Despite her pivotal role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and starring in the underrated Julie, Doris Day isn’t commonly thought of as an actress who appeared in thrillers. Especially not during her seven year reign as queen of the rom-coms. But it was smack dab in the middle of her frolics with Rock Hudson and her tiffs with James Garner that Day starred in a Gaslight-style thriller called Midnight Lace.
She plays an American heiress named Kit Preston, recently married to financier Tony and living in a wealthy and glamorous London neighbourhood. Tony is a middle-aged Rex Harrison, in a role that harkens back to his early British films like Blithe Spirit. Both of them do a fine job, even with their notable lack of chemical reaction.
Part of the trouble, I think, is at this point, Day was primarily a sex comedienne and Harrison had been spending a good deal of his time on the Broadway stage. His distant theatricality and her newly acquired habit of playing bedroom moments for laughs kicks the “sizzling newlyweds” angle right in the stomach.
On a particularly foggy evening, Kit is on her way home when an unseen voice calls to her by name. It’s a bizarre, disguised voice that sounds like it belongs to a marionette. And this creepy marionette says it wants to kill her.
She rushes home in terror to find Tony waiting for her, and he quickly soothes her and suggests that it was just some prankster taking advantage of the fog. This manages to comfort her, and all seems well.
Until the puppet-voiced weirdo starts phoning her.
Scotland Yard insist that this is a simple case of a lonely housewife imagining sinister goings-on while she flirts with a nervous breakdown. No need for police involvement, just take her to a good head shrinker, guv.
Trying to ignore the constant harassment from the evil version of Topo Gigio, Kit manages to plan a much-anticipated honeymoon with Tony. She even buys an elegant negligee in a style called “midnight lace” giving us our title. (The film was adapted from a play called Matilda Shouted Fire, so a title change was well in order.) But Tony is terribly busy with work, and the honeymoon keeps being delayed while Kit wonders if she’s going slowly insane.
An early red-herring culprit is presented to us by way of Roddy McDowell, being his usual dependable self in a role that could’ve used some expansion. It isn’t much of a spoiler to announce his innocence, since anybody who’s seen even a handful of these types of stories will be able to guess the ending from go.
An ally arrives in the form of Kit’s Aunt Bea, played by Myrna Loy. (Chairs spin as all of my readers now run to find copies of this because Myrna Loy is in it.) Aunt Bea is a fabulous character with a fabulous life full of jet-setting to obscure places, collecting strange curios, and being delightfully open-minded about the possibility of telephone stalkers. So, a little different from the Aunt Bea of Mayberry.
Aunt Bea is a soothing presence. She believes Kit actually is getting upsetting calls, but thinks it’s more of a harmless weirdo than a homicidal one. Slowly, Tony manages to turn Bea to his view of things, and has her convinced that all of this might just be in Kit’s head.
The whole thing culminates in a gripping breakdown sequence that really took it out of Doris Day. In her autobiography, she wrote in order to prepare she recalled a specific moment from her marriage to Al Jordan. While she was pregnant and on bedrest, Jordan burst into the room, pulled her up from bed and threw her against the wall. This bit of method acting resulted in the best scene of the film, but also caused Doris Day to collapse in emotional exhaustion after filming it was complete. Production was shut down for two days, and the experience was so unpleasant she decided to never do another drama. It was comedies from then on out.
One of the best reasons to check out Midnight Lace is the wardrobe designed by Irene.
The former head of the costume department at MGM, Irene also designed the incredible costumes for 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. She had been operating her own fashion house, when her friend Doris Day asked her to design her looks for Midnight Lace. The outfits were so elegant and well-made that Harry Winston jewellery was rented for Day to wear, because the usual costume jewels looked extremely fake against the couture fabrics.
One dress in particular, a white evening gown, blew the star away. She was so enamoured with it, she asked if she could borrow it for the Academy Awards ceremony. Kind of fun for a normal red-carpet appearance, but this was the year she was nominated for Pillow Talk, so that dress was in all the magazines.
In contrast to the hyper-real regal wardrobe, the London of Midnight Lace looks about as convincing as a ride at Disneyland. Which is to say, it’s charming but clearly fake.
Budgetary constraints forced the production, originally slated to film on location in England, to shoot on the Universal fake-London soundstages. It’s a shame, because two years later, director David Miller showed how well he could do when given real landscapes to work with. He helmed one of my all-time faves, Lonely Are the Brave.
Midnight Lace isn’t as good as Julie, or any Hitchcock film, and it’s a little paint-by-numbers in terms of the plot, but it’s got its selling points. The creepy puppet voice is creepy, the clothes are magnificent, and Myrna Loy is in it. It’s worth a watch if you come across it on your travels, particularly if you’re a Doris Day completionist.