The Other Side of Midnight Review
In Faust, as you may recall, Mephistopheles offered the dubious scholar a book which contained the whole world of knowledge. Well, had Lucifer’s representative lived a few centuries later he might have been able to make an even more tempting celluloid proposition. You see, The Other Side of Midnight is a film that offers everything. You want sex? You got it. You want sleaze? Take your seats. You want bad toupees and dodgy accents? Step right up. Top all of this off with Nazis, multiple orgasms, sex with ice cubes, a dingy Greek prison, abortion via wire coat-hanger and one of the worst music scores imaginable and you have a millstone, sorry, milestone in cinema history.
For some reason, filmmakers have found it hard to successfully adapt the works of 1970s literary schlockmeisters for the cinema. Harold Robbins has been done right once, in The Carpetbaggers, but has otherwise been treated with undue seriousness. The Adventurers has plenty of sex and violence but is weighed down by its length and a misplaced sense of self-importance, while The Betsy is done with far too much good taste and is only rescued by a cracking turn from Lord Olivier who relishes the chance to swear and screw to his heart’s content. Attempts such as the Pia Zadora vehicle The Lonely Lady are best passed over in silence. Meanwhile, the oeuvre of Jackie Collins ended up on television after offering the world the memorable sight of her sister being shafted in a lift; while Irving Wallace, James A. Michener and their contemporaries also went the TV ‘Best Sellers’ route. By the 1980s, TV was the natural market for big, bad novels which, bowdlerized of their seamier edges, were virtually indistinguishable from the soap operas which began to dominate our screens.
Sidney Sheldon is another case in point. He began in Hollywood with a decidedly baffling Oscar win for the screenplay of The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and continued with a successful screenwriting career. But Sidney wanted to write novels and his first book, The Naked Face , was a huge success. The Other Side of Midnight was his follow-up and remains his best novel. Sheldon’s narrative style is a breathless series of short sentences and one-line character sketches which never stray far from cliché. When it doesn’t work, as in virtually everything since the mid-1980s, it leaves the reader feeling like he’s perusing a child’s reading primer which has been defaced by a pornographer. At its most effective, however, as in his best works, it’s impossible to put the books down and the overall effect is rather like eating a full English breakfast with extra fried bread - you know it’s bad for you but you just can’t resist. The secret of Sheldon’s commercial success isn’t hard to figure out. Along with an ability to end chapters on just the right teasing note, a technique taken to the ultimate extreme by Dan Brown, he combines sex, sleaze and violence with a reactionary censorious morality that makes readers feel superior to the nasty characters and protective towards the good ones – who are always guaranteed a happy ending, no matter how ludicrous a twist is required to ensure it. His work hasn’t been well served by his former Hollywood colleagues, however, with only this film and Bloodline making it to the silver screen. The later film, incidentally, is a major guilty pleasure of mine and contains a quite astonishing cast.
But The Other Side of Midnight is our present concern. We begin our story in Greece during 1947 where the indomitable Frank Yablans is presenting a Martin Ransohoff-Frank Yablans production. Never one to fight shy of publicity, Mr Yablans ensures that his name appears three times in the first five minutes. During the opening credits, each of the stars is given their character name – “Clu Gulager as Fraser” and so on – which is clearly a sop to fans of the book who are eager to discover how faithful the movie has been to their favourite reading. A hill-top prison is visited by a mysterious figure in a black raincoat, looking remarkably like Raf Vallone after a few too many cannelonis. Wait a moment, it is Raf Vallone and he’s looking very serious, possibly because the woman he has come to see is on trial for her life or possibly because Michel Legrand’s piano is playing right in his ear.
She is Noelle Page (Pisier) and, as he says, “I ‘av deeecishons to mek”. He asks her up front, did she kill a woman named Catherine – “Eeenocent or guiltee?” – and she says, “Eenocent!” with the least convincingly demure look you’ve ever seen.
