Burt Lancaster, who became a very good character actor in his later years, wrote, produced and directed this low-key Universal mystery with screenwriter Roland Kibbee, who won an Emmy for executive-producing COLUMBO. In THE MIDNIGHT MAN, which Universal released with an R rating in 1974, Lancaster plays Jim Slade, a former Chicago police detective on parole whose ex-partner Quartz (Cameron Mitchell) gets him a job as a third-shift security guard at a sleepy Georgia university. 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 troubled co-ed (Catherine Bach, later on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) is murdered in her dorm room.
It plays very much like a COLUMBO with Lancaster and his heavy wool uniform taking the place of the raincoat-garbed Peter Falk. The killer’s identity is fairly obvious, if you’ve watched enough of these things, but the way the pieces fit together isn’t. In fact, the plot is ridiculously complex, and by the end, when Lancaster is traipsing around town arresting the myriad of co-conspirators involved, you almost expect the gaffer and the camera operator to take some lumps too.
THE MIDNIGHT MAN, based on the novel THE MIDNIGHT LADY AND THE MOURNING MAN by David Anthony, was filmed at Clemson University in South Carolina, but never takes advantage of it as well as it should, choosing to ship in supporting actors from Hollywood, rather than use locals, and film its buildings as to look nigh distinguishable from the Universal lot. A cast this strong--Ed Lauter, Morgan Woodward, Quinn Redeker, Mills Watson, Robert Quarry, Charles Tyner, Joan Lorring, Lawrence Dobkin, Linda Kelsey and Nick Cravat as a gardener--and a mystery this intriguing make the movie work, however.