September 25, 2009

BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (1950)




“A brutal policeman is a terrible thing. He has too much power, too many chances of taking his viciousness out on helpless people.”



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Optimism and pessimism fight it out Between Midnight and Dawn, an entertaining and well-crafted crime melodrama from 1950. These competing worldviews are embodied in the characters of prowl-car officers Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) and Dan “Pappy” Purvis (Edmond O’Brien). After bonding as Marines on Guadalcanal, the pair returned to Los Angeles and continued their partnership as cops. The laid-back and gregarious Rocky came through his war in better shape than Dan, who in typical Edmond O’Brien fashion is bitter, cynical, and brooding. Dan has trouble seeing the world in anything other than black and white — people are either all good or all bad, as he says to Rocky in a telling early exchange, “Wait until you’ve had your fill of the scum. Slugging, knifing, shooting holes in decent people. You’ll toughen up, junior.”

The film opens with an especially noirish sequence where the partners respond to a report of suspicious activity at a warehouse. They discover two young women parked on the lonely street outside the run down building, doing a piss-poor job looking out for their no-good beaus. Rocky and Dan put the bracelets on the girls and head into the warehouse. They corner the suspects inside and short gunfight ensues —  Rocky grazes one of the youths with a shot from his service piece. Back at the station, the delinquents put on a tough act, but one of the girls falls apart, pleading and “blubbering” (per Dan) to be let go. Though Rocky wonders about justice for a wayward teenager, it’s plain that age and gender don’t carry any water with Dan — stone-faced as the hysterical girl is taken into custody, screaming over and over “I don’t want to go to jail!” as she’s dragged away.

The scene does much to establish the competing personalities of the two partners, as well as the noir milieu of Between Midnight and Dawn. Although the dark visual framework of the picture is thoroughly realized by noir stalwart George Diskant (The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground), the narrative is also distinctive. Rocky and Dan live in an uncertain world of deteriorating values in which people are not what they appear to be. Two innocent-looking girls in a parked car are engaged in larceny; shop owners live in fear of all-powerful criminals; children in the street are as prone to violence as hardened felons. Even the most innocent character in the film, love interest Kate Mallory (Gale Storm), initially deceives the pair — though her fib is understandable: as the daughter of an old-guard Irish cop who was gunned down in the line of duty, Kate, who works as a dispatcher, is reluctant to begin a relationship with the infatuated Rocky, who has quietly fallen in love with her sultry voice, which he hears each night through the prowl car’s radio.

Speaking of Gale Storm, she’s a revelation. Every boy’s idea of a high school cheerleader does well in this role, and although she doesn’t sing, she demonstrates more range here than in most of her other pictures. All of the characters in Between Midnight and Dawn are developed to a greater degree than expected, and Storm plays the part of the dead cop’s kid with aplomb. She projects outward confidence and wit carefully blended with the street smarts of one reared in a cop’s house. The movie takes seriously her efforts to steer clear of involvement with Rocky and Dan, and includes a few nice scenes between Gale and her live-in mother (Madge Blake). There’s a fine moment when Mrs. Mallory, having lost her own husband to violence, is able to convince her daughter that beginning a relationship with Rocky is the right thing to do. It might be a bit unusual for a film noir to have such a pronounced romantic angle — as Between Midnight and Dawn does — but it actually works because the romantic tension between Rocky and Kate is so firmly situated in her neurotic, if understandable, fear of death.

And Rocky does indeed die, gunned down by foaming-at-the-mouth gangster Richie Garris (Donald Buka). Every element of the story foreshadows Rocky’s killing, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, even in 1950 it was a sturdy movie-land cliché that in a buddy-cop film one of the partners — inevitably the nicer of the two — was doomed. What makes this scenario interesting is rather how Kate and Dan respond to Rocky’s murder. 

