Wed 18 Nov 2015
MIDNIGHT. Universal Pictures, 1934. Re-released as Call It Murder. Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Fox, O. P. Heggie, Henry Hull, Margaret Whycherly, Lynne Overman (as Lynn Overman), Richard Whorf, Helen Flint, Henry O’Neill, Moffatt Johnston (as Moffatt Johnson). Screenplay by Paul and Claire Sifton based on their play. Director: Chester Erskine (as Chester Erskin (also uncredited on the screenplay).
Copies of this film available today credit Humphrey Bogart as the star, but that seems to have been unlikely in the 1934 release. Had he been top billed in this one, his career would likely have taken more than a mere six more years to take off. This film isn’t kind to anyone. I suspect it is no accident three people spelled their names differently than normal in the credits. I wouldn’t want this dog on my resume either.
Most annoying of all the many things annoying about this film is the arty way it is shot, with too much use of the subjective camera, long speeches by actors looking directly into the camera, and tricky shots that only serve to emphasize just how silly and overdone the plot really is. The handful that do work even halfway just remind you how bad the rest of the film is.
O. P. Heggie plays self righteous Edward Wheldon, who, as foreman of the jury in the trial of Ethel Saxton (Helen Flint), persuades the jury to convict her of first degree murder. Come the night of the execution, he is scheduled to listen to a live special broadcast of the event on his home radio and crowds have gathered outside his front door, so the tension is starting to wear on him and his absolute certainty of the law and everything else.
Meanwhile his children Stella (Sidney Fox) and Arthur (Richard Whorf) feel the pressure and have no desire to stay home and listen as a woman, whose condemnation to death is dubious at best, dies. Nolan (Henry Hull) is a reporter who wants an exclusive inside the home during the broadcast, who uses brother in law Joe Biggers (Lynne Overman) as his ticket inside, and who twists the knife once in.
Tension or not, when Saxton’s lawyer (Henry O’Neill) shows up hoping to get something out of Wheldon that could lead to a stay, he only gets another self-righteous letter of the law speech.
Humphrey Bogart is Gar, a young man who Stella met at the trial the day Ethel Saxton was convicted. Gar is a dubious character attracted to Ethel who knows he is no good for her or her for him and is leaving for Chicago the night of the execution to work as a collector for the mob, but he plans to see Stella one more time after making a last local collection. Let’s just say he is exactly the type you would expect to be named Gar.
As the execution nears. Wheldon breaks under the pressure, and only after a self-serving speech about upholding the letter of the law he makes to the public on his doorstep, does he find out that at the moment of the execution Stella was down the street in Gar’s flashy sports car and shot him.
Exit Humphrey Bogart a bit over forty six minutes into an 87 minute film without so much as a death scene.
Nolan finds the body, puts two and two together, and calls in District Attorney Plunkett (Moffatt Johnston). At this point things become murky, because it is never really clear whether the DA actually thinks Stella didn’t shoot Bogart and confessed only because of pressure over the execution or is trying to prevent another miscarriage of justice by letting her off.
Like almost everything else about this film, the murk is unrelieved by the over-acting and the peculiar way the film is shot. If the DA is letting off the self-righteous Wheldon and his hysterical daughter — who freaked out so much she shot a man who was not harming her in any way — the decision is just bizarre. In either case the explanation he gives for his decision is pure gibberish, even by the lax standards of melodrama, and the cheapest kind of pop psychology.
I suppose there is some attempt to make this seem more like a stage play with the actors all walking center front to make their speeches, and some may be impressed with the camera work and the attempts to provide some style to the proceedings, but for me it just makes the film ponderous, artificial, and melodramatic in the worst way.
It doesn’t help that Hull and Overman are the only two actors the bit least comfortable on screen — you get the feeling Bogart knew this wasn’t going to do his career any favors and he seems properly chagrined to be in it — or that Moffatt Johnston — who plays sleuth and gets to dominate most of the final fifteen minutes of the film — has a heavy accent and all the screen charisma of a rock as he delivers the nonsensical explanation of the crime and its solution.
I will give minimal credit to one shot of a policeman standing guard in front of Wheldon’s house as the camera moves close in on his badge, only to pull back, revealing the policeman standing guard in front of Ethel Saxton’s cell as she breaks down, though it falls into the even a broken clock is right twice a day category. That, and the execution itself are well handled.
This film wasn’t released into the public domain; more likely no one wanted to claim it. It is more like something unpleasant that won’t die because Humphrey Bogart is in it.
There is one touch of irony. At film’s end Hull steps outside in the dark, puts on his fedora, and lights a cigarette briefly illuminating his face. It is the kind of scene that will become iconic of Bogart for much of his career, but even silent films can’t be saved by a couple of interesting camera set ups, and this one is not. Not even a film student or an academic trying to make a career in film criticism by finding a gem among the dreck could make anything but a wreck out of this.