Growing up, I watched so much television that it’s a wonder I can form words into sentences. Today, with cable and streaming services, we have access to four hundred options at any given minute, and yet all too often I find there’s nothing to watch. In the 1960’s, we had six or seven stations to choose from – all for free, by the way – and I couldn’t get enough.
Now, it’s true that I was a child and my tastes were much, er, broader than they are today. My readers know how much I loved Perry Mason, but I was just as happy with The Beverly Hillbillies or Time Tunnel. Oh, and I was crazy about old movies, especially Universal horror films, Charlie Chan mysteries, and those old house thrillers. My parents knew how much I watched, but they also knew that I got my homework done and managed to also be an inveterate reader. (Honestly, they used to be so many more hours in the day.) Thus, my folks adopted pretty much a laissez faire attitude regarding my viewing choices.
Well, my mom did, but it drove my father crazy if he caught me watching anything featuring two actresses. The first was Shirley Temple. I loved Shirley Temple movies with a passion. Still do, if you must know. I can sing along with any tune she performed as a child star, although I tend to love the songs that introduced by other players, like Alice Faye, Jack Haley, and George Murphy. Maybe my dad thought the films too “girly?” I thought they were wonderful. I still do.
The other actor my dad couldn’t stand, for some reason, was Doris Day. When I was younger, I really enjoyed her musicals. My parents had an album called Day in Hollywood, and I memorized it. As time went on, and I had a chance to watch the films that had featured these songs, I realized that there was something about Day’s sunny disposition that relaxed a very nervous kid like me.
Doris Day had wanted to be a dancer, but an injury changed her plans. She sang with big bands and then debuted in movies in 1948’s Romance on the High Seas. It’s not a very good picture, and she’s not even the star, but after she sings “It’s Magic” in the movie, she’s the one you remember. She was maybe the biggest musical comedy star of the 1950’s, but she never took on the big Broadway roles, settling instead for original movie plots. Nowadays, I don’t think I can sit through most of the musicals I used to adore, although I would gladly watch Calamity Jane over and over. What interests me most about Day is that she wouldn’t settle for the niche in which she so comfortably fit and branched out into drama. Her most indelible role for me is as Jo McKenna in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
If you have ever doubted Day’s skill as an actress, two scenes from this film will change your mind. The first is when James Stewart, as her husband, insists his wife take a tranquilizer before he will tell her some important news – that their son has been kidnapped. The second is a wordless scene in a symphony hall where Jo has to decide if she will allow an assassin to do his work and thus save her son. The story goes that Day grew quite neurotic making this film because her director never gave her a word of praise. She finally confronted him, and he explained that he would have let her know if she was doing anything wrong. In fact, he very much liked her performance and saw that she was made for thrillers.
Ah, but then came Midnight Lace.
I just re-watched this film for the first time in many years. It’s the only other suspense film I’ve seen her in (the other famous one, Julie, a noir made in 1956, the same year as The Man Who Knew Too Much was a success for her but remains unseen by me), and as a kid I liked it very much. We all know that sometimes we can go years without seeing something and then when we finally return to it, it doesn’t pack the same punch as it used to do. Would that happen to me with Midnight Lace? Well, yes and no.
Context is everything. The last time I watched this movie, I hadn’t taught film studies for twenty years. I wasn’t as well-versed in the patterns and predilections of mystery/suspense films. I just knew what I liked. Like so many before me, I have come to realize that a little knowledge can be both a blessing and a curse. A more critical eye can rob you of dumb enjoyment. (Beverly Hillbillies, anyone?)
Midnight Lace is a high-class production all the way. It was produced by Doris Day’s husband, Marty Melcher, who had to convince her to take the role, as she didn’t particularly enjoy the emotional strain of doing a thriller. Indeed, making this movie did a number on her. It’s said that she accessed memories of life with her abusive first husband to get some of the more harrowing scenes right, and that at one point she got so hysterical that she fainted on set.
If you have never seen a movie like this before, I imagine that it would be a lot of fun. It follows a lot of the precepts of a classic whodunnit, although there is no murder here. Day plays Kit Preston, a wealthy newlywed living with her executive husband Tony (Rex Harrison) in a posh apartment in London. In a harrowing opening in a fog-shrouded park, Kit is harassed by a voice, a creepy falsetto presence, that taunts her with the idea that it will torment and, eventually, kill her.
After that, Kit receives a series of phone calls, each accelerating the threat. Unfortunately, we don’t hear the voice during these calls; we have to settle instead for Doris Day getting increasingly hysterical with each call. Pretty quickly, she and her husband turn to Scotland Yard, where the Inspector, played by John Williams, who always plays the Scotland Yard inspector in these films (which is fine because he’s the best), seems a little doubtful about the whole affair. That’s because Theory Number One is that Kit is making things up to get her husband’s attention since he’s always at the office.
Even a first-time thriller watcher will cross this theory off their list and start looking for possible culprits. The film provides many of these, perhaps a few too many. Still, they’re all played by fine actors, so let’s rattle them off:
There’s the treasurer at Tony’s office (Herbert Marshall) who is fond of gambling and is suspected of embezzling a million pounds from the books; there’s the ne’er-do-well son of Kit’s housekeeper (Roddy MacDowell), who tries to wheedle money out of his mom’s employer; there’s the very good-looking construction manager with a really bad British accent (John Gavin) who seems to have a thing for Kit, as well as a touch of PTSD from the war; and there’s even a mysterious stranger with a scarred face who seems to follow Kit everywhere.
Each of these men gives Day a chance to be hysterical: at home, on the street, in the path of an oncoming bus, in a stuck elevator, on a scaffold way above her home. What sets apart each of these episodes turns out to be . . . . Miss Day’s wardrobe. She managed to lure her dear friend, famous Hollywood designer Irene, to her side, and the woman made seventeen outfits for Day to wear in this film. That, and the use of Eastmancolor, gives a too slick gloss to the film that makes you wonder when she will break out into a chorus of “It’s Magic” – or maybe just a verse of “Que Sera Sera.”
Wisely, no singing was used in the making of this picture. Unfortunately, a fine cast and lots of cool dresses cannot substitute for some creativity, and even if you’ve never seen a thriller before – and who hasn’t? – I don’t think too many people will be fooled over who is behind this and what’s going on. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen this sort of thing so many times before. Maybe it’s because I’ve read my Christie! And maybe it would have helped if any of the red herrings here truly had a reason to terrorize Kit.
That said, the villain of the piece offers a fine performance, underplaying the reveal to give it a nicely chilling tone. And while the whole finale seems a little tacked on, and the rescue comes out of nowhere – as in nowhere do you ever feel that Kit is truly in danger with so many people looking out for her – at least Doris Day finally stops whimpering and does something reckless to give herself a chance at survival. Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about having watched Midnight Lace again. Perhaps some fond experiences from long ago don’t bear repeating. Next time, I’ll watch Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon for the hundredth time. They only get better with age.