Midnight Lace is a rare Doris Day movie that is not a comedy nor a musical. It’s suspense in the Gaslight sub-genre of the Woman in Jeopardy category.
Day stars as newly married American heiress Kit Preston and the movie starts right off with the suspense. Kit’s married to an Englishman, Anthony Preston (Rex Harrison) who’s the head of a big corporation, so he works a lot. Kit’s just left the American Embassy in London as a thick pea soup fog rolls in. Her flat is only across the park from the embassy, so even with the fog all should be well. Only all is not well.
Kit hears a high pitched, weird voice threatening her life. It gets increasingly creepy – whoever’s there is using her name and definitely knows things about her that a random stranger wouldn’t. She runs hysterically home to get to safety. For a time.
Of course, Anthony doesn’t believe her – or, rather, he feels that she was being pranked. He explains what pranksters do in fogs like that one, and the next day even shows her proof of a statue being mildly defaced. So Kit relaxes. For a moment.
But the torment continues. Phone calls, being pushed in front of a bus, and more, all happen to Kit. She shares what’s going on not only with Anthony but with her friend and neighbor, Peggy (Natasha Parry), her visiting Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy), and, in a way, with construction man Brian Younger (John Gavin), who has his own issues – he seems to have PTSD and while he’s handsome and charming, he’s also a little weird.
Malcolm (Roddy McDowell), the playboy son of Kit’s hard working, long suffering, and ill housekeeper, Nora (Doris Lloyd), also has issues, but his are all with Kit. She gives his mother money but tries to ensure said mother won’t give it to Malcolm, with limited success. Malcolm clearly hates Kit, and Kit thinks that Malcolm is a sponge draining his mother dry. Kit’s right, and Malcolm knows it.
Meanwhile, Anthony has his own troubles at work. Someone’s been embezzling and they don’t know who, and he’s going to have to let a longtime crony go. This keeps him working a lot and forces him to cancel planned dinners and getaways with Kit.
All of which makes the Scotland Yard man, Inspector Byrnes (John Williams), dismiss what Kit says is happening as her attempt to get her husband’s attention. And he lists case after case where this is so. Plus, any time Kit’s tormenter calls, she’s the only one who hears his voice – he hangs up the moment she hands the phone to someone else.
Is Kit faking it? (We, the audience, hear what she hears.) Is someone trying to drive her mad? Or is whoever’s threatening her really planning on killing her?
The movie builds its suspense well. Because we know what Kit’s hearing, I never once thought that she was crazy, but I did wonder if she was going to go crazy by the end of the film. So, it comes down to determining who would want to kill her, or drive her crazy, and why. The movie is loaded with suspects and opportunities, and it sets up its climax well.
Of course, there are dated elements. The whole “wife is faking it for hubby’s attention” thing seems beyond ridiculous, particularly being espoused by someone from Scotland Yard as a legit theory, only we still have similar things going on today, usually to get the internet’s attention, but still, it’s not as unrealistic as it could be.
And, Kit can’t save herself, she does need help. But, and this is a big but, she mostly saves herself, and in 1960, that was excitingly rare. Sadly, it’s still rare today.
However, these are quibbles, really. The acting is good – Day, in particular, gives a performance you’re not used to – the costuming lovely, and the script shares what we need to know as we need to know it, which adds layers to the suspense and the plot. For example, we don’t find out that Kit is a newlywed until we’re at least 20 minutes into the film, which alters how we, the audience, look at what’s going on.
My biggest quibble is the title. While Day buys and wears a dress called Midnight Lace for the vacation Anthony has to cancel, it’s not really pivotal to the plot. I think they must have just liked the way it sounded, because Voice of Terror would have been a more accurate title.
Per TCM, Day channeled what she’d gone through with her abusive ex-husband in order to play Kit’s increasing terror and semi-madness, and you definitely feel that the actress isn’t faking. Making this movie was so emotionally draining for Day that she swore off ever doing any dramas ever again – after this it was all musicals and comedies. Which is understandable, but something of a pity, since she really had the chops to bring the terror as well as the laughs.
All in all, I was surprised at this movie’s twists, turns, and red herrings, and was far more engaged with it than I’d expected to be. If you want to catch Day, Harrison, Gavin, and others in the kinds of roles they didn’t normally take, if you like women in jeopardy flicks, or if you just love all things Doris Day, you could do a lot worse than check out Midnight Lace.
4 stars out of 5
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