September 29, 2015
Charles Bronson’s association with the exploitation mavens at Cannon Films started with Death Wish II (1982), and continued through six years and seven more movies of profitable urban bloodshed. The second of these was 10 to Midnight (1983), a ultra-sleazy slasher film in which Bronson’s morally dubious cop attempts to protect his daughter from a loony who commits murders in the nude. Now out on Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), it’s a lowest-common-denominator product that gives the people what they want, and what they wanted in 1983 was healthy heaping of gently jogging nudity (male and female), a few spurts of blood, and Bronson looking constipated, apparently.
10 to Midnight began as a title without a story. Producer Pancho Kohner had been working with Bronson since St. Ives (’76), and was being pitched by Menahem Golan to come to Cannon Films to make Bronson’s next picture. In Paul Talbot’s book Bronson’s Loose!, Kohner described the strange development of the film. Initially he and Bronson wanted to adapt the novel The Evil That Men Do, but Golan was unwilling to reimburse them for the rights, so, Kohner recalled:
Golan said: ‘I’ll tell you what. We’ll go to Cannes anyway and we’ll pre-sell the next Bronson picture. When we come back in two weeks, we’ll find another story and we will not make The Evil That Men Do. What’s a good title?’ I always liked 10 to Midnight. So, we went over to Cannes and I sat in this suite at the Carlton and all the buyers came through. I explained that there was going to be great action and great danger and great revenge and it was going to be called 10 to Midnight. Everyone was pleased. We didn’t have a script yet. We got back to Los Angeles and I had to scramble to find a story that would be a Bronson project that Charlie would like. I called a friend of mine…and I asked him if he had any stories and he know of Bill Roberts’ screenplay called Bloody Sunday…. I said, ‘Would you mind if we called it 10 to Midnight?’ He said, ‘No.’ [Laughs].
William Roberts’ script was loosely based on the story of serial killer Richard Speck, who murdered eight student nurses in 1966. The screenplay transposes him into Warren Stacey (Gene Davis), a good-looking perv who gets his kicks by stripping naked and chasing down young women with a knife. Bronson plays Lieutenant Leo Kessler, a decorated investigator who has started cutting corners to imprison those he deems guilty. His partner Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens) is more of an idealist, an educated upstart who wants to clean up the force. Both are interested in protecting Kessler’s daughter Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher), a student nurse and one of Warren’s potential targets. Note: the title has nothing to do with the story, though the posters promised “a deadline”, there is no such thing in the film.
Bronson had developed a stone face as inert as Buster Keaton’s, and opted for as little physical movement as possible. Watching a Bronson film from this period is a constant test of the Kuleshov effect. If the cutaway is to a scumbag murderer, Bronson’s impassive face must be registering anger, but if he’s looking at his daughter, then it has to be affection. The closest he comes to “acting” is when he confronts some of the more ludicrous turns of the plot. While at the morgue standing next to the latest victim, he is forced to say, “If anybody does something like this, his knife has gotta be his penis.” Though he maintains a laconic volume, there is a rhythm to his delivery that lands “penis” as a punchline. His co-star Andrew Stevens recalled, “Charlie made continual jokes, and when he has to say the line, “The knife is his penis,” he cracked up over and over. Usually standoffisih on set, Stevens reported that Bronson was feeling loose and jocular, perhaps having fun with the absurdity of the script.
The crew was made up of professionals, from director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone), to DP Adam Greenberg (The Terminator), who frame the story as more of a horror film than a thriller. Warren is positioned as a Michael Myers-type, scarred by psychological damage here left unexplained, his only source of pleasure when he is able to strip and take another life. Once naked, he is a monster, appearing as a Psycho shadow behind the shower curtain. He is something like the male id run wild, and shows off his svelte behind more often than the any of the women he goes to out to kill. He is objectified more than anyone, though the film has its quota of buxom ladies running for their demise. Roger Ebert was disgusted by the film, calling it a “scummy little sewer of a movie”, and declaring that everyone who made it, including Bronson, should be ashamed of themselves. It is a cynical market-driven product that exploits all of its characters for cheap thrills. But it is consistent in its cynicism, depicting everyone as compromised or on the take, and contains a barely suppressed lunacy that threatens to overtake the film at every turn. This spark of madness makes it hard to look away from Brosnan’s rigid visage, in the hopes of watching it break.