Monday, March 8, 2010

Richard Hilliard's Violent Midnight (1963)

Richard Hilliard's Violent Midnight (1963) is a suspenseful exploitation film whose beauty lies in its execution: the film only remembers to be a thriller when it has to be, despite producer Del Tenney wishing that Violent Midnight had more suspenseful scenes. The film's original title, Psychomania, is evocative of its chief commercial inspiration, but thankfully, the film's theme is overshadowed by its lackadaisical style and perhaps inadvertent meandering and poetic pacing (making its other alternative title, Black Autumn, eerily appropriate. "Black Autumn" is also a folkish song sang by one of the film's female college students with extremely bizarre lyrics with its actress delivering an aloof rendition). Violent Midnight is also highly sensual and risque and the scenes of sexuality within the film were demanded from its distributors. A juvenile delinquent film and a pre-cursor giallo, drive-in entertainment, arthouse style.
Elliot (Lee Phillips) is a Korean War veteran and an artist. His current model, Dolores (Kaye Elhardt), has a strong attraction to him, but Elliot doesn't feel the same way. Leather-jacket clad Charlie Perone (James Farentino) used to date Delores and when he sees Elliot and Delores together at the local dive bar, he picks a fight with the aloof painter. Elliot gives him a beating and probably would have killed him if the fight wasn't broken up by the bartenders. Back at Dolores's pad, Elliot learns that she's pregnant and claims that the child is Elliot's. He splits. Dolores is murdered by a figure with black gloves in black boots. Elliot's half-sister, Lynn (Margot Harman), arrives after quite a few years away from her brother (the father the two shared biologically died years before in a mysterious hunting accident) to attend the local women's college. Elliot takes Lynn to the college and while there, he captures the eye of sultry vixen, Alice St. Clare (Lorraine Rogers); but his artist's eye and heart is captured by sweet-natured Carol Bishop (Jean Hale). Cool. Lieutenant Palmer (Dick Van Patten) meets Elliot outside the college to interrogate him about Dolores' murder. Not cool.After Dolores's opening murder, perhaps it was more me, the viewer, than Hilliard or Tenney who forgot that Violent Midnight is a murder mystery, only because the film's allure is watching this disparate group of people in a small Connecticut town interact and hang out. (Although Richard Hilliard is the credited director, Tenney reveals during the audio commentary on the DVD that Violent Midnight was the first film that he produced and directed. Hilliard is the credited director, according to Tenney, because Tenney "didn't want to take all of the credit.") Too much eye candy is on display and scenery-chewing becomes the norm, despite Dick Van Patten's character popping in on every one to remind them that a murder has occurred. Elliot lives in his artist's retreat, a castle (a studio in Connecticut, according to Tenney). The local dive bar looks like a garage turned juke-joint while the tenement houses where Charlie Perrone lives (along with his sometimes gal, Silvia (Sylvia Miles in a scene-stealing performance)) are the stereotypical homes from "the other side of the tracks." Finally, there's the women's liberal arts college where everything just seems rosy despite one of the professors being a fairly overt peeping tom.In all of these fantastic locations, the characters of Violent Midnight sashay around the scenery. Elliot is a square only because his character has to stay flat in order to provide some mystery around the murders. Farentino's Perrone is a cross between James Dean and Marlon Brando from Rebel Without a Cause to The Wild One to A Streetcar Named Desire, all filtered down to cool motorcycle riding, languid posing, and handsome-man mugging. Charlie's a chump, though. The ladies of Violent Midnight are the real attraction: from Miles's wonderful tough-girl character to Harman's Lynn (Tenney's wife who also contributed to the story). Her first meeting with Elliot at the train station is memorable, as it looks like little sis has gotta thing for older brother. Hale's Carol and especially Rogers's Alice are the highlights. I've always loved the bad girls in film and Rogers fits the role to a tee. She drinks and smokes, wears the most provocative bathing suit, fancies a shag in the laundry room or by a moonlit lake, and generally exudes sexuality in every scene. Truly sex on wheels. Pretty Carol, as portrayed by Hale, is Donna Reed in high-water pants, smart, sassy, and sweet. Dick Van Patten is a "just the facts, ma'am" and he is terrific.The plot of Violent Midnight just really gets in the way, but I love murder mysteries so when the film wants to play detective, I'm game. Despite the fact that there are no real clues and it's kind of obvious who's a red herring and who's a genuine suspect, watching Van Patten interact with all of the characters was fun enough. The giallo-esque black gloves and atmospheric killings remind all of us how influential Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) truly was. Sexuality and psychology became the background for killings, and Violent Midnight is in this vein. Van Patten tells Silvia and Charlie at one point, "Hey lady, you've been holed up in here for nineteen hours. Even turtles got to come up for air." Sums up Violent Midnight, perfectly.All objective facts about the production are from Del Tenney's audio commentary included on the Dark Sky Films's DVD.


Ben said...

I think Del Tenney gets a raw deal from film fans sometimes and doesn't seem to have the cult following he really deserves.

All the films I've seen by him - this one, 'Horror of Party Beach', 'Curse of the Living Corpse' - pretty much kick ass, and are smarter, funnier and more shocking than you'd expect, yet he's often written off as a useless/junk director... maybe just cos he made that apparently awful I Eat Your Skin/Voodoo whatever movie?

© Deliria said...

What is also interesting about this movie is its influence on David Lynch, namely TWIN PEAKS. Not only the small-town murder story, but the characters - its part of the fun to spot them: the cop with the hearing aid, the innocent biker guy, etc.
//some TP pics to illustrate this is included here: