Friday, March 16, 2012

THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT 1977

You can’t really appreciate the benefits of a film like The Other Side of Midnight until you’re confined to your bed for three days with an ass-kicker of a late-winter flu. Only when one’s energy has been sapped from inactivity, muscle weakness, and a ceaseless intake of liquids (followed, with breathtaking immediacy, by the expulsion of same from every imaginable orifice); when a toxic blend of physical inertia, mental malaise, and miserable weather renders futile all possibility of doing anything remotely productive; only then can one fully understand what a panacea to the beleaguered spirit is the extravagantly trashy film.
"The Romance of Passion and Power"
Sidney Sheldon (the man who gave the world The Patty Duke Show & I Dream of Jeannie) wrote The Other Side of Midnight for folks who find sociopathology, brutishness, premeditated murder, and abortion by wire hanger to be the stuff of epic romance.
 Sometimes it takes a thing like a 100 degree fever to break down one’s resistance enough to allow for the guilt-free enjoyment of gilt-edged sleaze like The Other Side of Midnight. A film that, at a running time of over 2 ½ hours, is an over-embellished potboiler of love, sex, and revenge so narratively antiquated, so routine and clich├ęd in execution, that even on first viewing it feels like a rerun. Yet it is nevertheless thoroughly engrossing and strangely reassuring in its by-the-numbers familiarity and adherence to type. It's all there, everything that you'd expect from a soap opera: the sex, the romance, the betrayals, the power plays, vengeance, retribution...the whole shebang. Directed with a daring lack of distinction by Charles Jarrot (Lost Horizon), this big-budget adaptation of the 1973 Sidney Sheldon bestseller is a comfort food movie that requires nothing more of your brain than that you leave it on the nightstand and let the glistening images and warmed-over histrionics enshroud you like an electric blanket. Lovely to look at, easy to ingest, and 100% lacking in anything remotely substantive, The Other Side of Midnight is the filmic equivalent of a sugar-pill.
Marie-France Pisier as Noelle Page (short a, as in Pajama)
John Beck as Larry Douglas
Susan Sarandon as Catherine Alexander
Raf Vallone as Constantin Demeris
Clu Gulager as Bill Fraser
When Jacqueline Susann, the queen of crass, (and I wouldn't have it any other way) passed away in 1974, she left a sizable void in the supply pool of high-gloss motion picture camp-fests. The last of her novels to be adapted for the screen was Once is Not Enough (1975), a delightfully squalid take on the Electra Complex and May/December romance among the Hollywood elite. After that, devotees of true highbrow smut had to wait for 1983, when Harold Robbins and Pia Zadora would pick up the torch and deliver the legendarily craptastic, The Lonely Lady (1983). Between 1975 and 1983, with the “slick sleaze” landscape populated by the likes of Judith Krantz, Danielle Steele, and Jackie Collins; the one book and film adaptation that genuinely felt like a worthy successor to the Susanne crown was The Other Side of Midnight. A film virtually forgotten today but heavily promoted at the time and arriving at theaters with an incredible amount of promising advance buzz. A summer release, it bombed rather stupendously.
Father Knows Worst
"Noelle, war is coming...you have beauty. It is your only weapon of survival. Use it. Let the hand under your dress wear gold, and you'll be that much ahead of the game."
How do you say "Yuck!" in French?
A kind of last-gasp, big-screen entry before the TV miniseries would corner the market on this kind of globetrotting/bedhopping glamour drama, The Other Side of Midnight begins in 1939 and tells the story of Hard-Luck Noelle (Pisier). Noelle is a breathtakingly beautiful French woman (they’re always breathtakingly beautiful in these kinds of books) who, over the course of one remarkably bad year, has her father sell off her virginity to an employer; runs off to Paris and is robbed of all of her belongings within minutes of arrival; gets mistaken for a whore; and has a mad, rapturous love affair with Larry, American Army pilot (Beck) who ultimately abandons her, pregnant and alone, after telling her to go out and buy a wedding dress and wait for his return.
The Agony & The Ecstasy
Above: Noelle learns of love at the extremely hirsute hands (and back) of horny French couturier, Auguste Lanchon (Sorrell  Booke...yes, Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard).
Below: Noelle's fate is sealed when she falls in love with caddish RAF pilot Larry Douglas (Beck)
Taking a kind of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude about the cruel objectification she’s suffered at the hands of all those beastly males, the embittered Noelle embarks on a curious course of revenge that involves pimping herself out to the highest bidder in an effort to secure enough fame, money, and power to eventually stick it, but good, to her fleetfooted wartime paramour, whom she learns is alive and well (and very married) in Washington, D.C. 
It’s raunchy fun watching Noelle’s Evita-esque bed-climb to the top (wherein she plies her considerable sexual skills on an increasingly unappetizing assortment of men), but it’s only after Larry weds the lovably kooky dipsomaniac, Catherine (Sarandon), that The Other Side of Midnight really shifts into high gear and becomes the vengeance-fueled bitchfest I was hoping for. It's then that it becomes clear that for all the travelogue scenery, the sequences detailing post-war difficulties of military men adapting to civilian life, and pseudo-feminist parallels made by showing Catherine's climb up the ladder with her brains contrasted with Noelle's degrading use of her body; The Other Side of Midnight is mostly fancy window-dressing in service of a diamond-encrusted parable on fury and women scorned.
No Wire Hangers
Even fans of glossy trash have their limits, and this hard-to-watch abortion sequence was a real deal-breaker for many

