Sunday, September 18, 2016

FIVE MILES TO MIDNIGHT: Blu-ray (UA 1962) Kino Lorber

Anatole Litvak’s Five Miles to Midnight (1962) ought to have come with the following disclaimer: “It’s not as good as you remember and nothing on God’s green earth can transform it into the thriller you would want it to be.” I saw this movie on late night television when I was only six or seven, along with Blake Edwards’ infinitely superior Experiment in Terror (ironically made and released in the same year) and thereafter fondly remembered both movies for decades to follow; unable to unearth either on home video for far too long and eventually giving up my search. But Five Miles to Midnight continued to linger in my mind’s eye, I suspect partly for Henri Alekin’s moodily magnificent cinematography, but also for Anthony Perkins, who apparently after his seminal turn as Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s watershed thriller, Psycho (1960) felt the need to further explore similar traits herein; this time, hopelessly miscast as Robert Macklin; a mentally deranged wife-abuser with a thoroughly queer and utterly misplaced boyish bravura. I now realize Perkins’ performance could have only appealed to another six year old, because his hawkish and occasionally cruel flyboy is nothing like I recall; Macklin playing at being an adult rather than actually being one in much the same way children imagine adult life to be – simple, better than their own and with more freedoms allotted along the way to do precisely as one pleases.  All that worked when I was six, as I recall then, right up until the point when Macklin befriended Johnny (played by brilliant child star, Tommy Norden, who clearly reminded me of a chap I chummed around with in school); in the movie, a curious neighbor boy living in the same Parisian tenement shared by Robert and Lisa. But then, Bob tried to toss the precocious little bugger off a six story rooftop, merely for being a good kid, able to recognize before any of the adults did, that not all of Macklin’s cranial hotwiring had been performed with the benefit of good soldering. Suddenly, I felt cheated, let down, disappointed with authority figures in general; more screwed up than I, but still wanting to be my friend.  So when Robert met with his untimely end shortly before the finale I was rather relieved. Good did triumph over evil…at least, in the movies.
Five Miles to Midnight is such an atrociously bad movie I find myself marginally embarrassed, yet oddly compelled to discuss it herein; Perkins delivering a bone-chillingly apposite interpretation of malicious, if infantilized imprudence. His crawling into bed, fully clothed no less, but next to the infinitely worldlier Sophia Loren (hopelessly miscast as his wife, Lisa), left cringing and pulling the bed sheets and blankets close to her neck, presumably to prevent his ickiness from rubbing up against her (I sincerely want to wretch while even thinking about this moment now); then, much later, inexplicably bitten by the ‘hell hath no fury’ chapter of all feminist uprisings, as Lisa, finally fed up, repeatedly drives the car back and forth over Robert’s increasingly mangled body, desperately seeking to expunge the last few weeks of their life together from her brain, only to be caught in the web of lies at the end. Peter Viertel and Hugh Wheeler’s screenplay, cribbing from an insanely bad idea by André Versini, is chiefly centered on this crumbling marital bond we, as the audience, quite simply cannot imagine as ever having taken place. Oh sure, opposites attract. But exactly how a level-headed bombshell and party gal like Lisa (especially as played by the forthright and glamorous Loren), working in a fashionable couturier in Paris (the city looking drab, damp and thoroughly ominous, out of season) could have found even a shred of likability in Perkins’ impish little gremlin, seems now not only implausible, but startlingly bad casting from the outset. A mousy girl or put upon frump…maybe. But Loren cannot mask her intrinsic elegance as she twists and gyrates inside a crowded cellar/nightclub before being hunted down and hauled off for home by Perkins’ glowering hubby, who clearly does not think his helpmeet should be having fun – not just without him (which clearly, she is) – but at all.
Life with Bob is about as far from that proverbial ‘bowl of cherries’ one might expect; Perkins’ beady-eyed and shifty little bastard wasting no time belting Lisa across the cheek, kicking shut the driver’s side door after she has already slid into the front seat, then attempting – seemingly without much success – to procure a prostitute (Pascale Roberts) for the evening. For whatever reason, Bob cannot work up his lather for this sure thing. Perhaps it is just a tad too sure to feel comfortable. On the flipside, Lisa is having an affair…well, we suspect, with Alan Stewart (Jean-Pierre Aumont)…or are they just friends? We are never entirely certain how their ‘relationship’ adds up, mostly because like a good many of the variables presented for our amusement during these 110 minutes, this too never comes off as anything more or better than oddly dissatisfying; Alan’s impromptu departure from France for parts unknown, allowing for the film’s ‘cute meet’ between Lisa and the new gigolo in town, David Barnes (Gig Young) who mildly enjoys his double entendre and drunkenly leering around corners as though Lisa were a delicious bag of sweets inside the chocolatier’s shop window and he, the sticky-fingered diabetic about to be accused of improper handling of all the goodies by an insulin-syringe-toting Doctor Feel-Good. David is marginally more appealing to Lisa than Bob is right now. Indeed, when news arrives that Bob’s business flight has gone down shortly after takeoff with all on board presumed dead, it is more of a relief than a tragedy; for the briefest of wrinkles in time, Lisa breathes easy while being comforted by her dearest friend, Barbara Finch (Yolande Ford) who has absolutely zero idea what a nightmare their marriage has been and what a blessing it is now for Lisa to finally be rid of Bob. Or is she?
No. Bob’s back, from the dead…or so it would seem; his idiotic story, having survived being sucked out of his seat during cabin decompression and tossed like a rag doll, left unconscious on a nearby hillside while the plane and virtually all the other passengers plowed into an adjacent mountain range to be pulverized to smithereens. In the resulting formal investigation, no one thought to scour the field of debris for scattered remains – human or otherwise? Really?!? Now, Bob has found his way back into the heart of Paris, undetected by virtually all who knew him while he lived, despite suffering a concussion and several lacerations requiring immediate medical attention; since, having to sustain himself on nothing more substantial than sheer willpower. Remember, no money for food or shelter in the middle of a drizzly winter. And Bob’s come home after his official burial…why? For Lisa? No, to scam the insurance company from whom he purchased a policy just before boarding his flight and who now are forced to pay out some hefty dividends to the spouse sure to set Bob and Lisa up temporarily…or at least until Bob can figure out how to perform another disappearing act, this time for good. Until then, Bob begs, then, threatens Lisa to remain silent about his miraculous survival; to conceal him in their meager apartment, frequented by Mme. Duvall (Mathilde Casadesus), the building’s obtrusive concierge, and to act as the intermediary, perpetuating the insurance fraud on his behalf.
Why…why…does Lisa do it? For love? Hardly. To be rid of Bob once and for all? Perhaps. After all, she can expose his little game at any time. Affording him the money to travel and threatening to reveal his dirty little secret unless he gets out for good…it might be worth it; especially as Lisa has already begun to entertain notions of finding more permanent happiness with David. If only David were not so suspicious, or clever, or able to see so clearly right through to the other side of all this gauzy subterfuge tucked inside a woman’s fickle heart. Predictably, all does not go as planned. It will take three months for the consulate, insurance company, American Embassy and police and coroner’s office to officially sign off on Bob’s death – three months of skulking about back alleys, hanging off back scaffoldings, or shimmying up and down rooftop chimneys every time an uninvited guest pops in for a visit, or Mme. Duval decides to poke her head in for a bit of nosy chatter. Bob is crafty; just not enough to outfox a precocious six year old; remember, Johnny? He sneaks into the apartment via an open kitchen window, then basically tells Bob all about his lonely life; a father, always away on business and a mother he never sees, presently residing in England. Bob realizes he would do well to befriend this smart kid. So, he spins a yarn; the first of several – about a quarantine; then, his involvement in an international espionage requiring absolute discretion and silence about having seen him in the first place. They can remain friends. But Johnny cannot tell anyone about his whereabouts.
What boy of Johnny’s years would not want to play his part in an international conspiracy involving smugglers and spies? It all makes perfect sense until Bob, in a moment of betrayal, threatens to toss Johnny off the roof, but then takes a few steps back from committing murder and quickly hurries back to the apartment. Barbara and a group of Lisa’s fair-weather’s are preparing for a night on the town. Lisa agrees to the outing to divert attention away from the lit cigarette Bob has left behind, as well as the appearance of his leather bomber hanging off a hook in the bedroom. In the meantime, Bob reasons it would be more prudent to hide somewhere else. For a few francs, he takes up residence in the seedy red light district where no one is sure to search for him. But back at the apartment, Lisa is contacted by police investigators who show her a few remnants of Bob’s clothing since recovered a few miles from the crash site; his tattered trench coat and a handkerchief with the letter ‘R’ embroidered. Lisa feigns feeling ill to avoid being interrogated any further; retreating to a rendezvous with Bob at a nearby café. In time, the insurance money arrives in the form of a check; Bob ordering Lisa to cash it in full. But this only draws more suspicion.
Despite earlier promises, Bob has no intention of leaving Paris without Lisa at his side. He threatens to spin the insurance fraud as perpetuated by a greedy wife only interested in the money.  Lisa believes Bob. After all, she has been his point man during the entire heist. Everyone from the bankers to the insurance investigators, to the American arbitrators at the embassy, working on her behalf, knows only of the widow Macklin; not of her husband, whom she has kept shuttered inside a squalid little apartment until the settlement came through. Oh, how could she have been so naïve? Alas, bad turns to worse as Bob orders Lisa to drive them to the border, passports ready; loot safely tucked in a suitcase in the trunk of their getaway car. However, after several hours of driving at night Bob nods off and Lisa pulls to the side of a lonely country road, claiming a flat tire. Bob exits to investigate and is promptly run over by Lisa several times until he is quite dead…for real, this time. Only now the trap set by Bob appears to be closing in even tighter. A truck narrowly avoids spotting Bob’s lifeless remains still lying by the side of the road, only marginally concealed by Lisa’s parked car.  Having avoided one catastrophe, Lisa covers up her crime by sinking Bob’s body in a nearby lake. But she is scared, hungry, cold and worn to a frazzle; collapsing inside a remote truck stop where she is given sustenance and kindness by the locals.
On route back to Paris, Lisa is stopped by police for a minor driving infraction. Barely keeping it together, afterward she is overcome with fear, grief and confusion. In the meantime, David arrives at her apartment in Paris. He lets himself in and inadvertently meets Johnny, who unravels the story of the mysterious ‘other man’ living there – the spy who has, as yet, not come in from the cold. Daylight is beginning to glimmer for David. The widow Macklin has been lying to him for some time. Robert Macklin is not dead. But where is he now? And where is Lisa? Piecing together the mystery, David catches Lisa in one lie after the next; her mind spinning wildly out of control. At some point David realizes he is not dealing with a rational human being. He telephones a close friend for the name of a good psychiatrist, promising Lisa to find her a lawyer to help in her defense on the insurance fraud charges. Lisa begins to mix reality with the lies, unable to discern the truth from the concocted stories she and Bob told to cover up their fraud. Lisa pleads with David to be understanding and patient. He promises to do his best, as Lisa implores him to make sure the lawyer he is hiring will understand her the first time, because her mind cannot take any more of this insidious make-believe. In her penultimate moments of mental disintegration, Lisa stares blankly into the camera with a partial dissolve revealing the lonely and frigid pier where she submerged Bob’s body.
Five Miles to Midnight is turgidly scripted to a fault. Henri Alekin’s cinematography sets a potent and enveloping tone. But director, Anatole Litvak desperately wants his picture to be an uber-clever ‘edge of your seat’ thriller a la Hitchcock at his best. Instead, it comes across as little more than shallow, if marginally diverting tripe; a conundrum that never gets solved to anyone’s satisfaction, painfully replete with coincidences piled mile high on top of the most clichéd hyperbole and insinuations. If all Hitchcockian thrillers survive on a MacGuffin – a diversion begun as the whole purpose for telling the tale, Five Miles to Midnight periodically forgets exactly which one of these it should follow or ditch along the way, inventing and then reinventing new ones along the way, and, suffering from too many moderately interesting detours that never entirely crystalize or draw even marginal clarity from the final reel. Does David really believe Lisa’s story? Should he? Does he really love her enough to care? Again, should he? And what has all this deception been for – not profit or peace of mind – but quite the opposite; Lisa’s inner torment eaten through all logic until she is quite mad; Bob’s insanity transferred to her. She is now just as insincerely incapable of discerning truth from fiction and right from wrong; in short, a wan ghost flower of the vibrant girl we first discovered shaking her business inside a Parisian beatnik’s ratskellar.  
