Caroline at Midnight (1994): Bewitching Noir

Dave sings the praises of a Corman-produced neo-noir that’s among the best of the ’90s.

The neo-noir boom of the ’90s raised several questions behind the timing of its resurgence. It was Newsweek’s David Ansen, though, who identified the similarities between the classic noir peak of the ‘40s and social and economic circumstances five decades later.

“Why are we in this sombre mood?” Ansen mused. “Crime is down, Wall Street is up and saturated fats have replaced communism on our worry list. But, of course, it was during an age of peace and prosperity that film noir got its start. During the Depression and war years, Hollywood had diverted a besieged nation with escapist entertainments and patriotic cheer. But with victory, our storytellers let down their psychic guard, and what poured out were dark and troubling fantasies of a dangerous, corrupt new world where the lines between good and evil got crossed.” [1]

Obviously, it was films like Basic Instinct (1992), The Last Seduction (1994), and L.A. Confidential (1997) that stole ’90s headlines, while Red Rock West (1993), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), and Twilight (1998) swooned the critics. In our world of the maligned and the forgotten, however, there’s a near limitless abundance of neo-noirs that have disappeared without trace. We’ve covered many already: from the sweat of J.S. Cardone’s Black Day Blue Night (1995), to the barely acknowledged C. Thomas Howell, vehicle, The Big Fall (1997), our decade-wide dig continues to unearth many a priceless artefact, of which CAROLINE AT MIDNIGHT is certainly one.

Jack Lynch (Clayton Rohner, who also serves as an associate producer) is an investigative reporter who’s managed to capture the antics of two dirty cops, Ray Dillon (Tim Daly) and Phil Gallo (Judd Nelson), on tape. Prior to the duplicitous duo being picked up by their superiors, Jack gets a call from a woman named Caroline promising more information – but before he’s able to trace her, Jack discovers that she’s been killed in a car wreck. Befriending Victoria (Mia Sara), an acquaintance of Caroline and the person who identified her body, the two engage in a torrid affair… Only for Jack to find out that she’s actually married to the steely-eyed and silver-toothed Ray.

That paragraph barely scratches the surface of Travis Rink’s intricate script. Laced with twists, and performed with relish by a star-studded ensemble (Xander Berkeley, Virginia Madsen and Zach Galligan bolster the picture’s already impressive array of players), plaudits are due in the direction of Sara – an admirable femme fatale – and the deliciously depraved demeanour of Daly.

Helmed with gusto by Scott McGinnis, Caroline at Midnight is something of an anomaly compared to its Concorde-New Horizons brethren. There’s an air of grace hanging over it that – with the greatest respect – is often missing from producer Roger Corman’s conveyor belt. Future FeardotCom (2002) cinematographer Christian Sebaldt contributes to the visual quality, going in hard with the moody lighting and treacherous atmosphere, and he’s backed up by a whimsical Mark Snow score that complements McGinnis’ vibe to a tee. Credit-watchers take note, too: Caroline at Midnight is an early gig for both Jesse V. Johnson (Avengement (2019)) and James D. Deck (Two Shades of Blue (1999)).

Flashes of ambiguity as well as a relentless complexity would likely have had a chunk of its target audience reaching for the remote; it’s an ill-fitting member of the erotic thriller bracket despite a dollop of sex. For the noir-hounds, though, McGinnis’ film is a perfect composition – even if Rohner falls some way short of being the ‘90s manifestation of John Garfield.

USA ● 1994 ● Thriller ● 89mins

Clayton Rohner, Mia Sara, Tim Daly, Paul Le Mat, Judd Nelson, Xander Berkeley, Virginia Madsen ● Dir. Scott McGinnis ● Wri. Travis Rink

[1] The Neo-Noir ‘90s by David Ansen, Newsweek, 26th October 1997.

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