In a previous post I wrote of my weakness for films whose reach exceeds their grasp. Films whose intentions are at direct odds with their execution. In the case of The Other Side of Midnight: a “love” story, if you can call it that, between two totally reprehensible people (admittedly, poor Noelle doesn’t start out that way); there exists a gross misinterpretation of the source material.

From watching the film and listening to the hilariously on-the-defensive DVD commentary, I’m given the distinct impression that the filmmakers thought they were making an epic love story with a strong, resilient heroine at its center…like Gone with the Wind. Pisier may be a headstrong brunette and Beck sports a dashing pencil mustache, but that is where any similarity ends. Believe me, the self-destructively monomaniacal Noelle Page is no Scarlett O’Hara; Larry, the oafish lout, is no Rhett; and The Other Side of Midnight is no Gone With the Wind…not unless I missed the scene where Scarlett and Ashley make plans to bump off Melanie.
Fatal Attractions
In spite of being an unrepentant jerk of a boyfriend and the worst husband since Guy Woodhouse, Larry has two women who suffer untold agonies to be with him. However, only one of these women is off her rocker.
Given how shabbily she's treated by men, I understand how admirable we are supposed to find it when Noelle decides at last she will no longer be anyone's victim. Everyone harbors at least one revenge fantasy (in my case, several), so it's really a lot of vicarious fun watching Noelle systematically plot and carry out her plans. But, given all she goes through to get back at Larry, her eventual "revenge" is rather toothless and a slap in the face to whatever "empowerment points" we've granted Noelle up to this point, because after one kiss from him (one of those romance novel "Unhand me you brute!" type of kisses, at that), she turns to mush in his arms. All sympathy for Noelle goes out the window when she demands that Larry kill  his hapless wife, Catherine (who, at this point has been treated so abusively by Larry that the idea seems to benefit HIM more than it does Noelle). I think Sidney Sheldon needed some Third Act action and arrived at this unsympathetic about-face for Noelle that doesn't at all support what has come before it. It would have made more sense for Noelle and Catherine to finally meet (the depiction of their parallel lives serves little narrative purpose) and together plot a way to kill ol' Larry. Now THAT would have been a crowd-pleaser!
Were The Other Side of Midnight a better film, I would say its moral ambiguity regarding Noelle was intentional (it can’t make up its mind if she is a villain or victim/ her quest for vengeance is sick or empowering) but I really don’t think it is. It’s just one of those overproduced Hollywood “properties” so preoccupied with advancing the plot and giving fans of the book all the glamour, romance, and drama they can muster; no one noticed that the film’s underlying themes comes off as comically amoral and wrongheaded, or that the so-called heroine kind of loses her mind somewhere up the ladder of success.
Although The Other Side of Midnight takes place in Europe between 1939 and 1947, war and the events of the world fade into the background for the psychotically single-minded Noelle. Here, seen preening before an open window with a swastika in the distance, Noelle remains blithely oblivious to anyone's suffering but her own.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As Joan Collins would learn four years later with the premiere of the primetime television drama, Dynasty, the bad girls have all the fun and get the best lines. The Other Side of Midnight is no exception. If there's any fun to had in the sometimes drawn out proceedings that make up the film's dual-story plotline, the fun is to be found in seeing to what lengths Noelle is willing to go to enact her revenge on Larry, and in witnessing her transformation from naive waif to, as one character puts it, "a first-class bitch."
Goodnight and Thank You
Social-climbing Noelle is about to throw over her current director/lover (Christian Marquand) for the bigger fish that is
super rich Greek tycoon, Constantin Demeris.

