Burt Lancaster fans can rejoice that his 1974 thriller "The Midnight Man" finally gets a home video release in America with Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release. Even better news is that this is a special edition with an informative commentary track. Lancaster co-wrote and co-directed (both with Roland Kibbee) the murder mystery that plays out like a TV movie-of-the-week from the era. That isn't meant as a knock, given how good so many of the TV crime productions were in the 1970s. The film is based on David Anthony's novel "The Midnight Lady and the Mourning Man" and, refreshingly, it has an offbeat quality about it due to its location filming in and around Clemson University in South Carolina, which was very much a sleepier locale than it is today. Lancaster is cast as Jim Slade, a once respected Chicago police officer who flew off the handle and shot his wife's lover (though it isn't clear if he killed him.) He's spent a lot of time in stir and when we first see him, he is arriving in a small southern town by bus to pick up the pieces of his life. He's broke with few prospects except a job offered to him by his old friend and police colleague Quartz (Cameron Mitchell), who is now retired from the police force and heading a security company that looks after the local university. Slade will be working in the seemingly boring job of night watchman on the midnight shift at the school, where crime isn't a major problem. However, his timing is right in terms of alleviating boredom. No sooner does Slade start the job than a psychiatric counselor for troubled students informs him that his office had been broken into and the only thing missing were several audio tapes in which students confessed the most troubling aspects of their lives. The highly confidential tapes had not been listened to but it becomes clear that one student in particular, Natalie (Catherine Bach) is particularly troubled. Slade befriends her and discovers she's an emotional wreck about the missing tape but she won't tell him what was so sensitive about the recording. When Natalie ends up dead in her dorm room, the local police captain, Casey (Harris Yulin) takes over the case and immediately arrests a local Peeping Tom who had an interest in the victim. Slade, however, voices his skepticism and starts his own ad-hoc investigation. Along the way he ends up romancing his parole officer, Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark), who has a big city mentality when it comes to sexual permissiveness.
"The Midnight Man" is a complex thriller with plenty of requisite false leads and red herrings. It's leisurely-paced and that's a good thing in the current era of shoot 'em up crime movies and TV series. There are some exciting action scenes in the film but it's primarily about following clues, which Slade doggedly does despite being targeted for murder and not being able to trust anyone, including Captain Casey, with whom he is in constant conflict. Lancaster provides one of his most low-key performances. Some critics said he was sleepwalking through the part but this isn't so. He's an ex-con with a lot to lose so it's appropriate that he would maintain a quiet, polite demeanor. Lancaster never gave a bad performance in his career and he's particularly good here. The film has a marvelous supporting cast and directors Lancaster and Kibbee use them well. It's great to see Lancaster teamed again with the ever-underrated Susan Clark after the two starred in "Valdez is Coming" a few years before. Clark has an important role here and she's excellent. So, too, is Cameron Mitchell as the only true friend Slade seems to have in an increasingly hostile and dangerous town. It's also good to see Robert Quarry in small, non-horror film (he's very good.) Lancaster's son Bill also has a supporting role and acquits himself well. The finale unloads an abundance of complex explanations in a voice-over by Lancaster as the mystery is solved. Your mind might end up reeling but if you stop and think about it all, the clues were provided throughout the film.
The Kino Lorber release has a typically fine transfer and the audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson is highly engaging and their subdued manner fits with the mood of the film itself. They genuinely like the movie and provide an abundance of interesting facts and insights. There is a also a trailer gallery for other Lancaster films available through Kino Lorber. Highly recommended.