Middle of the Night
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Before it irrevocably went the Vast Wasteland route, while it was still discovering what it could be, while it still faced America with hope and aspiration, TV was filling pop and middlebrow culture with refreshing new energies. Hollywood sensed them and lost little time glomming onto them. TV was the launching pad for the likes of Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer and especially the writing-directing team of Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann. In Marty (1955), The Bachelor Party (1956) and Middle of the Night (1959), they triangulated what was soon, and ever afterward, to be recalled with a mix of ruefulness and nostalgia as TV's Golden Age.
With its intimate scale, TV was made for the small naturalistic moments that were meat and drink to Chayefsky. His characters were resolutely mundane. No small part of his success on early TV stemmed from the fact that much of his audience could identify with them, saw themselves and pieces of their lives in his realistically detailed dramas. Middle of the Night was the one that should have flopped, largely because it took a great actor Fredric March and miscast him as a lonely but still vigorous 56-year-old widower and NYC garment center lifer not yet ready to call it quits.
The word "distinguished" almost automatically follows mention of March's name, although one of his strengths was that, while sometimes stagy, he was never showy. He moved easily between Broadway and Hollywood, sometimes alongside his actress wife, Florence Eldridge, won Oscars® for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Kudos for Death of a Salesman (1951) lay behind him and praise forInherit the Wind (1960) ahead. First offered the stage role by Arthur Miller, his neighbor in Connecticut, March turned it down it went to Lee J. Cobb but didn't make the same mistake twice when it was filmed. Yet more than Willy Loman was in Salesman, Jerry Kingsley is specifically Jewish, and March, inescapably, was not. In an ethnicity-blurring Hollywood copout typical of the period, the film de-emphasized Jerry's Jewishness.
Against the odds, though, March makes it work and is touching as Kingsley. Also overcoming odds, and flying in the face of the preponderance of reviews denigrating her acting abilities, is Kim Novak, as the 24-year-old receptionist, Betty, in Jerry's busy frock factory (showroom in front, pattern-making and cutting tables in back) off Seventh Avenue. He falls for her, for the promise of continued vitality and love he hopes he's not kidding himself about seeing in her. She, coming out of a bad marriage to a musician her own age, finds his maturity, decency, emotional solidity and, yes, bank balance, reassuring, while not untouched by his obvious passion for her. As everyone connected to them wrings their hands and expresses misgivings, the question is whether they can make a May-December match-up work. In a sense the film, too, is about beating the odds.
And finding the courage to risk. Jerry and Betty have misgivings, too. One of the reasons Middle of the Night works so well is Mann's way, having learned from TV's tight framing, of letting faces tell the story. He finds ways to let March's weathered but strong visage say as much with introspective facial expressions as Chayefsky's script does with words. Chayefsky had such an ear for the vernacular music of New York that he was sometimes seduced by his own siren songs, sometimes let the speeches run too long. Here his capacity for discipline is more evident. Lines are more honed. The characters speak in italicized ways. Their pronouncements come close to captions, beacons leading us through the story.
But we do begin to slowly believe that we're watching love trying to find the courage to take shape in the old man and the young woman by their reaction shots to what they realize they're beginning to feel. March does a lot by fixing his gaze on a future that lies beyond what's happening in the here and now of the frame. He rejects his married daughter's attempt to play matchmaker with a string of widows genteelly on the make. He just fixes his eyes beyond them, his gaze saying all that needs to be said about looking past the boundaries of the future being served up to him. When March speaks such lines as "I'm 56 years old, my life is coming to an end, everybody's in the hospital or retired," or "I'm 56 years old, I come home, I'm tired, I want to go to bed," they seem almost redundant. March has located Jerry's psychic and emotional world and ushered us into it.
Apart from what by today's terms seems anachronistic in a 56-year-old man buying into his world's assessment of him as ancient, March persuades us that one of the things Jerry's gaze is fixed on as he stares into the distance, is death. He's as unsmiling as he is, this still-vital man, because he sees the rest of his life as brief and bleak. In his business partnership with Albert Dekker's Lockman, we gather that the extroverted, blustery Lockman is the outside man and that Jerry is the inside man, keeping the place going while the other partner goes out and schmoozes the world. Lockman works hard, in a crude, blowhard way, to sustain the image of himself as a ladies' man with a string of what he refers to as "tootsies." Still, there's something in the spectacle of Lockman grabbing at life that gets to Jerry.