This leads us into a very lengthy flashback during which we see Noelle’s early life in the Marseilles of 1939. Her father takes her to a dress shop - “Did I not buy you a nice blouse to make you look beautiful?” – where, unbeknownst to her, she is intended to minister to every whim of dirty old M. Lanchon (Brooke). But his clumsy advances don’t impress Noelle and she runs home to her father who isn’t entirely sympathetic – “I received a small amount of money. It afforded me that radio, a new jacket, a cycle, some wine…” – and gives her the kind of paternal advice we all wish we could have received – “Let the hand under your dress wear gold”. Mind you he also says, “End up on a yacht in a villa”, which strikes me as being a bit of a squeeze. So she returns to the filthy old shopkeeper and discovers that she has the power to turn men into drooling idiots.
Eager to get to know more about Noelle, I was disconcerted at this point by a jump to Washington where we are introduced to the aforementioned Catherine (Sarandon).
Clearly, one thinks, such parallel plotlines are destined to cross – a suspicion which is confirmed when Catherine’s prospective boss, PR guru Bill Fraser (Gulager) is talking to Raf Vallone – still tubby but now with an impressive “Just For Men” job – who turns out to be playing the Greek shipping magnate Constantine Demiris. Catherine, a resourceful type whose enthusiasm is indicated by a distinct reluctance to stop talking, gets a job with Fraser – but the eagle-eyed viewer is likely to be transfixed by Clu Gulager’s hair which is either a very bad haircut or a very bad toupee and possibly, if such a thing is possible, both.
Meanwhile, back in France, Noelle has slept her way to Paris where she is fleeced by another dirty old man – though this time, thank the Lord, we don’t see him thrusting on top of her. But she is saved from the ignominy of being thrown out of “ze best ‘otel in Paree” by the dashing Canadian pilot Larry Douglas (Beck), who is working for the British air force.
Square of jaw and concave of cheek, Larry has no sooner taken her for dinner – during which she says, gratifyingly, “Oooh la la!” - than she is being pinned to the sheets. A close-up of her contorted face indicates that she is either having an orgasm or has just had electrodes attached to her nipples. A montage, accompanied by Legrand’s incessant love theme, shows the purity of their love as they kiss on the top of the Eiffel Tower, play boules, admire Versailles and make goo-goo eyes at a baby carriage. But all is not well. Larry has to leave on a vital mission and, despite promising to marry Noelle, never returns. Could he be dead? Has the Canadian air force recalled him to have his jaw relined? No, it transpires that the bastard has betrayed her, leaving her not only bereft of love but in le club de pudding. In a hysterical act of revenge, Noelle aborts his baby with the aid of a hot bath and a wire coat-hanger.
In America, while all this is going on, Catherine has been doing jolly well with Bill Fraser; so well in fact that he can’t do without her, dictating in his shirtsleeves late into the night – “Oh my god, it’s midnight. I had no idea!” – and staring at her with unrequited passion. Bill, you see, for reasons unexplained, can’t bear to consummate his lust and leaves Catherine frustrated and dictated out – well, tated out since the dick turns out to be regrettably flaccid. But she hasn’t long to wait before she goes off to Hollywood and meets Larry Douglas, now participating in an army recruiting film. After yet another lovers montage, and using his tried and trusted seduction technique – “Here’s the bed, here’s the bathroom, here’s the boy… and here’s the girl…” – Larry manages to get into her nylons and subsequently marries her. Thus, the stage is set for what my NEL paperback edition of the book described as “a grand tragedy of passion and betrayal”.
Understandably feeling a certain lack of gruntle at Larry’s betrayal, Noelle decides that aborting his child was merely an aperitif to her schemes. Having put herself about a little – leading one abandoned lover to suggest “Sleep with Hitler, he’ll make you a star!” – she begins getting information from a private eye – played rather nicely by Michael Lerner - about her ex-lover’s activities. Noelle may claim “’Ee is a man ah will alvays ‘av an ‘onest affection for” but her heart has turned to pure ice. There’s probably a moral here about how the cruelty of men turns women into cold, calculating bitches but if so, it’s probably best passed over. In order to effect her scheme, Noelle must become a star and she bothers a major director, embodied by a very embarrassed looking Christian Marquand, into giving her a big part in his film. Although she gives a fine audition – indeed, he says “Zis eez a faan audition!” - he’s more impressed by her display of sexual technique which involves a lot of finger-sucking, perfume massage and a load of ice-cubes dumped on his cock. I would have liked to give you a picture of this memorable moment but an image of his reaction will suffice:
In the interim, Larry is having a tough time in America. After the war, he tries to adapt to civilian life but is defeated by his temper and restlessness. Every time he tries to make a success in a job, Noelle manages to secretly ruin things for him. Disillusioned by her marriage, Catherine begins to drink industrial quantities of vodka and Larry begins to look for someone else – and it’s not long before he meets Noelle again, now wife of Constantine Demiris. Despite failing to recognise her, fate takes it’s course and her hatred soon turns to helpless lust in his hirsute arms. Now reunited and seriously loved-up, the couple look to the future but there’s only one fly in the ointment – Larry’s boozy wife, Catherine.
