I know J. Lee-Thompson mostly from Cape Fear and his many collaborations with Charles Bronson. This 1983 film with Bronson comes just before a run of other films they would do together including The Evil That Men Do (1984), Murphy’s Law (1986), and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (great title – made in 1987).
This film and the latter were produced by the Cannon Group, a somewhat influential producer and distributor of low-budget fare, sometimes in the exploitation category, and sometimes – as is the case here – well-made. I love this quote (pulled from the Wikipedia page) by Roger Ebert in 1987: “no other production organization in the world today—certainly not any of the seven Hollywood “majors”—has taken more chances with serious, marginal films than Cannon.” Compliment or backhanded insult?
10 To Midnight is solid. It plays off of Bronson’s Death Wish image as an avenging angel. Here he plays Leo Kessler, a cop out to nail a murderer of attractive young women, Warren Stacy (played effectively by Gene Davis). Some parts of the film don’t hold up too well including a few sequences featuring supporting characters during or in reaction to the murders.
Here’s a moment that I found particularly interesting in terms of technique. Kessler’s off the force after a corruption charge. Now he’s full on Paul Kersey, stalking Stacy on his own time and harassing him in imaginative ways. In this scene, Kessler sits outside in his car waiting for Stacy:
And then his partner darts into frame as Kessler pulls his gun.
This is notable for a few reasons. Look at that top frame. Where is the focus set to? We can see that Kessler is clearly soft (out of focus) and that the side view mirror is sharp and in focus. The traditional approach here would be to start sharp on Kessler and then rack focus as whoever – in this case McAnn (played by Andrew Stevens) – enters frame. By setting the focus to the spot where the “intruder” will land, Lee-Thompson telegraphs someone else’s entrance.
It’s the classic horror movie trope of negative space. Leave room in the frame (see image 1) and someone will often fill it.
So this is either a directorial choice that leaves something to be desired in how it eliminates suspense by using a focus choice to tell us that someone is coming. Or it’s an inspired directorial choice by doubly fooling us: 1) we know that negative space implies a presence; 2) we know here that the focus is further directing our attention to outside of the car; 3) surprise…it’s not the killer! Which one?
I don’t have images for them but there’s an interesting cross-cut towards the end of the film (the climax is great and features a set piece that perhaps inspired Lynch’s ending for Blue Velvet, one of my favorite films). In fact, I think that the cross-cut is a bit sloppy.
Kessler knows that Stacy is headed towards his daughter Laurie’s (Lisa Eilbacher) place. Stacy’s got a jump on him. Kessler calls to warn her and Laurie’s friend answers. At the same time there’s a knock at the door. Laurie’s friend answers the phone. Her other friend starts to open the door. Now at this point, if I’m Kessler, I’m just yelling, “Don’t open the door” right away. Right away. But the editor (Peter Lee-Thompson, J. Lee-Thompson’s son), botches the job. Instead, he cuts back to the door, ostensibly to play up the suspense, but thereby indicating that Kessler is taking a long time – a full 10 seconds – to say his piece on the phone. It doesn’t make sense and is a clear example of trying to milk suspense over story and logic. Ask Walter Murch. It never works.
A Few Other Films from 2012:
Not Fade Away (Chase, 2012): I really, really disliked this film. Wooden characters, poor comedic timing, an unlikeable lead, and nothing that ever rises above the Rolling Stones songs featured. Here’s my full review: http://www.montgomerynews.com/articles/2013/01/03/entertainment/doc50e5c2b19186e758690842.txt
Safety Not Guaranteed (Trevorrow, 2012): I heard a lot of hype on this one. It’s sweet and has a few really funny moments. It avoids at least one major stereotype I thought it was going to fall into as well, but hits way too many others to be as worthwhile as people would have you believe. Is the nerdy Indian guy character actually still funny? I saw the ending coming a mile away, and you will too, but it’s still a bit fun. Light with pretty standard direction.
Central Park Five (Burns, 2012): Ken Burns’ finest achievement, this is a film to get the blood boiling. It’s got a great soundtrack, features some incredible footage, has solid interviews and has a very sharp focus. Full review: http://montgomerynews.com/articles/2013/01/03/entertainment/doc50d0a61f83431627382423.txt?viewmode=3
Killer Joe (Friedkin, 2012): As you might note from my Year-End list, I really liked this film. I just think it’s so damn irreverent and funny (though I bet some women’s rights groups may have been up in arms). It also features not only the best Matthew McConaughey performance I’ve seen, but also the best of Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church. Full review: http://www.soundonsight.org/killer-joe-plays-close-to-a-more-gratuitous-sweatier-version-of-blood-simple/
Skyfall (Mendes, 2012): One of the better Bond flicks in some time. It features hyped plot points that I’ve seen before, but really good turns from all the leads. Bond films can be a little ridiculous sometimes, but if you get past that (in the same way that you must get past spandex costuming for superhero flicks) it’s a lot of fun. Easily the two best parts: the extended chase sequence through Istanbul and the neon/art-deco fight scene in Shanghai.
Rust and Bone (Audiard, 2012): I also mentioned this one on my Year-End list. I wonder if Audiard will ever top A Prophet. A near perfect film, in my opinion. Rust and Bone doesn’t come close, but it’s still very good. Aside from two very questionable Bon Iver songs that feel extremely out of place, there’s not much wrong with the film. The lead performances are beyond good (both deserve recognition) and Audiard proves his soft side in a tender ending that really works.