Joseph Pevney is a name you don’t hear often, although his output as a director was prolific. He made eighty or so productions, and gained success with a few commercial hits, including Female on the Beach, Tammy and the Bachelor, and (fun fact!) the first 14 episodes of Star Trek.
His mostly forgotten The Midnight Story (1957) is one film that deserves to be better known. It’s not that it’s visually stylish – it’s solidly unremarkable for the most part. But tonally, the film is unconventional, satisfyingly pessimistic, and worthy of your attention.
The film opens with a murder. The victim is a beloved priest, whose death rocks the community. Frustrated by the police’s lack of leads, traffic cop Joe Martini (Tony Curtis) asks to take it on himself. He’s denied the duty, so hands in his badge and goes it alone with a suspect already in mind – an Italian seafood restaurant owner named Sylvio Malatesta. Joe befriends the man and moves in with him and his charming family. He falls for their niece Anna in the process, and eventually with the entire family. And here’s the rub: Joe finds himself increasingly torn between his duty as a cop and his love of the family.
Pevney’s San Francisco is a sunny melting pot of fresh seafood, friendly neighbours, and harmonious American, Chinese and Italian communities. Doesn’t sound like the traditional stock of 1950s crime noir, right? It seems to lack many of the genre’s tropes: the cop isn’t a jaded, hardboiled fortysomething, the killer has a conscience, and the dame’s no femme fatale. There is a murder, though. And Joe’s monomaniacal drive to find the killer, even at the cost of his job – and newfound family. And then there’s a real loneliness that simmers underneath it all.
The film ricochets between joyful occasions – dances, marriage proposals, family mealtimes – and surprisingly bleak negativity. Carefree Sylvio paces the floor all night, Anna discovers Joe was a cop, and moods change in seconds as Joe bounces between his faith and mistrust in Sylvio. A marriage proposal only exacerbates things by emotionally pulling Anna into the mix, and their big, loud arguments threaten the harmony of the home as the film draws to a close.
The film’s unconventional conclusion is ambiguous and bittersweet. Or maybe it’s just bitter. Joe’s duplicity has been partially revealed, but there are more, devastating secrets to uncover. This is a film in which sunny days prelude pacing, sleepless nights; a film in which kind men are murderers and marriages are doomed before they start. A few paces behind the happy-looking family embrace lies a tortured man on his deathbed.
Every happy moment is shadowed by some indistinguishable sense of doubt, and by the end of The Midnight Story, we learn that there really must only be unhappiness after all. Pevney’s film is a true noir then, deceptive and cynical to the end. Joe doesn’t start out a jaded, hardboiled fortysomething. But that’s probably what he’ll become.
The Midnight Story is out now on DVD via Screenbound Entertainment.