This series of Edgar Wallace B movies seems to be getting increasingly complex, and Incident at Midnight in particular demands the full attention of the viewer. If you want to read reviews of this film series there are slim pickings out there, but the few commenters for Incident at Midnight tend to complain that it doesn’t make sense. That’s nonsense, because it all fits together at the end, but it is an indication of how difficult the story is to understand. There’s a bit too much packed into less than an hour, which is unusual considering the source material is a short story.
The one aspect of the storyline that could and should have easily been omitted is the blackmail subplot. We have seen a lot of examples of this recently, and they always follow the same predictable course: somebody tries to blackmail a criminal, and gets murdered as their reward. I don’t know why they try it. The end result is inevitable, and here it all happens within one very disposable scene. A secondary character is introduced, makes her blackmailing attempt, and is strangled. The end. It barely intersects with the main plot at all, which is about how the murderer’s partners in crime are making an exchange of keys with a mysterious woman at an all-night chemist. Those keys will provide the woman with access to a locker containing a large amount of drugs, while the other key gives access to a locker containing the payment.
If that doesn’t sound particularly complicated, it’s because it is only the background picture. There is a great twist very late in the game where somebody is revealed to be an undercover police officer. Added to that, the criminals turn up to make the exchange with one of their gang seriously injured by a bullet wound. At this point, two murders have already taken place: a security guard and the aforementioned blackmailer. As luck would have it, a retired surgeon is waiting for his prescription at the pharmacy.
Martin Miller plays Dr. Schroeder, and he’s the real star of this film. He has been struck off for reasons that are revealed later in the film, and intersect cleverly with the main story. Unfortunately, when one of the criminals (Brennan, played by Tony Garnett) finds out about that, his reaction is horrible, and his fake laughter is the nadir of his generally terrible acting performance, a rare problem with one of these films. Everyone else is excellent, in a cast that includes future stars Warren Mitchell and Geoffrey Palmer, plus Anton Diffring in one of his trademark ex-Nazi roles, and Philip Locke as Foster, the more cautious member of the criminal gang. Schroeder is probably the only character the viewers can really warm to, a likeable old man who demonstrates a cool head in a crisis, exactly as one would expect from a surgeon. If there is one aspect of the story that perhaps doesn’t entirely make sense, it is Schroeder’s secret reason for attending the pharmacy every evening, which is a neat twist to the story but relies on some kind of a weird assumption that the target of his crusade will happen to show up there. If there was a logical reason why he thought Muller/Leichner would turn up at the pharmacy eventually if he laid in wait there every night then I missed it amongst the muddle of the convoluted story.
As is often the case, the film springs to life near the end, with a shoot-out between the police and one of the criminals, while another escapes to open the locker and run from the police at Piccadilly Circus underground station, a great bit of location filming. His money falls down an escalator and blows around as a train passes by, while he desperately tries to pick some of it up like a contestant in a pilot episode of The Crystal Maze. It’s unintentionally amusing, but it’s a fun way to end the film. Incident at Midnight comes so close to being a great thriller, but it’s ultimately let down by two problems: the script needed simplifying, with a tighter focus on the pharmacy scenes, and a more capable actor was needed to play Brennan, who gets the biggest chunk of the action, while other, better actors have little more than cameo appearances. Bubbling under the surface is a condemnation of gun ownership and drug culture that was ahead of its time.
“At least I kill ’em quick, he killed ’em slow and he got rich doing it.”
The film draws a parallel between Nazi doctors and drug dealers by making the villain one and the same. It might seem like an extreme comparison, but ultimately both lead to dead bodies. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: The £20,000 Kiss