Burt Lancaster’s second and last turn behind the camera as a director was an adaptation of William Dale Smith’s excellent novel THE MIDNIGHT LADY AND THE MOURNING MAN. THE MIDNIGHT MAN doesn’t quite capture the small-town feel of the book, but it’s otherwise an absorbing, low-key Universal mystery. Lancaster shared writing, producing, and directing duties with Roland Kibbee, an Emmy winner for COLUMBO. And THE MIDNIGHT MAN plays very much like a COLUMBO with Lancaster and his heavy wool security-guard uniform taking the place of the raincoat-garbed Peter Falk.
Lancaster and Kibbee made many changes to Smith’s book — most of them unnecessary — though the skeleton is the same. Jim Slade (Lancaster) is a former Chicago police detective on parole who lands a job working third shift at a sleepy Georgia university, courtesy of his ex-partner Quartz Terwilliger (Cameron Mitchell). Although advised by his parole officer (Susan Clark) and the sheriff (Harris Yulin) to keep a low profile, Slade can’t help poking around when a trouble coed (Catherine Bach, later on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) is murdered in her dorm room.
If you’ve watched enough mysteries, the killer’s identity is fairly obvious, but the way Lancaster and Kibbee fit the pieces together isn’t. In fact, the plot is surprisingly complex, and by the time Lancaster traipses around town arresting the myriad of co-conspirators involved in the murder, you almost expect him to reach behind the camera and slap handcuffs on the gaffer and the focus puller too.
Lancaster and Kibbee shot the film at Clemson University in South Carolina, but doesn’t take advantage of the location as well as they should. Many of its buildings look more or less like the Universal lot. Who knows — maybe they are. But with a mystery as intriguing as THE MIDNIGHT MAN’s and a supporting cast that includes Morgan Woodward, Robert Quarry, Mills Watson, Quinn Redeker, Charles Tyner, Linda Kelsey, and even THE CRIMSON PIRATE’s Nick Cravat, Lancaster and Kibbee’s film is well worth a watch. I’d love to see a more faithful film made from the book though.