I won’t reveal the further twists and turns in the plot; suffice to say that Catherine has a rather nasty accident and the obvious suspects go on trial. The final half-hour is ludicrously silly in just about every respect but highly entertaining as long as you don’t expect either common sense or dramatic logic. The real precursor to this sort of thing is the type of woman’s picture made by Warner Brothers in the 1940s; I don’t mean the good ones like Now Voyager but the deranged ones like The Unfaithful and the peerlessly stupid Deception. That’s no bad thing really and The Other Side of Midnight has some of the professionalism of those movies, particularly in the screenplay by Herman Raucher and veteran hack Daniel Taradash. But there are also problems, the main one being Charles Jarrott. Though never a particularly distinctive director, Jarrott managed to make a reasonable fist of Anne of the Thousand Days and Mary Queen of Scots, but he’s totally out of his depth with this kind of thing. Sex and sleaze needs energetic vulgarity and a joy in excess. Jarrott is a square asimply sticks his camera in front of the action while seemingly wishing that he was somewhere else; the sex scenes in particular are an embarrassment, generating about as much erotic heat as an episode of “Praise Be with Thora Hird”. Matters are not helped by Fred J. Koenekamp’s bland cinematography – this DP who made Patton and The Towering Inferno look so good seems lost without any battles or fires to shoot.
In the circumstances, much is required of the actors and the results are mixed. Raf Vallone is virtually incomprehensible and the screen oozes with boredom whenever Clu Gulager appears, while John Beck has little of the presence or sexual magnetism which his role requires. What saves the film, however, are the exceptional performances from a very young Susan Sarandon – straight off Rocky Horror - and Marie-France Pisier. Both actresses give their considerable all and give the story whatever credibility it has.
The film was a commercial failure – it was released around the same time as Star Wars and was expected to be a much bigger hit than George Lucas’s little movie. Indeed, it lacks the kind of commitment to bad taste which one would expect and is in this respect not unlike Daniel Petrie’s film of The Betsy. What should be good, dirty, trashy fun is too often a respectable plod. But there’s enough diversion to satisfy fans of melodrama and I can think of many worse films which have a much better reputation.
The Other Side of Midnight may have flopped on release but has picked up a cult following over the past thirty years so expectations were high for the DVD release.
The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer is generally good in terms of clarity and detail. But there are some disappointments. The major one is the colour which should surely be a lot richer than this. The film seems to have faded into pastel colours with a lot of grey and beige. We also get a rather excessive amount of grain throughout and some minor pixellisation on occasions.
There are three choices of soundtrack; English mono; English stereo; and French mono. The mono option reflects the original recording and is by far the most satisfactory. The stereo track seems to be recorded a little low and the dialogue is occasionally hard to hear. Legrand's music score is very prominent, which may or may not be a good thing depending on one's personal tolerance level.
There are three extra features. The theatrical trailer is present and correct and it’s an absolute hoot. A succession of images from the film, which mean virtually nothing out of context, is backed by a hysterically funny voiceover. In case you want more images, there’s a fifteen item stills gallery. Most significantly, we get a commentary track which, in an indication of the myth-making tone which predominates, is called "A commentary discussion with legendary producer Frank Yablans, director Charles Jarrott and author Sidney Sheldon, lead by film historian Laurent Bouzereau". This is, as Bouzereau portentously announces at the start, a complete history of the book and the film and is tedious beyond belief although there's some interest in hearing Sidney Sheldon's last interview before his recent death. The most annoying thing is Bouzereau's asinine, obsequious questioning technique which is bracketed by comments like “All of your books have amazing titles!” and “Noelle Page – great name by the way”. All concerned seem convinced that the film is a masterpiece and one feels loathe to dampen their evident enthusiasm.