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June 21, 2019

Midnight Lace


David Miller - 1960
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Would Midnight Lace have been a substantially better film had Ross Hunter's usual go-to director, Douglas Sirk, hadn't retired the year before? We can only guess based on such prior works as the wonderfully nutty Lured with the eclectic cast of Lucille Ball, Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, and the more obvious wife-in-peril Sleep My Love. David Miller probably got the gig on the strength of Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford threatened by two-timing Jack Palance. Midnight Lace isn't exactly suspenseful, but it is entertaining.

Doris Day plays Kit Preston, heiress and newly-wed to British businessman Brian Preston (Rex Harrison). Brian is so busy with work that the two have yet to go on an actual honeymoon. The film opens with Kit walking home across a park in London fog so thick it's called a "pea souper". A strange voice from an unseen source tells Kit that she will be murdered. Kit runs home in a panic. Later, she begins getting telephone calls from the same unknown person. Brian tries to convince Kit that it is a prank. There are a series of "red herrings" to keep the audience guessing as to who wants Kit dead, including the constantly sponging son of the housekeeper, a gaunt man dressed in black, and the foreman of the construction site next door. For me, the biggest mystery is why Midnight Lace received an Oscar nomination for the costumes - the only thing uglier than Doris Day's fur-collared coats is one of the hats worn by Myrna Loy.

Russell Metty may have been a house cinematographer at Universal, but he may well be the one to credit for the use of color and shadows. In addition to his work with Sirk, Metty also had Orson Welles' Touch of Evil to his credits. There is one scene with tension between Kit and Brian in their bedroom. During the day, the bedroom is an extremely light shade of pink. In this scene, when Kit is certain that her stalker is standing in view of the bedroom window, the colors of the bedroom are stronger shades of pink, purple, blue and red. The choice of colors is suggestive of a proto-giallo, and not entirely unrelated to a film like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Sergio Martino's delirious version of the gaslit wife. There is also the scene with Kit trapped in her apartment building's narrow elevator, in fear of a man seen only as a black silhouette. Somebody like Dario Argento would have stretched the scene further, and milked it for greater terror. I was struck use of red lighting on the interior walls when the true identities of several characters are revealed.

Without giving too much away, the final scene could have been David Miller's Vertigo. Doris Day clings on to a steel column in the building next door, still an empty skeleton. There are no photographic effects, nor any sense of the kind of danger Hitchcock could convey. Again there is the sense that more could have been done, restrained by Ross Hunter's desire not to make his audience too uncomfortable.

On the debit side, the film takes place in a tourist's idea of London. Either the screenplay should have had a slight revision, or the film should have been recast as John Gavin, at age 29, was clearly too young to play the part of the building foreman, a man who tells Kit about his traumatic experience in World War II. A night out at the ballet means an excerpt from Swan Lake, billed with Giselle and Petrushka, middle-brow and middle-class idea of culture.

As it turns out, Kat Ellinger also makes the connection between Midnight Lace and giallo in her commentary track. Ellinger draws the line with connections to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace to the films made about a decade later by Argento, Martino and others. Ellinger discusses also how producer Ross Hunter packaged the film primarily for a female audience, as well as employ stars from an earlier era in supporting roles, as Myrna Loy and Roddy McDowell appear here. Connections of various cast members to the films by Alfred Hitchcock are mentioned, notably Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but also supporting cast members Gavin, John Williams and Anthony Dawson. Unless I missed it, Ellinger does not mention Herbert Marshall as having appeared in two Hitchcock films. Being from London, Ellinger is able to point out how the rear screen appearance of a bridge makes it appear longer than it really is. It may be redundant to mention that the first giallo is considered to be Mario Bava's The Woman Who Knew Too Much.

As for the title, our heroine buys what is probably best described as loungewear, black pants with a lacy black top. Hardly the diaphanous nightie that the title Midnight Lace might suggest, but would anyone expect that from Doris Day? In keeping with the title's undelivered suggestions of eroticism, the best way to enjoy Midnight Lace is to enjoy what the film is, not for all the things it isn't.

Kino Classics has also taken the unusual step of offering a choice of aspect ratios when viewing Midnight Lace. While most cinephiles will probably choose the original 2:1 version, there is also the option of 1.78 for those who insist that the entirety of their wide-screen television frame be filled.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 21, 2019 08:02 AM