Doris Day died in May of this year at age 97. This fact makes Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of her 1960 thriller, Midnight Lace, in which her character is constantly threatened with an untimely end, an occasion for reflection. Before discussing the movie, it’s appropriate to rescue Day from a longtime canard that surfaced in some of her obituaries.
The famed wit Oscar Levant, who appeared in her first movie, Romance on the High Seas (Michael Curtiz, 1948), once quipped that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin. That sort of witticism stuck because Day’s onscreen persona was always negotiating society’s sexual standards from the standpoint of a strong, independent woman who was prepared to fall in love but wasn’t desperate for it, and who was critical and circumspect of the supposed charms of the men who tried to woo her. In a sexist society, such behavior is often judged from a male point of view as being cold or frigid or man-hating (many of her roles are tomboyish), or of being a bashful virgin afraid of sex.
This impression falls apart as soon one commences a marathon of her films. Day almost never played a virgin, except for her teen roles like Roy Del Ruth’s wonderful On Moonlight Bay (1951). She was the only actress of her era and stature who consistently played working single mothers, starting with her second film. Sometimes she played married mothers, who usually also worked outside the home. Sometimes she played married women without children, and sometimes she played successful unmarried businesswomen.
Because she was always self-supporting and self-possessed, her characters surveyed the suitors around her with bemusement, from a position of security. From this point of view, it’s clear that in sex comedies like Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959) or Delbert Mann’s That Touch of Mink (1961), her response to the wealthy, entitled men who make passes at her isn’t that of a frightened or frigid virgin but of a woman who’s been burned, someone with enough experience not to be impressed by the flash of the first guy who comes along and snaps his fingers.
We tend to forget that once she develops personal feelings for Cary Grant’s character, Philip Shayne, in That Touch of Mink, she decides to accept his sexual advances. By that point, he’s developed deeper feelings for Day’s character, Cathy Timberlake, and he becomes the refuser because he wants her to be more than a notch on his bedpost. The script never condemns either of them for their willingness to have sex outside marriage, but it manipulates social (or cinema) acceptability in such a way that marital values triumph. It’s the kind of movie that knows it’s being written in a time of evolving moral standards; it must acknowledge this while still affirming the primacy of the traditional.
In other words, Day was the star persona used by postwar Hollywood most consistently to negotiate growing female power with male unease and confusion. In film after film, it’s really the men who are insecure, and their insecurities aret projected or transferred onto Day’s character. This truth is most strongly illustrated in her loose trilogy of “middle-class jeopardy” thrillers, of which Midnight Lace is the last. By “middle-class jeopardy”, I mean movies in which the trappings (pun intended) of the middle-class American dream become instruments of torture that threaten to dissolve its inhabitants.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), first of the trilogy, the dream vacation to foreign lands becomes a nightmare, and the climax finds Day’s heroine, relying on herself alone, trying to rescue her son during a fancy orchestra concert amid the swell of high culture. The most traditional sign of feminine helplessness — the scream — becomes the instrument she applies with precision to achieve a goal. The implication is that female weakness conceals a secret strength, and her patronized and manipulated character must defy all, even a well-meaning husband who tranquilizes her to keep her out of the proceedings.
That same year, she starred in Julie, made by the married team of Andrew and Virginia Stone. After an opening about the dangers of being a woman driver, courtesy of her insanely possessive husband, and much business about how the male organizations of law and order are useless to help her, the story turns into the first “stewardess is flying the plane” movie. PopMatters reviewed it here, in “Mid-Century Middle Class Jeopardy in ‘Cry Terror’ and ‘Julie’“, (11 Oct 2011) very instructively.
