“Racy stuff, eh?” said my husband, when I told him the name of the film I was going to review next.
No. Not at all. In fact, Midnight Lace has nothing steamy about it except a rather stylish black top that Doris Day wears in the climactic scene.
A couple of weeks ago, I’d read that the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) had bestowed a Career Achievement Award on Doris Day. For someone who reigned as one of Hollywood’s most successful and best-loved stars, the woman who sang and danced her way through countless musicals; who made us double up with helpless laughter; who was, even otherwise, a superb actress when she wasn’t being a singer or a comedienne… yes, that is (like the dozens of other awards she’s collected over the years) a well-deserved honour. Atta-girl, Doris!
Midnight Lace begins at the door of the American Consul in Grosvenor Square, London, on a very foggy evening. American heiress Kit Preston (Doris Day) has been visiting the consul to get a new passport to replace her lost one. An official from the consulate escorts her out and asks if he can call a taxi for her. But Kit reassures him: her home is just across the square; she’ll walk.
But Kit hasn’t reckoned with London’s notorious pea soupers. Within moments of entering the park beyond, she’s lost.
And suddenly, out of the surrounding fog, she hears a man’s voice, high-pitched and singsong, addressing her by name. Threatening her, telling her that he will kill her before the month is out.
Kit whirls around, frantically searching for the man – his voice now seems to come from in front, now behind, now off to one side. Running wildly, she manages to make her way out of the park, and to the safety of her home.
Over the next few scenes, we are introduced to the people in Kit’s life. First, there is Kit’s husband, Anthony ‘Tony’ Preston (Rex Harrison). Anthony and Kit have been married only three months, after a whirlwind courtship in the US. Tony heads Preston’s, a large corporation which is right now going through a bad patch, with falling profits and bad blood between the directors.
Closer home (right next door to the Prestons, to be precise) lives Peggy (Natasha Parry), who’s become a good friend of Kit’s. Peggy’s husband Roy is a sailor and has been gone for the past couple of years – he and Peggy correspond regularly, but Peggy admits to Kit that she would much rather have him back.
Tony and Kit’s house is looked after by a middle-aged maid, Nora. Nora’s son, Malcolm (Roddy McDowall) is the bane of her existence. Malcolm is a perennially unemployed no-good who has no intention of either trying to hold on to any jobs he gets, or of toning down his extravagance. He’s constantly pestering his poor overworked mum for money.
Right now, Nora has a terrible cold and has been looking so ill that Kit has sent her home (after surreptitiously giving her a little extra money to compensate for what Malcolm has wheedled out of her).
But: back to where we were. Kit, shaking with fright, comes home after her experience in Grosvenor Park. When Tony arrives and she tells him the whole story, he laughs it off. London fogs, he tells her, are notorious for the way they draw pranksters out. When a particularly bad fog clears, you’ll see all sorts of things, he tells Kit: a bedpan atop Nelson’s Column on Trafalgar Square, for instance.
Kit is dubious, but is cheered up when Tony announces that he’s finally taking her on a long overdue honeymoon, to Venice.
The next day, therefore, Kit goes off to do some shopping for their vacation. She doesn’t realise it, but when she stops by at Preston’s to show off her new clothes to Tony, a man in a black coat (a man whose face we never see) appears to be following her. He’s also there, on the pavement, when Kit leaves Tony’s office and takes a taxi home…
Just as Kit arrives home and is walking towards the house, a freak accident (or is it?) nearly kills her. Some construction work is in progress just outside their block of flats, and a girder being swung by a crane suddenly goes out of control and plummets towards the ground – towards where Kit is happily walking with her shopping.
Fortunately, the man in charge of the contract, Brian Younger (John Gavin) manages to save her just in time, flinging her out of the way. He helps her up and ensures she’s all right.
Back home, a still-shaky Kit discovers that there’s a telegram waiting for her. Her aunt Beatrice ‘Bea’ (Myrna Loy) is coming to spend a few days. Kit is ecstatic: she is very close to Bea, and the two women had been living together before Kit married Tony and moved to England. Now Bea – fun, adventurous, irrepressible Bea – will be coming to visit, and Kit can’t wait to meet her aunt.
She’s still rejoicing over the telegram, still grinning, when the telephone rings.
It is, once again, that horrible high-pitched voice, the man threatening to kill Kit before the month is out. Kit, barely recovered from that narrow escape from the falling girder, goes all to pieces. She’s frantic with worry when Peggy comes to visit, and Peggy, on discovering what Kit’s been through, immediately phones Tony.
