Tony Curtis had a successful career but to him it was also a disappointing career. He always felt that he had the makings of a real actor, and a good one, but producers preferred not to take risks and kept casting him in lightweight rôles (which he happened to very good at). On the rare occasions that he landed a really meaty part (in films like Sweet Smell of Success) he invariably delivered the goods, but then he’d find himself back in those lightweight rôles again. The Midnight Story is one of those movies that demonstrates that Curtis wasn’t deluded - he really could act.
The movie opens with the brutal murder of a priest, Father Tomasino, in San Francisco. Everybody loved Father Tomasino. Or at least almost everybody loved him - obviously there was one person who didn’t. The circumstances of the murder leave no doubt that the priest was deliberately targeted.
Officer Joe Martini (Tony Curtis) is hit particularly hard. Martini grew up in an orphanage. Father Tomasino was father, big brother and mentor to Joe. Joe wants to help in the investigation but he’s just a lowly motorcycle cop and he’s told in no uncertain terms to stick to traffic offences and keep out of Homicide’s way.
Maybe Joe would have heeded this advice but at the priest’s funeral he spots something that he thinks may be a lead. The Homicide lieutenant in charge of the case still isn’t interested. So Joe Martini quits the force to carry out his own single-handed investigation. That lead that he thinks he has is actually nothing more than a hunch but he just can’t let it go.
Joe strikes up a friendship with Sylvio Malatesta (Gilbert Roland), who owns a seafood restaurant and a fishing boat. Sylvio lives with his mother, his kid brother and his cousin. Sylvio invites Joe over for dinner and when he realises that there’s an attraction between his cousin Anna (for whom he’s been desperately trying to find a husband) he suggests that Joe should move in to the spare room. The bulk of the movie is taken up by the complex relationships between Joe and Sylvio and between Joe and Anna. But Joe has not given up on finding Father Tomasino’s killer. He still has that lead. Sometimes he thinks it’s a false lead and sometimes he thinks it really will lead him to the killer.
While there’s definitely a crime thriller plot this movie is mainly a psychological drama as Joe has to deal with conflicting loyalties and with emotions that are quite new to him. For the first time in his life he has found a home, he has found real friendship and he has found love but can he hang on to any of them?
Curtis’s performance is subtle and powerful. Joe Santini is a man who has never learnt to deal with his emotions and while he maintains an outward calm Curtis has no trouble convincing us of the turbulence of the feelings he has bottled up inside. If you need to be convinced that Tony Curtis could act this movie will do just that.
Gilbert Roland is very good as the loud, boisterous, generous Sylvio. Marisa Pavan is excellent as Anna. Like Joe she has spent her life repressing her emotions and now they’re almost too much for her to deal with. She knows she’s found the man she wants but she just cannot bring herself to believe that he loves her.
Russell Metty’s excellent cinematography is another plus. There’s plenty of San Francisco location shooting.
Screenbound’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio). As far as I know this movie has never had a Region 1 release.
Is it film noir? Kind of, in an indirect way, but I can’t say any more without risking spoilers. There is a mystery to be solved but this is mostly a psychological melodrama and a love story between two troubled but very likeable people with the odds stacked against them. The DVD cover shows Tony Curtis holding a gun, and Joe Santini does have a revolver, but he never gets to shoot it. This is just not that kind of movie.
The Midnight Story is one of those terrific little movies that made little impact at the time and quickly vanished into obscurity. It’s a movie that deserves rediscovery. Highly recommended.