An Immaterial Melodrama: THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT

The Other Side of Midnight is a clumsy catch-all of tropes, all lumped together in a movie that is all noise and movement but never amounting to much.

A few scenic shots under the credits transition the opening of The Other Side of Midnight to a Greek prison, where two of the film’s central characters meet for what seems to be both an ominous beginning and end. Death lingers over the introductory scene, as Greek tycoon Constantin Demeris (Raf Vallone) confronts his incarcerated mistress, Noelle (Marie-France Pisier), and questions her involvement in the murder of someone named Catherine. There is an inherent tension as he awaits the answer, and that trepidation carries over as the film abruptly flashes back to Marseilles, 1939. Something tragic has obviously happened, and it would appear we’re about to find out what it is. But what isn’t obvious at the start of this 1977 romantic tragedy is how, by the time the film circles back to the point where it began (after nearly three hours), nothing of this initial interest has remained. It’s just good to be over with.

The Other Side of Midnight is promising to start, though. Directed by Charles Jarrott, who had won a Golden Globe for 1969’s Anne of the Thousand Days, the film is a lavish period piece. The production design of its preliminary French setting is generous and comprehensive, and the looming fears brought forth by references to Hitler’s ascent and the impending war lend these early scenes considerable gravity. In the face of this dread, there’s Noelle. Played by Pisier, at this point best known for Cousin cousine (1975), the young woman is happy and ingenuous, with big, beautiful eyes and a physical buoyancy. She suffers for her attractiveness, however, especially when her father, Jacques (Roger Etienne), sets her to work for a handsy store owner played by Sorrell Booke (of, of all things, Dukes of Hazzard fame). “Noelle, war is coming,” Jacques tells his daughter, “you have beauty. It is your only weapon of survival. Use it. Let the hand under your dress wear gold, and you’ll be that much ahead of the game.”

It’s an awkward suggestion to say the least, but damned if Noelle doesn’t take heed and, as agonizing as it might be, she accepts her apparent lot in life. This line of thinking and behavior soon puts her in the company of Larry Douglas (John Beck), an American pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Whether it’s Beck’s feeble performance as an amorous lead or the film’s banking on every romantic Parisian cliché in the book (in one of its far too many music montage sequences), disappointment is inevitable. It comes when the deadbeat aviator abandons Noelle, who is now pregnant and compelled to end this chapter of her life with a harrowing, self-induced bathtub abortion.

In the meantime, the seemingly ill-fated Catherine Alexander is introduced. Played by Susan Sarandon, just a year away from her turn in Louis Malle’s extraordinary Pretty Baby, Catherine is a Washington D.C. secretary-turned-publicist. She is eager and anxious and more than a little chaotic, but she gets results. Her story takes off more positively and successfully than Noelle’s, but not without adopting its own formulaic, perils-of-a-working-woman pattern. Nevertheless, Sarandon is by far the most interesting actor in The Other Side of Midnight, and Catherine is, accordingly, an often exciting, unexpected, and lighter contrast to the Noelle drama.

Then it all falls apart — their lives and the film. In California, Catherine just happens to meet the irreparably disgraceful Larry, who hasn’t changed at all, and she too falls for his baffling charm (baffling in that he doesn’t have any). Noelle, on the other hand, who is somehow hopelessly naive and vindictive in equal measure, harbors an understandable grudge toward Larry but also, as it turns out, a more inexplicable affection.

Aside from their marginal endeavors relating to ambition, social advancement, and unabashed seduction (their sexuality is front and center, including, for Pisier, one love scene with a bizarrely abundant use of perfume), Noelle and Catherine endure a series of separate, then eventually shared, romantic entanglements. They are routinely victims to the kindness and cruelty of strangers, usually with differing intentions, and the paths of all three cross with predictably dramatic results. But by that point, they’ve all become so bland, their actions so incomprehensible, and the film has become so tedious, the tone so insipid, it’s hard to work up any amount of consequence. It just goes on and on and doesn’t get anywhere. When Larry, now a civilian airline pilot, reunites with Noelle, now a wealthy actress, not only is it anti-climactic, it’s unintentionally comic. An attempted murder-by-cavern, later on, is even more ridiculous. And not long after, the film’s lagging trial sequence, for Noelle and Larry, is somehow, awfully, topped by its absurd final reveal.

The Other Side of Midnight is a nice-looking film, from its picturesque locations to the clean, colorful cinematography of Fred J. Koenekamp. The retro detail is impressive and elegant. And yet, as grand as it is, it’s all on the surface. It’s all so spurious. According to Julie Kirgo, writing the liner notes for the Twilight Time Blu-ray of the film, Andy Warhol was apparently a fan of the picture, indeed because it was “so plastic.” But more accurately, as Jessica Ritchey writes in her Roger Ebert.com essay, The Other Side of Midnight “looks cheap in that way only expensive studio flops can, suggesting with every frame that nobody had any idea how to spend the money.”

And the story is shallow, too. The wartime framework, which includes scenes of home front American propaganda as well as the ordinarily-potent impression of swastikas hung in European victory, is nothing but an afterthought. From the start to the end of the war and into its aftermath, the entire situation seldom seems dire. Larry experiences self-pitying, post-war blues, but who cares; he’s been a terrible person throughout the entire film. Even Michel Legrand’s sweeping score only burdens The Other Side of Midnight’s strained romanticism. Ultimately, the film is a clumsy catch-all of tropes featured innumerable times before, in innumerable other media, all lumped together in a movie that is, like something on in the background during a long afternoon, all noise and movement but never amounting to much.

The Other Side of Midnight was written by Herman Raucher, based on Sidney Sheldon’s novel of the same name, and Kirgo rightly praises Sheldon’s career, which includes writing the hilarious The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and television classics like I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). Sheldon is even featured on the Twilight Time commentary alongside producer Frank Yablans, Jarrott, and film historian Laurent Bouzereau.

What’s also of note concerning The Other Side of Midnight is the now-amusing backstory about how 20th Century Fox feared their silly little science fiction movie, Star Wars, would tank at the box office and so devoted their energies to the promotion and block-booking distribution of Jarrott’s film, hoping it would carry this trifling George Lucas throwaway. Today, of course, the decision is laughable, and that’s if one hasn’t seen The Other Side of Midnight. After watching this overlong, facile soap opera, it’s even worse. Stick with Star Wars.

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