Time and again, it's March's (and Novak's, and Mann's) ability to make us feel the story taking place in an inner landscape of fears being grappled with that gives Middle of the Night its potency. Not that the outside world is neglected. All that needs to be said about the respective worlds each is coming from is made emblematic by Novak's shabby flat in a brownstone next door to a Bodega Latina. It contrasts with March's comfortable Central Park West apartment, with its chintz-covered sofa, its mahogany end tables and that epitome of mid-century Manhattan moderne, the sunburst clock above the mantel. Blocks apart geographically, a world apart economically and socially.
Not that Novak's Betty needs a class divide to push the buttons on her insecurities. Ever since Columbia's Harry Cohn launched her, critics repeatedly wrote that Novak's looks far outstripped her acting abilities. In role after role, she seemed tentative, in over her head. But in Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock realized that the uncertainty she radiated would be a tremendous asset in the character of a woman being remade to fit male fantasies projected onto her by Hitchcock and his surrogate in the film, Jimmy Stewart. Mann saw it, too. Novak's Betty is touching because she convinces us she's vulnerable, an insecure woman who doesn't know what she wants, much less how to get it.
Jerry's fears, his jealousy of every young man who comes into Betty's vision, potentially displacing him, are countered by Betty's low self-esteem. At one point, Chayefsky has Betty tell Jerry: "If you weren't such a decent man, you'd probably make out better with me." Her ex, who isn't such a decent man, despite a surprisingly ingratiating, cliché-avoiding performance by Lee Philips, reappears and pushes her into a one-nighter. It's enough to jolt the fragile Jerry-Betty join. As they agonize, apart and together on a park bench, Chayefsky makes each honest enough to acknowledge that a break-up would also carry with it a certain relief, an exchange of exposure and emotional risk for a scuttling back to safe, loveless harbors.
Chayefsky's script ups the ante by surrounding each with nay-sayers. In Jerry's case, it's his possessive sister (Edith Meiser) and even more possessive married daughter (Joan Copeland), whose alarm over Jerry falling for a younger woman is countered by a punchy worm-turns speech from her hitherto conciliatory husband, delivered in perfect emotional pitch by a young Martin Balsam. Betty, meanwhile, is undermined by her crass mother and sister (Glenda Farrell, Jan Norris). Both try to push her back to her ex, to a marriage in which Betty tells Jerry she felt she was marching into a gas chamber every night at 11. The supporting roles, as was so often the case, are nothing but plusses. Balsam, Philips and two other actors (Betty Walker, Effie Afton) came from the successful Broadway stage version of 1956, starring Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands. It followed the 1954 TV original with E. G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint.
But you don't watch Middle of the Night for anything but the main event, the involving struggle of two people against their fears, insecurities, backslidings and all the other roadblocks between them and going for it, the "it," of course, being love, as it always would be beneath the gruff, punchy chat from the long-simmering typewriter of that old romantic, Chayefsky.
Producer: George Justin
Director: Delbert Mann
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky (screenplay and play)
Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun
Art Direction: Edward S. Haworth
Music: George Bassman, Joseph Harnell (uncredited)
Film Editing: Carl Lerner
Cast: Fredric March (Jerry Kingsley), Kim Novak (Betty Preisser), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. Mueller), Albert Dekker (Walter Lockman), Martin Balsam (Jack), Lee Grant (Marilyn), Lee Philips (George Preisser), Edith Meiser (Evelyn Kingsley), Joan Copeland (Lillian), Betty Walker (Rosalind Neiman), Lou Gilbert (Sherman), Rudy Bond (Gould).
by Jay Carr
The Films of Fredric March, by Lawrence J. Quirk, The Citadel Press
A World on Film: Criticism and Comment, by Stanley Kauffmann, Harper & Row