That brings us to David Miller’s Midnight Lace (1960). We call it Miller’s film by convention, but it’s easier to grasp in the context of its producer, Ross Hunter, the main auteur behind a string of lushly produced “escapist” movies. We discuss Hunter’s career in “Hunter, Turner, Soaper, Weeper: ‘Portrait in Black’ and ‘Madame X’” (PopMatters, 11 Jun 2019), in terms of two of his Lana Turner vehicles. This was his second Day project after the great success of Pillow Talk. He’d make one more, The Thrill of It All (1963), scripted by Carl Reiner for director Norman Jewison, in which the wife’s success on TV commercials provides an emasculating crisis for her obstetrician-hubby (James Garner). That’s a rich premise whose implications we could discuss all day: the triumph of shallow, even toxic consumer culture over medical science’s desire to exert authority over women’s bodies.
Also credited as a producer is Day’s husband Martin Melcher, who ran her production company. His credit appears on all her last 15 years of movies, and upon his death, she discovered to her dismay that she was in serious debt due to financial mishandling with a partner. This extra-cinematic detail unwittingly casts its own shadow on our perceptions of a plot about a wife’s jeopardy that may be connected to shady financial dealings.
Midnight Lace is perhaps the only movie in Day’s filmography in which her character is independently wealthy and does nothing. Kit is the newlywed bride of three months to Tony Preston (Rex Harrison), a London banker who keeps neglecting her for business. In the pre-credit sequence, Kit walks home through the park in the fog, a real “pea-souper” of the Jack the Ripper variety, and becomes terrorized by a high-pitched voice threatening to kill her.
She rushes home distraught, fumbling with her keys at the door of her fabulous flat. Tony tells her it must have been a prank and temporarily allays her fears. Their relationship throughout the film is defined by his combination of sympathy and aloofness, his habit of dangling romantic plans and then disappointing her by canceling them, and an increasing tendency to patronize and dismiss her increasingly frantic claims about the unknown man, who begins a series of harassing calls that turn the telephone into the film’s main instrument of torture.
The telephone is given competition by the old-fashioned grillwork elevator in the stairwell, the highly atmospheric scene of Kit’s first real breakdown of fright. In this scene and throughout, Russell Metty’s photography pulls off a trick he uses in another Hunter production of the same year, Michael Gordon’s Portrait in Black (1960) of turning Eastmancolor into heavily shadowed lighting out of expressionist noir films. In other sets, especially the bedroom, he performs competing garish washes of red and blue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mario Bava movie, and one or two wildly stylized moments throw unreal colors across a character’s face.
All this prestidigitation serves Day’s central performance, on which the picture depends. While the diminutively named Kit, which might as well be “Pet”, is initially treated with respect by all, especially in her capacity as a glamorous consumer, the story depends on her society’s tendency to patronize her and her growing recognition that all the ducks are lining in a row against her.
There’s a big setpiece as Kit slowly descends the stairs, which is the same as descending mentally, in which Day not only stops the show but stops Frank Skinner’s tendency to underline everything with a lush score. Some eerie chords are adopted when Kit’s aunt takes a phone call, and the orchestra begins squirming gently as Kit appears at the landing and starts speaking in a strained duel of close-ups. Shortly after she pleads, in a broken voice, “Stop treating me like a child!” because she wants to know what’s happening, the music cuts to an ominous hush and lets the rest of her escalating hysteria play out with no score.
Her stark intensity, delivered in close-up, aided by tensions between visual descent and emotional escalation, and between her vocal sounds and the tomblike silence around her, and between the image’s surface glamour and emotional despair, creates the movie’s most draining and powerful scene. It packed a wallop at the 1960 box office, especially as a contrast to Pillow Talk.
Rex Harrison as Anthony Preston (IMDB)
In her commentary, historian Kat Ellinger cites Day’s statement in her memoir with A.E. Hotchner, Doris Day: Her Own Story (William Morrow and Company, 1975), that she broke down and had to retire to bed for a few days after this scene because it took so much out of her, possibly memories of an abusive ex-husband. Day never again attempted heavy material, something she’d been proving a capacity for throughout the 1950s in Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn (1950), Stuart Heisler’s Storm Warning (1951, the only movie in which her character is murdered), Gordon Douglas’s Young at Heart (1955) and Charles Vidor’s positively grueling Love Me or Leave Me (1955, another abusive role), as well as the above-mentioned thrillers.
