing, there were moments that seemed to drag incessantly. I was intrigued though by an interesting use of camera angles in a scene where Gar's departure from Stella is reflected in a mirror at the bottom of the staircase in the Weldon home. The picture might also have gotten more mileage out of the device of cutting between scenes of Weldon's conscience bound pacing with that of the doomed Saxon in her prison cell. The idea was a good one but was buried too quickly to make the point it could have.
In it's way, the movie is a viable pre-cursor to the noir films of the following decade, it's dark and brooding, with the female lead encountering desperation as her payoff, whether or not D.A. Plunkett (Moffat Johnston) succeeds in digging her out of a mess. Her father meanwhile is left to wrestle his own conscience over the quandary of whether justice for one ought to be the basis of justice for all. An interesting moral dilemma as well as a legal one, the story works to confound us all if faced with the same situation.
Humphrey Bogart plays Garboni a gangster involved with the daughter of a jury foreman who helped convict a women of shooting the man who betrayed her. The pressure that falls upon this man and those around him makes the films story. This film is interesting for two reasons it explores guilt from two different perspectives on two different people giving the audience a wide range of emotions and consequences of dealing with the murder. Secondly it features Bogart in a small role, that should have been given more screen time. Bogart was still relatively unknown to the movie going public at the time it was made, of course he has a part that can be categorized as a 'heavy' a role he would fill many times until Maltese Falcon, where he would break through and finally play a lead role that did not require him to be a gangster.
This film was originally called "Midnight." In a noir set that I have,
it's titled "Call it Murder" and Humphrey Bogart is top-billed.
Originally he was listed as 8th in the cast, as he really doesn't have
that much to do. It's of interest because of his presence - he plays a
criminal, but he's a young leading man here - but otherwise, there
isn't much to recommend it.
Why this is in a film noir set is beyond me. It's a melodrama (based on a play) that moves like an iceberg. The acting is stilted, as is the dialogue. The plot centers around a jury foreman (O.P. Heggie) whose jury has sent a young woman to the electric chair, and she is due to die that evening. People are begging him to stop the execution. This is my first problem. What can he do other than say there was a miscount? Anyway, he stands by his decision. When his own daughter (Sidney Fox) lands in the same predicament, claiming she killed her lover, Gar Boni (Bogart), one wonders how resolute he will be then. Pretty resolute. Ready to send her up the river, which I think is totally unrealistic behavior.
All this doesn't add up to much, but it's always a treat to see Bogart, and especially interesting at such an early point in his magnificent career. He's quite good. In fact, he's the only one who doesn't have huge pauses between his sentences and speaks in a decent rhythm. The director really didn't pace this movie too well. It's early days for talkies, and many actors were still adjusting their technique from stage to film.
An oldie, but unfortunately, not a goodie.
I have recently watched this film again. This time I realized that there is a lot in the movie besides just seeing Bogart in one of his early films. This movie makes a very strong statement about capital punishment. Equally as strong is its statement on who you know if you want to beat a rap. The whole movie takes place during a few hours before the scheduled execution of a woman who killed her lover who was going to leave her. Except for the beginning court scenes, and prison scenes, and a couple of scenes where Bogart is in a room somewhere, and when he and Sidney Fox are in his car, the movie takes place at the home of the jury foreman who found the woman guilty. A news reporter gets into the house with a radio and a surprise at the end so that the public can witness what it's like for that foreman as the scheduled execution time approaches. What you may think is a surprise ending really isn't the end at all. Keep watching for the twist involving the district attorney who has his eye on the governorship. This film, like Bogart and Huston's Beat The Devil, is in the public domain.
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