Monday, September 5, 2011

Middle of the Night - 1959



“Middle of the Night” (1959) begins with a camera shot out the back of a moving truck in New York City traffic. It is early morning. The soft strains of a single oboe lend a contemplative touch. We float through the traffic and the pedestrians (actual New Yorkers going to work and unaware they are being filmed from the back of a truck). We head into the Garment District, and we see workers pushing rolling racks of clothing on the street. Here is where Fredric March spends his days and a good many of his nights as a clothing manufacturer.

We celebrate Labor Day today with a look at this terrific film about a middle-aged widower, a self-made man and workaholic, who begins a romantic relationship with his 24-year-old receptionist, played by Kim Novak. Their performances are powerful, and the script by Paddy Chayefsky adapted from his Broadway play, is the kind of introspective, sensitive, and adult (in the real meaning) story we rarely see anymore. There are no “Storyline for Dummies” clich√© images; we are meant to take our time, and expend a little effort, to understand.

Directed by Delbert Mann, the film, being film, takes us places that the stage play can’t - outside in the wintry streets, allowing us to examine the cold stone exteriors of the claustrophobic interiors were we spend so much time.

What interests me most about the writer’s and director’s treatment of this story is how much importance they place on the workplace. We know that Fredric March is a well-off factory owner, but are not asked to accept this on faith with a shot of him at a desk mumbling into a Dictaphone. He is a hands-on manufacturer and his work is his life. He is sort of the opposite of the smarmy corporate shark he played in “Executive Suite”, which we examined Labor Day last year. Fredric March is riveting, commanding every scene.

The scenes showing the love story between Kim Novak and March, and the emotional confrontations with their families, are always interspersed with scenes of the workplace. Unlike like many films showing career people in turmoil, here it is the job that represents the sane, safe place, and the home life is the source of tension and chaos.

When we arrive at the factory, it is as if we are taken out of the back of the truck by the delivery driver, and brought up to the dark, narrow hall where Kim Novak types and shuffles manifests and bills of lading behind her receptionist’s window. The delivery guy leers at her, and she is flustered, wants to get rid of him quick. She is distraught and in the throes of some emotional crisis.

Just beyond the office is the factory floor, where men are cutting out clothing patterns on long tables, and Fredric March takes a moment to have a coffee in a paper cup with some of his salesmen, who tell tales of the road. They are all middle aged men, feeling the angst of knowing their own mortality, and morbidly gossip about whom among their peers is sick and who is dead.

His business partner brags of his romantic conquests of younger women. Played by Albert Dekker, he has a pivotal role through the film as the example of a man not going gently into that good night, but making a fool of himself among his colleagues. Towards the end of the movie, we see how really unhappy he is, and how a desperate action of his makes March take some decisive action of his own.

Dekker playfully leers at Kim Novak, and she is unnerved, ready to fall apart.

Mr. March leaves work early to go home and change for a meeting with the union that evening, the drudge and curse of management. He lives with his older unmarried sister, who manages their apartment and tries to manage him. He has a grown son and daughter, and a grandchild. When his daughter tells him he should start to see other women, he tells her that he had been seeing a woman who was a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue -- it’s all about work in this movie -- but she declined his marriage proposal. He has not seen her in a couple months.

When March is heading out the door to his union meeting, he stops, in his hat and coat, to try one more phone call to this woman. Though we hear only his side of the conversation, we watch him become deflated as she brushes him off, and tells him she has married someone else. As pitiful as the scene is, Mr. March is not the kind of man to ask for pity. He is gracious and gentlemanly on the phone, though his voice shakes and his lips tremble.

It is an interesting sketch of a man who, as we are gradually told through the film, came to this country as a child, had no formal education, and though he lived through some hard and miserable times on the street, worked diligently to establish his own business and thrived. Not only did he work hard, but he learned -- from others, from the people around him whether they were his workers or others, perhaps bankers and business associates, and teachers from the design school he attended -- people who were his superiors in education and society -- how to speak and how to behave like the man he wanted to become. We sense that though he came from the streets, by the time he worked his way up to his own factory floor, he left streets outside.

