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MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

USA, 1959 (MIFF 1960, Programme 1)

Director: Delbert Mann

The world of Paddy Chayefsky is a joyless place where married love appears to be the only alternative to a life of sterile gloom, but he observes it so accurately and views his characters with such compassion that one is continually fascinated, even while rejecting his thesis. Like Marty, Bachelor Party and Wedding Breakfast, his new screenplay is based on his own original; the setting is again New York, the characters are Jewish, the plot straightforward. Jerry Kingsley, a lonely middle-aged widower, and his highly-strung, recently divorced, 24-year-old receptionist, Betty Prieser, fall in love and hang on to each other despite their friends and relatives and their own self-torturing doubts. The scriptwriter uses this plot as a frame for the portrait of the lovers, their loneliness and need for each other, laid bare by the stifling conventions of their enclosed bourgeois world.

Chayefsky characters tend to be obsessed with age; and Jerry Kingsley has more reason for his obsession that most. Fredric March shirks none of the uglier physical aspects of an elderly passion, and presents the whole man with a heroic candour which attracts rather than repels sympathy. It is his performance that gives the film its major impact (despite the feeling that he is not a member of his family), "at home" to March is not Jewish Seventh Avenue, the ghetto or union shop and pirated models, and "I can get it for you wholesale". He's at once more emphatic and expansive. But March does experience Jerry's emotions and reveals them to us with beautiful compass. Kim Novak has the look of helpless vulnerability as the girl who is one of those unfortunates who will always be hopelessly inadequate in a crisis; with the aid of some careful direction she suggests Betty's perpetual adolescence very successfully.

All the backgrounds have the usual Chayefsky authenticity; from the clatter of the garment factory to the impersonal sleekness of the Kingsley home, or Betty's crowded apartment where the bathroom is the only place for a private talk. Supporting parts are firmly drawn and played, especially by Joan Copeland as the self-deceiving Lillian, full of glib psychological claptrap, and Martin Balsam as her inarticulate - but at one moment, finely furious - husband. Delbert Mann's direction is unobtrusive, and he almost persuades us that everyone is lonely, neurotic and misunderstood.

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