PERFORMANCES:
The late actress Marie-France Pisier (who first came to the attention of American audiences in the 1975 French comedy, Cousin, Cousine) has the requisite beauty to play the role of a woman who relies almost completely on her desirability to achieve her aims. In this, her first American film, Marie-France is considerably better in dragon-lady mode than in the scenes requiring a conveyance of more subtle emotions. The film was intended to launch her as a major American star, but outside of a few TV mini-dramas, Pisier continued to do her best work in her native country. A true class act, whenever prodded by the press to dish about the tacky film Hollywood chose to launch her US career, Pisier would only say that the studio treated her like a queen and made her feel like a star before she even became one.
The exquisitely beautiful Marie-France Pisier passed away in 2011
Pisier is very appealing, but her performance in The Other Side of Midnight is perhaps too superficial to help the hackneyed narrative rise very far above the suds. For a truly harrowing portrait of obsessive love and a performance that strikes at the self-consuming desperation behind it all, check out actress Isabelle Adjani in Francois Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. (1975). 
The Other Side of Midnight is the parallel story of two women who share the same man but never meet.
Susan Sarandon (two years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show) has a relaxed, natural style that stands out in the starchy surroundings, but she suffers from an underwritten role.

Jay Leno, Larry Douglas, & Clutch Cargo
In popular entertainment, a strong or prominent chin can either signify a hero (Roger Ramjet, Dudley Do-Right), or villain (Dishonest John, Dick Dastardly).
Anyone care to venture a guess as to how many villains we have pictured here?
THE STUFF OF FANTASY: 
After sex and illicit romance, the major drawing card for a film such as this is the promise of exotic locales, glamorous costumes, and opulent surroundings. The Other Side of Midnight makes good use of its France and Greece locations (plus a few obvious studio sets), but perhaps at the price of narrative cohesion. The Other Side of Midnight is a film that purports to disapprove of the ways in which people debase themselves for money, but an entirely different, conflicting message is given when the camera lovingly lingers on the material things that all that wealth can provide.
My personal favorite image of extravagance: the over-sized backgammon board

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
I suppose it's because I wasn't around during the heyday of the"Women's Film" (the late 30s & 40s) that the glossy soaps of the 60s and 70s hold so much appeal for me. By and large they are inferior films in most every aspect beyond the technical, but they represent to me a wholly pleasant diversion and return to an old-fashioned, if not archaic, method of filmmaking we're not likely to see again. 
As the years go by and more and more contemporary films start to take on the arid, distancing look of video games and computer screens; old-fashioned trash cinema like The Other Side of Midnight begin to look better and better. (I have no idea what the title means. It's most likely meaningless, like the title of that old Johnny Carson soap opera satire, The Edge of Wetness.)

Here We Go Again
Oh, and for those who care about such things - In 1990, the ever-prolific Sidney Sheldon wrote a sequel to The Other Side of Midnight titled, Memories of Midnight. In 1991 it was made into an indifferent TV miniseries starring Jane Seymour and Omar Sharif. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

8 comments:

  1. Blessed with an absolutely gorgeous score by Michel Legrand I am now listening to "Noelle's Theme" as I type this.

    This is another one of my all time guilty pleasures. Upon first viewing I couldn't believe it was a theatrical release because it comes off like a television mini-series despite it's high budget.

    20th Century-Fox had high hopes for this film because of the success of the novel. Fox was releasing another film around this time, one many were not too sure about: "Star Wars".

    They had trouble booking "Star Wars" so they decided that if a theater wanted to run "The Other Side of Midnight" they had to book "Star Wars" first.

    Imagine everyone's surprise when "Midnight" tanked and "Star Wars" went on to become a major global phenomenon!

    Marie France Pisier is a very beautiful woman but her character turns out to be a very unlikeable one. I get that she was a victim of circumstance and was exacting revenge on everyone who did her wrong but her desire to get even with Larry for abandoning her and their unborn child borders on the psychotic.

    John Beck, whose ruggedly handsome looks would land him on two prime time soap operas ("Flamingo Road" and "Dallas") is truly a douche of the highest degree.

    For me the real heroine in all this mess is Susan Sarandon as "Catherine". Sarandon is such a capable, gifted actress and at the absolute height of her beauty when this was made that she rises above the material and all the other actors for that matter.

    I had it on DVD for a bit and then promptly sold it. I won't however part with the film's soundtrack. Legrand's score for this is first class all the way!