Before he can attend his meeting, he has to stop by Kim Novak’s apartment to pick up some work she had brought home. He is cordial and businesslike with her, but suddenly struck with sympathy for her when he sees she is struggling with some unspoken overwhelming burden. Though he may occasionally bark at his employees, he is an old-style paternalistic master, who takes responsibility for his own. Through the course of the evening, he gets her to talk, and he listens patiently, to her unhappy marriage that ended in divorce, to her unhappy childhood with a father who abandoned them and a mother who ignored her.

Cut to later in the evening when she is telling a funny story about her teenage years, and we see he is laughing and enjoying her company. He breaks up the evening only long enough to make a quick call to the union meeting and tells them affably, with only mock gruffness, “All right, tell them we’ll make it six cents a seam.” He used to belong to a union himself. He knows that workers have value, not just because of what they can do for him, but because they are human beings and so is he.

And those of us who had been union factory workers or children of union factory workers know that each sick day, health benefit, or few cents an hour raise came not through the corporation’s benevolence, but by fighting tooth and nail for it.

In one scene, March is urged by his salesmen to take on a big new client and dump the little ones. He refuses, because they have been faithful customers, these smaller stores who buy his merchandize. He treats his customers with fairness and respect, because they have been with him through thick and thin, and he knows the bigger conglomerates will not extend him the same courtesy. “We don’t chisel our customers for anybody!”

Mr. March finds himself smitten with Miss Novak, astonished that it should be so, but with honesty and frankness, has already diagnosed himself as going through a midlife crisis. Because of his unflinching analysis about himself, he is able to apply the same direct focus on her problems. She feels confidence in him, and he helps her to untangle her emotional pain.

We see a shot of him later on in the movie pinning a cloth pattern on a dressmaker’s dummy, smoothing the fabric over the shoulders with a capable, almost loving touch. We sense his knowledge of human beings developed through years of making clothing for them, as if in creating this shell for the outside of the people, he has gained knowledge of what’s going on inside them.

Their relationship is tenuous, frightening for both of them. They pull away, and get back together with frustrating repetition. We are reminded by them, and by their unsympathetic families how impossible or inappropriate a romance between a 56-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman is supposed to be. We are shown no fairy tales of love conquers all or automatic happy endings, but we see the struggle of loving and being loved.

We see other married couples in the film who are more suitable for each other, yet are more unhappy. Martin Balsam plays Fredric March’s son-in-law, one of a few actors who also appeared in the original stage version. (Edward G. Robinson played March’s role on stage, with Gena Rowlands in the Kim Novak role.) Balsam has some great scenes as one of the Bright Young Men of the late corporate 1950s whose wife shows, at times, cruel disregard for his feelings until he finally blows up at her.

I love these films of the late 1950s and early 1960s when we get to see the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age matched up with the rising young TV-trained stars. We saw some of this before in “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1960) -- another Delbert Mann-directed movie.

In some scenes, Mr. March tentatively talks about his youth, which is tied inextricably like everything else in his life, to his business. It is as if he tries to explain himself to her, for the sake of transparency let her see the goods before she buys. During one such scene, they are in the work room late at night alone, he in his shirt sleeves finishing up an order, tracing markers for a pattern.

He talks about being a kid of 14 when he started work. “I joined the union, they made me a goon…you don’t know what went on here 30, 40 years ago. Bosses hired gangsters, we hired gangsters. People were murdered right in the streets here.”

But though she listens, those other moments she explores his craggy face with her young hands are what seem to tell her more about him, and it is exquisitely touching how hungrily she seeks to know him by touching his face, on which his age is plastered more plainly than anything else about him. His birth certificate or his resume of past experience could not tell her more than the lined and sagging skin on his cheek.

