The feel of a film: Middle of the Night

I’ve watched a part of a 1959 movie called Middle of the Night that we recorded from TCM, and it’s fascinating to me. It starred Fredric March and Kim Novak, was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Like the film Marty (also from Chayefsky and Mann), it’s about middle class New Yorkers and so has the speech patterns, the surroundings and the feel of the time.

In the movie, March plays Jerry, a 56-year-old women’s clothing manufacturer in the garment industry who falls in love with his 24-year-old receptionist Betty (played by Novak). Unlike many other movies of the time, where it’s taken for granted that the beautiful young female star will end up with the much older male star (see Bell, Book and Candle), the age difference is front and center here. March is a lonely widower starting to face his own mortality; Novak is a troubled young woman recently out of a bad marriage. They meet, fall in love, and have to deal with their own misgivings and those of their families.

There are problems with the film. Chayevsky tries to show the strengths and foibles of all his characters, but all the women in the film — Betty, her mother, Jerry’s sister and his daughter — are troubled and shrill, while Jerry and, in a lesser way, his son-in-law (played by a young Martin Balsam) show quiet strength. (Of course, I haven’t seen the entire film, so I could be pre-judging.) It’s understandable — the point of voice of the film is obviously with Jerry. For example, while we sit in on his conversations with his cronies, we only see Betty with her friends from afar, from his point of view.

Nevertheless, the feel of the film fascinates me. I was still very young at the time — my young brother was born the year this film came out — but my father was a salesman in the exact same industry that Jerry is in. I have vague memories of spending the occasional day at work with my father when I was very young: Of running through aisles made up of racks of clothing, playing hide and seek with myself; of watching the tailors cutting out the patterns and giving me scraps of cloth (and warning me not to touch the scissors); of playing with the adding machine in the receptionist’s cubicle. The place smelled of age and dust and glue.

That — and the scenes of Manhattan of the late 1950s, and the speech patterns of the actors, and the style of the furniture in the apartments — all speak to me in a very fundamental way of my very early childhood in a way that the more polished films of the time never could.

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