10 to Midnight

(1983)

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

It’s incredibly hard to overestimate the effect of Dirty Harry on the police procedural. Forty years after its release, we still have films about cops quaking with righteous fury over a judicial system that they see as protecting vicious criminals. But in the ten to fifteen years after its release, outright knockoffs were even more commonplace. Most of these films were laughable exercises in glorifying police brutality. They became less about a cop trying to bring a crafty criminal to justice with one hand tied behind his back and more about angry, burned out cops at war with cartoonishly over-the-top criminals. These films usually lacked the moral ambiguities of Eastwood’s masterpiece. That’s why it’s so surprising to see a movie like 10 to Midnight.

Obviously, I have an affection for Cannon films. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother taking part in this column. But their attempts to cash in on popular genres and knockoffs of bigger budgeted fare led to far more misses than hits. You can understand why I expected a film that plugged Charles Bronson into a Dirty Harry-esque scenario would be nothing more than Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films with a badge. But 10 to Midnight defies expectations, delivering a solid procedural with surprising twists and grounded, believable characters.

Warren (Gene Davis) is a handsome guy who is often described by the women he encounters as “creepy.” It is easy to understand why they feel that way. Attempting to flirt, he comes on too strong, often staring for too long and standing too close. Pushed past the breaking point by a girl he has a crush on at his office, Warren sets up an “airtight” alibi, follows her and her boyfriend to the woods, strips off his clothes and murders them both, slasher-style, with a butterfly knife.

On the case is Lieutenant Leo Kessler (Bronson), a veteran detective who has given everything to his job. Saddled with McAnn (Andrew Stevens), an officious new partner, Leo finds himself taking the case too personally when he realizes that the victim is the daughter of a former neighbor.

Almost immediately, Leo and McAnn swoop in on Warren as their prime suspect. The only problem is his alibi and a lack of physical evidence. But when Warren becomes fixated on Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher), Leo’s nursing student daughter, Leo takes the drastic step of planting evidence to frame Warren for a murder that he actually committed. That’s when the cat and mouse game between cop and murderer really begins.

The film gets off to a rough start. There’s a stagey scene of Leo talking with a reporter where he lays out his basic philosophy of “whatever it takes” to get his man. This is quickly followed up by the initial murders, clumsily staged by veteran director J. Lee Thompson. But once the procedural aspects begin, the film reveals some unexpected strengths.

The relationship between Leo and McAnn is refreshingly low-key. Most films would have McAnn behave like a bumbling idiot while Leo yelled insults at him. But McAnn is portrayed as a solid detective who Leo gently pushes to always improve at his job. While the strained relationship between Leo and Laurie is caused by the stereotypical “he was too busy with his job to be a father” syndrome, Bronson and Eilbacher never play it too over-the-top, keeping their regrets and resentment simmering just below the surface. Even the romance that blossoms between Laurie and McAnn feels less perfunctory and more organic than we usually get from this genre.

In addition to the good performances by Bronson and Eilbacher, the rest of the cast delivers solid work. Stevens somehow makes the blandly written McAnn come across as a nice, decent guy instead of a stick in the mud. Davis hits just the right note of paranoid eeriness with flashes of believable anger. Add in the always steady Wilford Brimley and Geoffrey Lewis and you have a talented cast that elevates the occasionally stale dialogue.

It isn’t until a ridiculous climax that the film really stumbles. For most of the running time, Warren is portrayed as a clever criminal who is just a little off. He’s always in enough control of his emotions to be methodical about the way he carries out his crimes. Unfortunately, the script eventually turns him into a full-blown maniac who runs down streets, naked, waving his knife at a potential victim. I understand Thompson’s desire to offer up a “big” ending, but it flies in the face of the rest of the films’ quiet approach and plausibility.

Thankfully, the silly ending didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the rest of the film. Good work by the cast, a decent story, and likable characters help smooth over most of the rough patches and give us one of Bronson’s better films from the ’80s. It’s no masterpiece, but it exceeds its modest goals and emerges as a thoroughly satisfying morsel of entertainment.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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