10 to Midnight ★★★

It was with Death Wish 2 for director Michael Winner that star Charles Bronson began his association with exploitation outfit Cannon. Cannon would emerge in the 1980s as perhaps the most disreputable of production houses, their films regularly attracting the ire of critics and audiences alike, condemned as violent and salacious B-grade action fodder. Although they made drives for respectability, Cannon were never really to escape their reputation, a perhaps unfortunate fate as several of their films, however sensational and lurid they may be, are far more complex and interesting than was at first admitted. This is certainly the case with the films Bronson subsequently made for Cannon, all in partnership with British director J. Lee Thompson who earned a place as one of Cannon’s in-house directors. The director and actor had begun their association as far back as 1976 with the wryly amusing near-pastiche of St. Ives and had continued it with the ill-fated oddity of The White Buffalo and the under-rated Caboblanco. For Cannon, Thompson and Bronson would make a series of thrillers which in their course emerged as one of the most reactionary and nihilistic bodies of work in American genre cinema. The films 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, Death Wish 4, Messenger of Death and the astonishing Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects represent one of the bleakest assessments of Patriarchal authority to be found anywhere.

In 10 to Midnight Bronson plays a police officer. A young man (Gene Davis) leaves his apartment to go to a movie theatre. In the cinema he hits on two young women but is soon rejected. He sneaks out of the cinema and leaves, driving to a secluded lover’s lane where he strips naked and murders a couple in a van making out. He then returns to the cinema. Bronson is called in to investigate and learns that he has a new partner, a man much younger than himself (Andrew Stevens). Soon Bronson has to tell his daughter’s friend’s parents that their daughter is dead. He learns that the dead girl had a diary but Davis also overhears this and tries to recover the diary, in the process killing another woman. Bronson reads the diary and learns that the victim had been harassed by Davis and so he and Stevens soon turn up to interrogate the smug Davis. After the clues come in, Bronson begins to suspect Davis. Davis meanwhile makes obscene phone calls to intimidate Bronson’s daughter (Lisa Eilbacher) who is a nurse sharing a dormitory space with other nurses. Stevens plants a bug on the phone and sure enough the voice is matched to Davis who is arrested. Although this is merely a misdemeanor offense, Bronson is sure that Davis is the killer and so plants evidence on his confiscated clothes incriminating him. Stevens forces Bronson to admit his actions at the trial of Davis and now fired, Bronson begins to provoke Davis into action.

10 to Midnight offered director Thompson a unique opportunity to revisit one of his classic works – the Robert Mitchum / Gregory Peck thriller Cape Fear. In that film, Thompson had expertly essayed the predicament of a civilized man, a Patriarch, who finds that he must take action into his own hands in order to eliminate a threat to his family when the law fails to protect him adequately. As such, it was a prototypical study of the drive to vigilantism. In the intervening years, it appears Thompson put this theme on hold, finally to return to it when he was re-teamed with Charles Bronson for their fourth outing together in 10 to Midnight. Here, Thompson adapts Bronson’s then existing persona as vigilante from someone on the fringes of Patriarchal authority to someone who represents Patriarchal authority. He is a father, of a grown daughter, who feels his paternalistic obligation threatened by a young pervert and he must then do everything in his power to eliminate the threat. To do so, however, he must in turn violate completely the due process of the Patriarchal authority he represents. The film then becomes the study of a man who sets aside what he has held dear in order to pursue what he considers is a higher obligation. In so doing, Thompson considers the difference between the righteousness of Patriarchal authority as dominant social institution in contrast to the self-righteousness of individualized justice.

It is the legacy of contemporary Patriarchy to hold these two in perfect balance and the film weighs up the two options, comparing and contrasting them. Bronson here is a self-righteous Patriarch who is determined to provoke his nemesis into action so that he may finally prove himself right and eliminate a “maggot” from preying on the socially defenseless that as a due Patriarch Bronson is sworn to protect. Patriarchy here is presented in terms of a generational allegory, with the older Bronson rivaling the perverted youth Davis. Bronson’s willingness to take the law into his own hands allows Thomson to examine the repercussions of righteous feeling in a morally collapsing world where Patriarchal authority is hamstrung by laws which in effect protect offenders. In the process, Thomson depicts a world where the very reactionary indignation at social perversity is turned into a misanthropic disregard for the legal system which holds a social compact in place – the vigilante Bronson has essayed in so many films prior to this one becomes the supreme personification of Patriarchal nihilism – an obscene moral paradox who blurs right and wrongdoing. The ambiguous morality Thompson is able to interject into this film undercuts any simplistic reading of the film as merely reactionary right wing. Indeed, the ending which sees Bronson become executioner is a direct riposte to the similar predicament ending Cape Fear suggesting inter-textuality a major factor.