Both suffer from a markedly cynical strain of pessimism. Kate’s is rooted in the fear of losing yet another loved one; Dan’s is more complex. He clung to his idealism throughout the war, but lost it when he came home to a world changed from what he believed he had fought for. The wonderfully depressing — and inarguably noirish — notion of this aspect of the story is that unlike the narratives of more mainstream Hollywood productions, Kate and Dan’s dour worldview is ultimately confirmed! She loses her new love just as she lost her father, while Dan loses his partner and best friend to the senseless violence of a world gone mad. After surviving the unimaginable horrors of the Pacific, Rocky is shot in cold blood by a chickenshit gangster looking for revenge.

While Kate’s response to Rocky’s death is ultimately bittersweet, Dan sinks into despair and self-pity. He begins to haunt the nightclub where Garris’ girlfriend Terry Romaine (Gale Robbins) warbles, hoping she’ll lead him to the killer. When nothing pans out Dan braces her directly. He’s so frustrated and enraged that he beats and humiliates the girl even when she denies knowledge of Garris’ whereabouts and claims to have broken off their relationship.

The characterization of the gangster villain in a 1950 noir picture is worth talking about for a moment. In the legendary Warner Bros. pictures of the depression the romanticized gangster-hero was ultimately brought down by the society he exploited — he was an aberration against a fundamentally incorruptible and morally superior social system. When the sleeping giant of that system became aroused against him, he didn’t stand a chance. One of the crucial differences between the postwar film noir and the 30s gangster film is in its portrayal of the system itself, which noir presents as  Kafka-esque in its bureaucracy — uncaring, immoral, and burdened by corruption.

By the 1950s, Hollywood’s treatment of the gangster was also tired, and certainly less romantic. Donald Buka plays Garris as a caricature — a sputtering hood who manhandles his girlfriend and tries to clumsily bribe or bulldoze his way out of every tight spot. His actions are childish and irrational. He represents everything in the world than Dan Purvis hates. Yet within the mid-century film noir construct the power of the system and social justice is diminished. That 30s gangster is reincarnated as a pure sociopath who exists in a system unable to stamp him out. After Garris is convicted of murder, his cronies easily bust him out of prison. He’s then able to exact revenge on Rocky and successfully elude the dragnet, until tripped up by his urge to creep on the girlfriend who no longer wants him. The police finally nab Garris by staking out Terry’s apartment.

It’s in this final set piece that Dan has the chance to avenge his friend and restore some sort of balance to his world, though even in this he’s nearly undone. Although he’s clearly better than Garris with his bare hands or his firearm, fate conspires to muddy the waters of his revenge — and in so doing forever alter the way he sees the world. As Garris attempts to escape the encircled building, he dangles a child from a high window in order to scare the police. Dan sneaks into the building hoping to take the gangster from behind. When he sees that Garris has abandoned the child to hide elsewhere, he tosses a gas bomb into the apartment and climbs through the window. Inside the smoke-filled apartment Garris gets the drop on Dan, but Terry steps into the line of fire and takes the bullets, saving Dan’s life and freeing him to blast away. Garris tumbles down the stairs, leaving a bloody, smeared handprint on the wall, while Dan leaves the building and discovers Kate waiting for him amidst the throng of onlookers.

Dan has a great deal to ponder as he and Kate exit the frame arm in arm: he has to live knowing that he wasn’t her first choice — that his best friend had to die for him to end up with the girl. Far more importantly, he bears the newfound responsibility to redeem himself and to become a better man, granted by a woman he had denigrated and beaten, who stepped in front of him when the bullets went flying.

Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)
Director: Gordon Douglas
Cinematographer: George Diskant
Story: Leo Katcher and Gerald Drayson Adams
Screenplay: Eugene Ling
Starring: Mark Stevens, Edmond O’Brien, and Gale Storm
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 89 minutes

3 comments:

  1. Mark, you had me at Edmond O'Brien, but this sounds like a pretty good one in the bargain.

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  2. A Swedish film poster, yay! I can't believe they wanted to translate the original title to "Police Car 13", though?

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  3. The working title of this one was "Prowl Car." There are also some procedural sequences early on when they are establishing the relationship between Rocky and Kate where they refer to the guys as Car 13 over and over. I wonder how "Between Midnight and Dawn" translates? At any rate -- thanks for the great comment Lolita!

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