More juxtaposition of home with work. After a scene where Novak comes to March’s apartment to meet his family, where all are well-behaved but on tenterhooks, we cut to a more relaxed and happy scene in the workroom where the office girls and the salesmen from the road, and cutters in the shop gather for a farewell party for Miss Novak. She is leaving her job to marry Mr. March (which though common back in the day, it was also common for married women in mom-and-pop establishments to continue working. March’s factory seems less corporate than it does mom-and-pop. You’d think that both would prefer to continue to spend their days together as well as their nights.) The workers celebrate with cold cuts from the deli and champagne in paper cups. It is her first party, and she is delighted at the attention.

Then cut to another nasty confrontation from her family, who bring her down quickly, especially her best friend, a very bitter Lee Grant, who tells her that life is just “pay the rent, and go to sleep.”

Novak defends her relationship with Mr. March, “I don’t have to beg him for kindness; he gives it with both hands.”

We know what they want and they know what they want, the question is, are labor and management able to get together? And would world end if they did?

As long as we’re talking about juxtaposition here, a good film to watch with this movie is the HBO documentary “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” (2009).


This is a fantastic documentary illustrating the history of the garment industry in New York City, with lots of archival footage from the early 1900s right up through the 1990s. Immigrants, mom and pop to big corporations -- the nuts and bolts of the garment industry and how its story works as a microcosm for what has gone wrong with the American economy -- namely the deregulation that allowed jobs to be sent overseas, the weakening of unions, and the new corporate mentality of focusing on the stockholder instead of the product as Wall Street takes over the operation.

What do they know about making clothes? This is what one laid-off garment worker in the film wants to know. Maybe nothing, but they do know that slave labor, including that of children, in overseas sweatshops makes for a sweet profit.

There are many interviews with garment industry workers from all levels, from sewing to the designers. One recalls her immigrant mother quitting her sewing job one day -- I believe this was in the early 1960s. The woman, herself a laid off garment industry worker today, recounts with disbelief that her mother simply walked into another factory and got a new job that same afternoon. There was a sea of jobs in what had been the largest single employer in New York City. And over 90 percent of those jobs union.

Archival footage showing us fashion through the decades. We see the guys hauling rolling racks of clothes along Seventh Avenue, and the enormous work rooms full of sewing machines, the designers who in the 1970s and 1980s became rock star famous, the bridal shops, the sportswear and separates, the ranchero scarves, and the glitz of the sequined 1980s. It’s a fascinating ride through fashion and culture, and money, and politics.

A stunning montage shows that in 1965 about 95 percent of the clothes bought and worn in America were made in America.

In 1975, that dropped to 80 percent.

In 1985 - 70 percent.

In 1995 - 50 percent.

And in 2009, the year this television documentary was made -- only 5 percent of the clothing sold and worn in the USA was made here.

That’s a lot to think about, and I leave you to think about it. Happy Labor Day.

14 comments:

John Greco said...

March is wonderful in this film, and Novak is too expressing a sensitive sense of vulnerability in her character. One thing that struck me about this film, and I mention it in my own review, is the ages March and Albert Decker's characters. March's character is, if I remember correctly, 56 and Decker's about the same give or take. Well, frankly, both men look a lot older than 56! March in real life was 62 and Albert Decker was even younger, yet both men look closer to 70. I guess we can contribute it to better living and modern drugs.

The documentary sounds interesting. I had an Uncle who worked in the Garment Industry in the 1950's and I can remember years ago as kid walking by so many garment factories in Manhattan. Now, there is so little and so much unemployment! Thanks for the heads up on the doc. Will try to catch it.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, John. I was thinking the same thing watching this film, that March's and Dekker's characters looked much older than their late 50s. I think generally that generation did appear older than their years -- party through conservative dress in their younger days, and as for their older years -- excessive drink and smoking, and exposure to sun ages our appearance greatly. We're a bit more aware of things like that now. And the Boomers are probably much more vain about it.

Caftan Woman said...

"Middle of the Night" has been on my mind lately. (I must be feeling old.) Your exploration of March's character is enlightening. It's not a movie you watch, it's a movie you live.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, CW. I wonder if this movie is as absorbing for younger viewers? It might be a movie you have to live first to really emphathize with the characters.

