Midnight Lace
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // $29.95 // June 25, 2019
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 14, 2019
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Based on Janet Green's 1958 play Matilda Shouted Fire, Midnight Lace (1960) is an okay mystery-thriller, primarily a vehicle for its star, Doris Day, whose last non-comedy feature this was. Always underrated as a dramatic actress, Day is very good here, but she's let down by the screenplay, which chokes with red herrings, derivative situations, and by direction failing to take advantage of a few good ideas. Still, it's reasonably engrossing whodunnit (who's-doin'it?) that's not entirely predictable.

Day plays American heiress Kit Preston, recently married to Grosvenor Square financier Tony (Rex Harrison). Returning home through a dense fog ("a real pea-souper," someone tiresomely remarks), Kit is unnerved when a high-pitched male voice addresses her by name through the mist, announcing his intentions to eventually murder her.

Tony dismisses it as a prank, but the following day Kit is nearly squished by a falling girder from the construction site adjacent to her flat and, returning home, she receives a phone call from the mysterious stranger. After a steady stream of sexually explicit talk (unheard by the movie audience) he again threatens to kill her. In response to Kit's growing panic they contact Scotland Yard Inspector Byrnes (John Williams), who suggests to Tony that maybe she's imagining things, an opinion also shared by Kit's sympathetic Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) and Kit's best friend, neighbor Peggy Thompson (Natasha Parry). The threatening calls continue, but Kit can never manage to get anyone else on the line to hear them before the caller hangs up.

The movie has no shortage of suspects. Brian Younger (John Gavin), the contractor working next door, acts suspiciously and the audience becomes aware that he's making phone calls from the pub across the street. Malcolm (Roddy McDowall), the son of Kit's devoted maid, is a playboy stealing his mother's earnings. Charles Manning (Herbert Marshall), an executive at Tony's company, has gambling debts while Tony's assistant, Daniel Graham (Richard Ney), is hoping his discovery of one million pounds in accounting irregularities will move him up the corporate ladder. If that weren't enough, a strange, disfigured man (Anthony Dawson) is constantly lurking about.

Though slickly (co-)produced by Ross Hunter and featuring great color cinematography by Russell Metty, at 108 minutes Midnight Lace (its title is meaningless) spends far too much screentime following Kit's growing helplessness. She's repeatedly traumatized, eventually to the point of a complete nervous breakdown, a scene which Day handles with clinical verisimilitude and aplomb. But she's just a victim from the pre-credits opening until seconds before the end, helpless because no one really believes her story. Never does she get angry or so fed-up that she takes charge of things or makes demands of the Scotland Yard investigators that dismiss her.

Further, since the screenplay asks its audience to ride along with Kit throughout the story, it doesn't play fair by only allowing them to hear Kit's side of her phone conversations. Partly this is because the Production Code would never have allowed such sexually explicit profanity in a 1960 movie, but since that profanity, in the end, is irrelevant to the would-be murderer's motive, the movie would have been far better to ditch that angle and let the viewers listen in.

Some good ideas are thwarted by clumsy writing and/or bad direction. Without revealing much, near the end Inspector Byrnes and his men cleverly figure out the identity of the threatening voice, but the audience never sees this: Byrnes explains how only as the story is wrapping up. Had the film showed this as it was happening instead of telling the audience about it later it would have made the climax more exciting, even momentarily adding confusion about what was happening during a critical moment in the story.

A mild annoyance are the English stereotypes and inauthentic accents and atmosphere. This is one of those movies, typical of the period, where a second unit crew shot body doubles of Day and others from behind or some distance away, on location in London, while everything else was filmed on Hollywood soundstages and an impressive backlot set. (The backlot set of the street where Kit and Tony reside doesn't look like anything at Universal, and may have been shot on the MGM lot or elsewhere.)

The cast is composed of expat British talent like Harrison and Marshall, a few imports like stage actress Natasha Parry, and American talent like Gavin, Hayden Rorke, and others affecting dodgy English accents. Clichés abound: the women all use slang like "ducky" and "pet" and all the working class characters have Cockney accents straight out of Oliver!

Day's charm and underappreciated acting chops, shown to much better advantage in Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), keeps the audience engaged even as the script and direction disappoint. Except for bland John Gavin the cast is good. The dénouement will surprise viewers unfamiliar with better films that came before, and from which Midnight Lace shamelessly steal, including Gaslight (1944), Les Diaboliques (1955), and Dial M for Murder (1954), in the latter's case going so far as to have John Williams and Anthony Dawson from Hitchcock's film play similar characters here.

Video & Audio

? Offered in both its original 2.00:1 theatrical aspect ratio and 1.78:1 full screen, Kino's Midnight Lace licensed from Universal, is overly grainy and shows signs of damage, including a small green dot intermittently appearing just below the center of the frame. The color is vibrant but the sharpness and contrast appear artificially manipulated. It's not bad, but should look better than it does. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono is acceptable. Optional English subtitles are included on this region "A" encoded disc.

Extra Features

Supplements include an audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, and a trailer.

Parting Thoughts

Entertaining because of star Doris Day and its general lushness but full of holes and contrivances and with just an okay video transfer, Midnight Lace is modestly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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