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