This time, thankfully, Tony doesn’t dismiss it as a prank, and they go to Scotland Yard.
Inspector Byrnes (John Williams) at the Yard gives Kit a patient hearing. He then sits her down with a set of headphones, while his assistant plays samples of voices of criminals with track records of being ‘telephone talkers’ – men who spout filth and threats at women and get a high out of the terror they’re able to cause.
While Kit’s listening to the voice samples, Tony has a chat with the inspector. The inspector asks about possible enemies, people who might hold a grudge against Kit or Tony, but nothing really comes of it. The inspector ends with a hint to Tony: they’ve handled many cases like this, and all too often, it turns out that the wife is trying merely to draw a little attention from a neglectful husband. And Tony, whose pressures at work have resulted in him having to cancel that Venice trip, can probably be slotted in the ‘neglectful husband’ category…
Meanwhile, Kit’s aunt Bea arrives in town, and Kit blossoms in her company. Kit tells her about the mysterious caller. Bea is sympathetic but sensible and practical, and assures Kit that it’s probably nothing to worry about.
But, just as Kit and Tony are getting ready to take Bea out for dinner that evening, the caller calls again – and though Tony rushes to the extension in the bedroom, Kit is so overwrought, she slams the phone down before Tony is even able to hear the man’s voice for himself. He does, though, phone the inspector and tell him.
Inspector Byrnes seems more and more convinced that this threatening stalker is all a ploy on Kit’s part to get Tony to be more attentive.
Bea, when Tony privately mentions the inspector’s theory to her at dinner, listens. And doesn’t look too surprised at it. Yes, a new bride, lonely and left at home by a husband who’s too busy amassing a fortune, may well be tempted to conjure up a fictitious stalker.
Over the next few days, a series of events happen. Kit, descending in the lift from the Preston flat, finds the lift trapped between two floors. She’s frantic, trying desperately to get out, when she sees a dark-coated man going up the stairs – and then coming down, calling for her. By the time he pries off the ceiling of the lift and lowers himself into it, Kit has nearly died of fright. It turns out, however, that this is not an assassin, but a saviour – Younger, the man who’d earlier saved her from the falling girder. He’s again come to her rescue.
At her request, Younger takes Kit to a nearby pub and gets her a drink. He is cheerful and friendly, and his down-to-earth understanding of her fear puts her somewhat at her ease.
But when Kit’s gone off home and Younger keeps sitting at the pub table, the barmaid comes by to ask if she should add the drinks to his bill. What bill, says Younger absently, still looking as Kit walks out the door. The bill for the telephone calls, of course, says the woman. The telephone calls he’s been making from the pub the past few evenings…
And the same evening, one of Tony Preston’s more diligent employees summons Tony to office in a hurry – to show Tony the evidence of what he, the employee has been investigating on his own initiative all these days. Somebody high up in the hierarchy at Preston’s has been, over the years, embezzling funds, sneaking out shares. The company is now short to the tune of £1 million.
What is happening? Does this bit of news have anything to do with what Kit is experiencing? Is there, perhaps, some enemy who is out to get Tony and Kit? Who? The unknown embezzler? Or could it be Malcolm, who seems to have no scruples about how and where he gets money? Who is the man who was following Kit when she went shopping? Why has Younger been making phone calls every evening from the pub?
And who is this scarred stranger, who rings the Preston’s doorbell one day just moments after the caller has phoned, threatening to come and kill Kit?
No, this isn’t a Hitchcock. It has its flaws, but it’s still an intriguing puzzle, and worth a watch.
What I liked about this film:
Doris Day, of course. A favourite of mine, and in one of her more unusual roles here. This one doesn’t require her to sing or dance, but it sure requires a lot of good acting – from the cheerful, carefree wealthy young wife looking forward to a vacation with her husband, all the way to a woman who’s completely hysterical, probably on the brink of insanity. A fine performance from a very fine actress.
The plot holes. I won’t say more, because that would constitute spoilers, but there are plot elements here that build up things only to have them remain unresolved. Or vice-versa: plot elements introduced out of nothing, leaving motives hanging loose. And the end left me with a couple of questions that I still haven’t been able to answer, despite having watched this a couple of times.
Still, if you like Doris Day and you like suspense, you should give this one a try.