After grossing millions of dollars as a 1970s icon, Charles Bronson appeared in 'Death Wish II,' which began his tenure with Cannon Films and redefined him as a low-budget action star. Bronson became a sizable draw amongst exploitation fans, particularly at second-run movie houses, on cable television, and in the home video market. Besides the Death Wish series, he maintained his presence in films such as '10 to Midnight,' 'The Evil That Men Do,' and 'Murphy's Law' for over a decade.
'10 to Midnight' is perhaps the best film of an association between Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson that lasted from 'St. Ives' in 1976 until 'Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects' in 1989. Thompson, best known for 'The Guns of Navaronne' and 'Cape Fear,' also made a cycle of low-budget films in the '80s that included 'The Evil That Men Do,' 'Murphy's Law,' 'King Solomon's Mines,' and 'Firewalker,' starring Chuck Norris. Despite their better days having passed, '10 to Midnight' is a riveting film that comes early in Bronson and Thompson's exploitation output and features some of the talents for which they're remembered.
Rehashing ideas from 'Dirty Harry,' Bronson plays Leo Kessler, a Los Angeles detective who is investigating the brutal murder of a secretary and her boyfriend. Thanks to an unpleasant opening sequence, we already know that a handsome but deranged man named Warren Stacy (Gene Davis) is the culprit. It seems that Warren has major issues with women; he doesn't have much luck in getting dates and when he does spend time with a lady, things don't get very far.
Stacy exacts his revenge by hunting these women down and impaling them with knives. Of course, Stacy is a hard suspect to nail because he commits the murders while fully naked, making blood quite easy to get rid of. He's also an expert at constructing alibis; on the night when our secretary and boyfriend are murdered, Stacy makes himself visible in a movie theater shortly before and after the killings occur.
With the police on his tail, Stacy becomes a 1980s Macbeth, plotting against everyone connected to the original victims. Kessler and his young partner McAnn (Andrew Stevens) are desperate to put Stacy behind bars, especially with Kessler's daughter Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher) targeted as a friend of the deceased. The courts are keeping Stacy free on a lack of evidence and Kessler must finally resort to extralegal measures.
'10 to Midnight' uses the elusive killer theme championed by Alfred Hitchcock. Unlike other Cannon films in which Bronson is the lone point of interest, '10 to Midnight' alternates nicely between the warped deeds of Stacy and the anxious police work of Kessler. Gene Davis is a solid presence throughout, displaying enough menace in his role to coexist with Bronson.
A script by William Roberts and Thompson gives unusual depth to Bronson's character. Bronson is also helped by a respectable supporting cast that includes Andrew Stevens, Lisa Eilbacher, and Wilford Brimley (as Captain Malone). Stevens complements Bronson as his partner, the son of a teacher whose intellect Kessler views as a hindrance. Geoffrey Lewis is excellent as Dave Dante, Stacy's repulsive trial lawyer who knows all the shortcuts of our court system. Kelly Preston has a small role as one of Laurie's roommates (under 'Kelly Palzis') and Robert F. Lyons is featured as a Los Angeles prosecutor.
'10 to Midnight' offers ideas similar to 'Dirty Harry,' in that American justice is full of loopholes used by criminals. The film takes a brief look at our courts and how a police officer must actually break the law in order for justice to be served. The film does everything in its capacity to ram this point home: besides Stacy mutilating women in the nude (requiring a few odd-angles), Kessler interrogates Stacy with a sex toy found in his apartment and obscene phone calls are made to Kessler's daughter in a mock-Spanish accent. '10 to Midnight' has given TV editors added job security over the years; television broadcasts are edited so heavily for the nudity, violence, and foul language that much of its impact is lost.
Instead of being hampered by cheap production values and technical work, J. Lee Thompson plays off these weaknesses to give '10 to Midnight' an added seediness. Much of the film takes place in drab, confined locations with poor lighting; combined with Adam Greenberg's soft-toned photography, '10 to Midnight' has an unremitting gloom that adds to Stacy's menace. The film also runs a concise 102 minutes and displays Thompson's gift for pacing. '10 to Midnight' is a procedural with scarce action, but the film never drags; Thompson uses flashback, alternating viewpoints, and periods without dialogue to maintain suspense. The soundtrack by Robert Ragland has a 1970s feel that only enhances the dismal setting.
'10 to Midnight' is available on a budget DVD from MGM Home Entertainment. The disc offers both widescreen and standard format in mono audio with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish; 10 to Midnight's theatrical trailer is included as a lone extra. Picture and audio quality are fairly good considering the low budget that Thompson originally worked with; there is occasional grain but few artifacts and Robert Ragland's quirky music comes through nicely. While vulgar, violent, and in poor taste, '10 to Midnight' is a highly effective thriller, arguably Bronson and Thompson's strongest outing of the 1980s. It doesn't rank anywhere close to their previous films, but '10 to' is nevertheless intense, well-written, and memorable.
*** out of 4