It’s rather pointless to go on. Five Miles to Midnight never evolves into anything more than a series of false starts. There is zero chemistry between Sophia Loren and Anthony Perkins, or Loren and Gig Young for that matter. Loren is a rare breed of exotic flower. She requires the proper squires to fire her heart. Neither of these male leads is up to this challenge. Both are antiseptic at best. At least, Perkins hit his peak with Psycho, if, from this watershed moment, never to fully recover and/or escape from the pall of being associated with the neurotic and homicidal Norman Bates. By comparison, Gig Young is an actor barely remembered today and arguably, rightly so. I have never seen the man be anything better than severely wooden as he is herein, the antithesis of Perkins’ more animated performance.  And, at least in hindsight, Perkins appears to be attempting some sort of interesting characterization. It’s just that he is so woefully misguided in this endeavor, never straddling the chasm between wounded mama’s boy and abusive spouse with a penchant for violence. As we are first introduced to Robert Macklin, he saunters down a narrow staircase into the bowels of a roiling cesspool, discovering his wife twirling her hips in wild abandonment.  Lisa makes eye contact with Bob. Perkins’ penetrating stare could melt the polar icecaps. It’s all very creepy in a good sort of way as Bob ushers Lisa to a waiting car in the back alley while she attempts to feign an innocent ‘girl’s night out’ with her good friend, Barbara. Without further provocation, Perkins hauls off and belts Loren across the cheek. Clearly, Bob isn’t buying Lisa’s story. She wasn’t there for Barbara, but rather to excite another male patron – any male patron it would appear, with her curvaceous dance moves and consequently to become excited by him to satisfy her own sexual fantasies left unfulfilled in their marriage.
Lisa is wounded by Bob’s physical assault, though hardly surprised by it. So, these two have been around this block before, have they? Lisa hurriedly gets into the car and Bob mercilessly kicks her driver’s side door shut. She drives off in a huff, leaving him disgruntled and rife for a prostitute’s pickup. Perkins plays the malignant cad very well in these opening scenes. He is menacing, heartless and uncharacteristically scary as the heavy. Yet, what follows is an absolute negation of these taut introductory moments to both his character and the marriage oh so clearly on the rocks. From here on in, Bob is more playful than sinister, and infrequently proving so out of his depth as the love-stricken devotee of a sophisticated woman one cannot imagine why one as worldly as Lisa should have found anything even remotely appealing in Bob to go out on a first date, much less marry the guy and endure his adolescent misbehavior thereafter. In the third act, Perkins endeavors a retreat to playing the brutish baddie, ordering Lisa to comply or be exposed as a complicit in their fraud. Only, by this point it is virtually impossible to take him seriously.  In the end, Perkins falls back on a very Norman Bates-ish crutch; the giddy awkwardness of a slightly imperfect all-American whose fresh-face is betrayed by some never-to-be-entirely-disclosed sinister home fires brewing beneath his toothy idiot’s grin. Five Miles to Midnight is mired by Perkins’ performance. It ruins the movie’s atmosphere instead of augmenting it with an overriding arc of portentous conflict. So much for thrills. So much for memory. So long and good riddance to Five Miles to Midnight. I thought I knew it well. I was sorely mistaken. Regrets.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray has been the obvious beneficiary of a modest remastering effort. While age-related artifacts only sporadically appear, the overall gray scale is very appealing. Occasionally, the tonality seems a tad off; some darker scenes exhibiting good solid black levels, others registering in a nondescript neutral gray. There is also some minor gate weave and wobble, though nothing to distract. In a perfect world one might anticipate a little more care paid to alleviate these minor inconsistencies, but owing to the all but forgettable nature of the movie itself, I sincerely did not expect it to look even this good. So, no complaints from a visual presentation standpoint; neither, from the DTS 2.0 mono audio: solid with minimal hiss during quiescent moments. This is a competently rendered hi-def release of a really disposable cult fav. Special features are limited to a deleted sequence and a trailer gallery. Bottom line: top marks for the transfer. But if you are looking for a competently made thriller designed to send chills down your back – pass on this one, and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

1 

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