January 6, 2015
“A brutal policeman is a terrible thing. He has too much power. Too many chances of taking his viciousness out on helpless people.” – Katherine Mallory (Gale Storm) in Between Midnight and Dawn
In the grim police procedural Between Midnight and Dawn, violence is a spigot that cannot be turned off. It begins with a thrill – a tense night time shootout in an auto-body shop with some generic young hoods. But for beat cop prowl car partners Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) and Daniel Purvis (Edmond O’Brien), it’s just one of their nightly spasms of gunfire. Rocky is able to retain his humanity, working off his nerves through a constant patter of jokes, but Purvis has worn out his concern for human life. Once it turns dark, all women are tramps, all men are thugs, and Purvis’ misanthropic disgust flows into his trigger finger. The movie strays into unconvincing romance — the brightness looking sallow and jaundiced against the sepulchral evening blacks of DP George Diskant (much shot on location in Los Angeles city streets) — but it retains a bitter aftertaste upon its close. Between Midnight and Dawn is available on the TCM Vault Collection’s “Columbia Film Noir Classics IV” DVD box set.
It was director Gordon Douglas’ second harsh noir of 1950 — he made it immediately following Kiss Me Tomorrow, featuring James Cagney as an abusive, single-minded psychopath. The shadow of Cagney’s character appears in Purvis, peeking out from behind his sober on-duty face whenever he sees any adult carousing after dark. Then he spits out the insults and batters witnesses. He is, according to the film’s rights, and that of the world around him, a “good” cop. He and Barnes are ex-marines and best pals who room together and work together, and their relationship feels like a series of routines worked out over the decades. Purvis is the ungainly sober straight man who reacts to the jackrabbit energy of Barnes and his constant stream of humor. Barnes is always acting, which insulates him from the world outside, while Purvis is an open nerve, instantly pained by everything around him.
The film was made for Columbia Pictures, and shot from February – March of 1950. It has the looks of a cheap production, using a few office sets and the rest shot on location in Los Angeles. Mark Stevens was positioned as a star for 20th Century Fox for a few years in the late ’40s (The Dark Corner, The Snake Pit), but he was released from his contract in 1950. Between Midnight and Dawn was his second film as a free agent, after he made the romantic comedy Please Believe Me for MGM. It is striking to compare his relative youthfulness in Between Midnight to the films he would write and direct a few years later (Cry Vengeance (’54) and Timetable (56)). In those latter, despairing noirs Stevens looks emaciated and burnt-out, the movies a monument to his disillusionment with the industry. In Between Midnight and Dawn he still has pep and vigor, and earned top billing over Edmond O’Brien.
The screenplay by Eugene Ling (adapted from a story by Leo Katcher and Gerald Drayson Adams) nails together a hodgepodge of genres, though it would be called noir today. It is framed as a procedural, opening with a voice of God about the little guys who arrive on the scene before the more famous FBI attention hoggers show up – the radio patrolmen (the original title was Prowl Car). Barnes and Purvis then nab the young hoodlums in the auto-body shop after a low-light gunfight. There are other slices-of-life attempts at realism here, from breaking up a couple of brawling pre-teens to dealing with a stink bombed Italian grocers. But then it shifts into gangster movie mode, as the tough who is collared for the stink bomb turns out to be one of the heavies for local mob kingpin Ritchie Garris (a babyfaced Donald Buka). The routine gives way to their pursuit of the Garris gang, who get drawn into a mob war with a cross-town rival. While all this is going on, the movie manages to squeeze in some light rom-comedy, as both Barnes and Purvis become enamored with the young secretary to their lieutenant, Katherine Mallory (Gale Storm). They have an awkward three-person date, and then the two cops move in next door to her, for some strained farce.
It’s one movie too many, but it’s held together by Douglas’ cold impassive tone and Diskant’s resourceful cinematography. As Sean Axmaker noted in his article on the official TCM site, Diskant uses” chiaroscuro lighting of shadows and slashes of illumination in studio-set scenes, as in a shootout in a garage early in the film, [while] his location footage is defined by hard, single-source lighting, which gives the scenes a down-and-dirty immediacy.” There is an extraordinary car chase that zips through the Los Angeles bus depot and careens into a rural stretch of wood, the criminal jamming his rifle barrel through the back windshield, spraying death behind him. It is this chase that spells Barnes and Purvis’ doom. Their high-speed heroics initiate a whole cycle of vengeance that nearly immolates them all. And Purvis invites it. The quote at the top of the page, which seems painfully relevant in the light of recent events in Ferguson and NYC, is said by Katherine after Purvis slaps around an innocent nightclub singer. Desperate for a lead, Purvis finally crosses the line from silent to active hatred. There is an unconvincingly redemptive ending in which he makes peace with his demons by shooting them. Purvis walks out of the carnage smiling, flashbulbs popping. He is less an LAPD hero than a Travis Bickle in waiting.