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  2. Hi PTF
    Yes, the Michel Legrand score is very good. When the film tanked, the soundtrack album was always in plentiful supply in remainder bids at record stores (that's how I got mine!)
    The story of Fox's overconfidence regarding this film's potential success is abject lesson on how out-of-touch the industry can be with popular tastes (and indeed, the film looks SO much like a TV movie, it's hard to imagine - success of the book or not - that they really thought this was going to seize the boxoffice that summer).
    And as for the lead character, who is indeed a nutjob of the first order, it still perplexes me how many see her as a heroine even when she plots to kill the only blameless character in the film (Catherine) On the DVD commentary, author Sheldon says that he got letters from women who named their daughters Noelle because they so admired the character(!)

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  3. Ken,
    I'm sorry I still haven't gotten a proper account to comment. Please excuse my anonymity - Argyle here - but I had to respond. Saw this in original release with my college best friend; so many memories. We (mainly me) were chafing in design school in a medium-size southern town, and our relief was to go see EVERYTHING that was released to local theaters. But we would have raced to see this anyway. In that pre-video time, we read aloud from thrift shop copies of "Valley of the Dolls", "The Love Machine" and Harold Robbin's "The Carpetbaggers" for our amusement. You might happen to see one of those on TV, but never in a revival house or even midnight show in those days. So we rushed to see "The Other Side of Midnight" particularly since it had that weird high/low aspect of Marie-France Pisier who we knew was the big-deal french actress of the moment but hadn't actually seen in anything yet. We were sort of disappointed by the movie; not as over-the-top as we hoped. In retrospect, I think we knew that that moment of crazy-bad had passed and we had missed it. But we enjoyed it as best we could. Just the way she says "Noelle Page" was perfection. And she was truly beautiful and magnetic. We were fans of Susan Sarandon, too, mainly from Rocky Horror, which we also loved but were too old to really surrender to, I think. (My roommate, however, who looked a lot like John Beck actually, pretty much took RHPS to heart for better or worse. But that's another story that I actually don't know the ending to.) Anyway, your appreciation of TOSofM brought a lot back for me. Thank you. And interestingly, the person I have spent the last 30 years of life with (and the unforseeable future) was, in a parallel college universe, majorly affected by Isabelle Adjani in "The Story of Adele H." Which I have still never been able to see. There is always something just beyond my grasp. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Argyle...no worries on the account thing. I don't fully understand it, anyway. I think you nailed it when you said "we knew that moment of crazy-bad had passed." These kinds of movies got considerably duller as they tried to be authentically epic and "good" and a lot of fun trash was lost along the way. I too LOVE Pisier's accent. It's 100% perfect (I want a loop of her saying "ooh la la" during the dinner scene when Larry says she is marvelous). The untold story you mention about your college roommate and RHPS sounds like essay material, by the way.
      Lastly, it speaks very well of your partner (30 years!!) that "The Story of Adele H" made such an impression. You've got to see it. As always, thanks for your terrific comments. I like how you seem to respond to movies emotionally rather than as time-killers or mere escapism.

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  4. Congratulations on your recent mention in The Advocate! Such things I can only dream about... I love reading your appraisals and remembrances here, though I sometimes want to scream because you beat me to a film I am dying to give "the treatment" myself! We clearly have similar taste. I have always enjoyed The Other Side of Midnight for all the reasons you describe above. Revisiting John Beck in his uniform here AFTER having seen him not long ago in the spoof The Big Bus, which had him in a bus driver's get-up, makes me chuckle. There's little difference! Keep up the great work.

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    1. Aw, thanks Poseidon. And what do you mean "only dream about?" your blog has a huge following the likes of which I should only be so lucky as to garner. I too think we have similar tastes. I always get a kick out of seeing a favorite of mine given your "treatment" which is always so informative and mirror so many of my own feelings. I remember Jeff Beck being the given the big push in the 70s. He was such an annoying husband in "Audrey Rose"...added with this he could never shake the creep factor for me. I think "The Big Bus" and "Sleeper" were his lightest roles. Thanks again for the kind words!

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    2. I bet Susan Sarandon would love to get this film scrubbed from her filmography! Sounds like campy fun, though. And in a weird way (considering I'm unfamiliar with the novel or the film), the plot suggests Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun to me (the idea of a woman ruthlessly re-inventing herself and rising from the ashes of WWII, etc).

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    3. You bet your life. Although she has nothing to be ashamed of with her performance here, Sarandon is such a naturalistic actress she seems out of place in the starchy surroundings. I have never seen that Fassbinder film, I might have to seek it out! Thanks

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