Yvette said...

I saw this movie many years ago and have always had a fondness for it. Even when I was young I accepted the storyline of two people finding each other at just the right time even if it didn't seem that way to others. I would love to see it again one of these days.

I'm so glad you decided to talk about this film, Jacqueline. I'd forgotten the title, but not the story.

Caftan Woman is so right: this is a movie you experience.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Yvette. I think one of the qualities most appealing about this movie is how honest, and yet gentle it is. There are very sensitive issues discussed, and strong opinions raised from all sides, but the tone of the movie is never flippant or glib. I'm glad to see it has so many fans.

ClassicBecky said...

This article has it all, Jacqueline. Sorry it took me so long to get over here! I am a huge Paddy Chayefsky fan and have seen all of his filmed works. This one was unusual in many ways. First, your history of business, the garment business, all of that was fascinating. Second, your description of the movie's layered storyline was excellent.

One aspect to the story that is of great interest to me is how I personally reacted to May-December romance (although with this really huge age difference, it is more rightly a January-December romance!). When I was young myself, I found it incredibly romantic. I'm stil not yet the age that March's character is, but close enough that the last time I saw the movie, I had a whole different persepctive on his desire for this very young woman. A scene in his apartment, where he is so dismissive of a woman his own age introduced to him by his sister made my angry. I think as we get older, many women are sick of these old guys who don't think someone their own age is good enough and still go after the young chicks.

However, in Middle of the Night, there is an interesting small scene where March mentions that his dead wife was also child-like, and that perhaps he seems to need that quality in a woman. It is not a common quality in a mature woman, so going for a young one does seem to make sense for his character.

Anyway, just another aspect of the movie I thought might interest you. Now of course, that is how you know you article is a good one -- it engenders personal interest and the desire to converse about the subject! Good job!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Becky, I really appreciate your kind words. Your mention about March's rejection of the middle-aged woman early in the film is a good point. I think the fact that she is so obviously chasing him is perhaps what makes him reject her. He may suspect that she neither needs or wants him, only desires the security and prestige of being his wife can give her.

Novak, though a truly beautiful and sexy woman, seems to appeal to him more because of her emotional qualities. As you say, he notes that his late wife was a child-like woman. He seems to notice Novak really for the first time when she is telling him her troubles, and he is touched by her sorrow and loneliness. Maybe March needs to be needed. Paddy Chayefsky is so good at these kinds of introspective stories, the gentleness in his characters contrasts the bleakness of their situations.

ClassicBecky said...

I think Paddy Chayefsky was one of our great playwrights too, Jacqueline. Of course Network was genius, and one of the other favorites is The Catered Affair. It too shows what you describe as "the gentleness in his characters contrasts the bleakness of their situations." Good way to put it.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Marty" too, so sweet and so painful.

Yvette said...

I saw MARTY just a couple of years ago after not seeing it for many many years and though it feels dated in some respects, it mostly holds up. The emotional impact of the story of course, is ageless.

I wonder what today's young audience would make of it.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

That's an interesting point, Yvette about what young audiences today might think of "Marty". It might be just too dated for them. I don't know. I always get a kick out of his "Der--Die--Das--Die" when showing off for her proof that he took German in high school. Invariably, drawing a chart on the blackboard of the articles was the first thing the teacher did when the term began, as I recall.

The Swirly Gazette said...

I just saw most of it on TCM and I wanted to see the end. Is there anywhere I can rent this movie online? I don't have netflix, don't want it, but other possibilities please? It's killing me I didn't get to see the end.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

So sorry Swirly Gazette, I feel your pain. We've all been there. I know it's not on Hulu or YouTube, but it is out on DVD, so I would contact your local rental stores (if there are any left), or even the library. Most libraries have a large collection of movies now, and if your local branch doesn't have it, they can probably get it on inter-library loan from another library who has. Good luck.