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The marvelous singer, actress and personality Doris Day was always popular, but it's often thought that her screen work didn't fully tap her potential. The films made after her Warners contract years were her best and most varied, and included a fine performance for Alfred Hitchcock that marked her first 'lady in peril' outing. She is also sensational in The Pajama Game, one of the best musicals of the 1950s. But Day reportedly ceded control of her career and finances to her husband/agent/manager/producer Martin Melcher, who repeatedly steered her into a narrow range of roles. Pillow Talk was a bright hit but it established an image for Day that didn't change with the times.
1960's Midnight Lace is Day's last non-comedic film, a suspense tale about yet another woman in peril. It's not a particularly demanding part. The pampered new wife of a wealthy investment banker, she has nothing to do with her days but buy designer fashions and pout because her husband works late and postpones their honeymoon. Co-producer Ross Hunter concurrently produced Portrait in Black, a mystery thriller starring Lana Turner. Both films are play adaptations by the veteran screenwriting team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.
New to married life, American Kit Preston is delighted with her new London home until she hears a strange voice in the park threatening to kill her. The voice returns in abusive telephone calls that drive Kit to fits of nervous exhaustion. Only Kit has heard the voices, unfortunately. Her husband Anthony (Rex Harrison) takes it all calmly, while the Scotland Yard Inspector Byrnes treats Kit as if she were emotionally unstable. Near-fatal accidents begin to crop up, as does a long list of potential suspects: the maid's deceitful son (Roddy McDowall), a possibly larcenous business associate (Herbert Marshall), Anthony's own office accountant (Richard Ney), and a hot-headed mine owner who threatens Anthony over a bad business deal (Rhys Williams). Kit takes Anthony's calming advice but her only fully trustworthy contacts are her Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) and the lovely neighbor Peggy (Natasha Parry). Also hovering around the periphery is handsome Brian Younger (John Gavin), a contractor renovating the house next door. Kit can tell that Brian is interested in her, but she's unaware that a mysterious stranger (Anthony Dawson) watches the house by night and follows her by day.
Not the most adroit of screen mysteries, Midnight Lace might be better titled, "Red Herrings A Go-Go". The movie is ninety minutes of poor Doris Day persecuted by a villain or villains unknown, while we meet a bumper crop of suspects. Story elements from Gaslight are thrown into the soup, as well as big helpings of Diabolique and Dial M for Murder. All three movies concern helpless women victimized by their husbands, but this film's guessing-game format leaves all possibilities open. Rex Harrison's cultured businessman is of course high on the suspects list. Cop John Williams and menacing creep Anthony Dawson remind us strongly of Hitchcock's classic Dial M for Murder. As the tall, bland and handsome hunk on the scaffolding next door, John Gavin is positioned as a potentially psychotic killer. When Doris Day's Kit is trapped in an elevator Brian comes to the rescue. Or did he cause the elevator to stall in the first place? Midnight Lace was released a few months after Hitchcock's Psycho. If we want to keep playing comparison games, the claustrophobic elevator car isn't much different than Hitchcock's confining shower stall.
Many superior murder mysteries lack originality or clever plot twists, yet are redeemed by clever directors. The elevator scene illustrates how Midnight Lace falls short as a suspense thriller. Trapped when her elevator suddenly halts between floors, Kit panics almost immediately. While she's yowling in terror, a pair of shoes calmly approaches, bangs on the elevator door above her and enters menacingly. By this time Kit is crazy with fear. Only after the shadowy figure slowly lowers itself down beside her is it revealed to be Brian, the nice contractor from next door. He just came over to tell her that his men accidentally knocked out the power for a few minutes. Brian could obviously hear Kit crying and wailing all the while, but he said nothing, so that Midnight Lace could let both Kit and the audience think he was the mysterious creep played by Anthony Dawson. In other words, the whole scene is a cheat. It tells us not to bother to pay attention to details, because the filmmakers certainly didn't.
Most of the long cast of name actors inhabit subplots that turn out to be wholly irrelevant, and each is given at least two telltale moments to arouse our suspicion. Herbert Marshall looks around guiltily after a secret phone call. Richard Ney smiles mysteriously after hearing that a shakeup in Harrison's company might earn him a promotion. Roddy McDowall and Rhys Williams voice direct threats (which as all fans of Perry Mason know, exonerates them). We learn that John Gavin has been making suspicious phone calls from the pub across the street, and he tends to stare as if he were Norman Bates' better-looking younger brother. When Kit shows signs of mental instability, Myrna Loy's Aunt Bea pauses once or twice before expressing her concern.
David Miller seemingly gives little thought to anything beyond Doris Day's psychological ordeal, which climaxes in a noisy breakdown. Kit falls apart, crying and blubbering because everyone believes she has invented the threatening phone caller to get more attention from her husband. It's a big, necessary scene that Day pulls off with aplomb. That Midnight Lace works as well as it does is due to Ms. Day's committed performance.
The TCM Vault Collection's DVD of Midnight Lace is an acceptable encoding of Ross Hunter's glossy 'woman in jeopardy' thriller. Russell Metty's cinematography looks good but the images have more grain than we'd like and the contrast could be sharper. The color is just fine and shows off the picture's elaborate sets and other lush surroundings that became Hunter's trademark. Metty's excellent array of mysterious shadows enhances the impact of Ms. Day's scare scenes.
TCM includes a full roster of extras -- a video introduction by Robert Osborne, a trailer, a radio interview excerpt and galleries of stills of every kind, including fashion poses and British ad art. The disc does not come with subtitles. The subdued monochromatic package art looks interesting, but doesn't reflect the film's bright and saturated color scheme.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Midnight Lace DVD rates:
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