It’s difficult to discuss Midnight Lace without giving away major plot points, so we mostly have to stop there. One of the script’s best qualities is how it keeps the audience guessing by turning every character into a suspect or a red herring. Of course, viewers have a natural tendency to suspect the husband, for we’ve seen plenty of movies where wives worry about their spouses or don’t worry when they should. Viewers may even have known two previous movies from Miller, Sudden Fear (1952) with Joan Crawford and Twist of Fate (1954) with Ginger Rogers, probably on the strength of which Hunter chose him here.
Still, in Midnight Lace, Tony seems to have alibis and seems to do all the right things, such as attempting to listen in on the extension during one of the threatening phone calls, and the person who suggests Kit might be making things up for attention isn’t him but the Scotland Yard Inspector (John Williams). The script manages convincingly to throw doubt on the handsome construction foreman (John Gavin), a war vet who has blackouts from what we’d call PTSD; Tony’s jolly but debt-ridden associate (Herbert Marshall), who might be cooking the bank’s books; a nasty little toad (Roddy McDowall) who hangs around shedding slime; a mysterious scar-faced stranger (Anthony Dawson) who lurks in every doorway; a kindly neighbor (Natasha Parry) who’s conveniently on the spot during an accident; and even Kit’s visiting Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy), who darts furtive glances now and then.
Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, who adapted their play into Hunter’s Portrait in Black, wrote the script here from a British play by Janet Green, Matilda Shouted Fire (1958). It may be compared with her earlier wife-in-jeopardy play, filmed as Lewis Gilbert’s Cast a Dark Shadow (1955). She was currently in the middle of scripting two significant, socially conscious British thrillers for Basil Dearden, Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961).
As conceived by Hunter, this project clearly owes a few nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s play-based Dial M for Murder (1954), with Day’s casting intended to remind audiences of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Why the title is changed to Midnight Lace is anybody’s guess, except that it suggests darkness and sex. Day does model a black “midnight lace” outfit designed, like all her many costume changes, by legendary single-named Hollywood designer Irene. Another guess is why the credits list two songs we never hear. Day was usually obligated to record at least one song per movie, at least for the credits; perhaps they ended up on the cutting room floor as too jarring for the film’s tone.
One of the curiosities of thriller films history is that while Hunter and other producers took a stab at emulating Hitchcock’s profitable 1950s output with items like Midnight Lace, Hitchcock had moved along, already. The 1960 thriller everyone remembers, of course and naturally, is Hitchcock’s Psycho, at once pared-back (black and white, non-widescreen, modest budget) and narratively and structurally radical, a breakthrough in tactics of violence and storytelling. Notice, however, that the ads for both movies urged audiences to watch from the beginning and not to blab the ending. Perhaps because Hitchcock’s movie led to a flood of knock-offs and eventually to slashers, the relatively retro Midnight Lace, which hasn’t a single corpse, has been somewhat overlooked.
That’s why Ellinger makes an especially fascinating point when she reports that the first of Umberto Lenzi’s several early Italian giallos with the Day-resembling Carroll Baker, which were mainly scripted by genre giant Ernesto Gastaldi, was directly inspired by Midnight Lace and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955) in equal measure. Lenzi made that statement in an interview, and it throws a garish floodlight on the origins of that Italian genre. Among other things, it may finally hint at why Mario Bava’s seminal 1964 giallo had its title changed for US release from Six Women for the Murderer to Blood and Black Lace.
Kino Lorber’s Midnight Lace Blu-ray offers an intriguing choice of ratios in either 2.0 or 1.78. A comparison of the opening establishing shot of London’s Houses of Parliament reveals slivers of additional image on the sides of the former and slivers of additional image at the top and bottom of the latter. You can watch one the first time and the other during the commentary. Although the package claims a running time of 103 minutes, it’s the full 108 minutes. Not included as an extra is a promo film in which Day modeled Irene’s outfits, but there’s a surprisingly good-looking German-dubbed version on Youtube.