Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Midnight Lace (1960)

Midnight Lace is a 1960 Doris Day thriller. She’d made thrillers before (such as The Man Who Knew Too Much for Hitchcock) but this one is an odd but fascinating combination.

As has pointed out, it doesn’t really work as a thriller. If you haven’t figured out the solution to the mystery within the first 20 minutes then you’re just not concentrating. But again as has pointed out, the thriller plot isn’t the reason for watching this movie.

What makes Midnight Lace so intriguing is the date it was made. It’s an att
empt to do an “adult” thriller. By 1960 the Production Code had relaxed a little, so film-makers could deal with sexual subject matter, but they still had to tread very carefully, so you get this delightful mix of daringness and coyness.

Doris Day is Kit, an American woman living in London with her wealthy businessman husband Tony (Rex Harrison). Only he isn’t really all that rich while she is. She has an encounter with a stranger in the fog, a stranger who threatens to kill her. Then she starts getting phone calls, calls that are both obscene and threatening. Unfortunately no-one else is ever around when he gets the calls, so after a while both Scotland Yard and her husband start to suspect she’s making it up to get attention. Even her beloved Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) starts to share this suspicion. The fact that Tony is always too busy with his work to spend much time with her adds to the suspicion of attention-seeking behaviour.

But is she really making it up? well in fact the entire explanation is quite obvious, but what’s interesting is the treatment of the plot and the characters, not the plot itself. The movie is quite open about exposing the truth that behind the façade of respectable 1950s middle-class life there lurked a dark underworld of sexual dysfunction, of men who could only get their sexual jollies from either making obscene phone calls to women or from terrorising women, and women who could
only gain sexual and emotional satisfaction from fantasies of being stalked by mysterious men. There’s also at least a faint hint that women who make up stories may be motivated by sexual neglect at home. There’s also scene that in 1960 must have been fairly daring, where the police make Kit listen to endless tapes of obscene phone calls in the hope she’ll recognise the voice.

But there’s not just the sexual dysfunction angle. The movie also exposes the fundamental doubts, the fears, the insecurities that the glossy surface of 1950s life tried to cover up. There’s a sense that perfect marriages like that between Tony and Kit are often empty shells, that marriage might not solve all problems. There’s a sense of unease.

All this is contrasted to the incredibly glossy Technicolor surface of the movie. It’s all bright lighting and pastels, lots of pinks and soft blues. Kit’s bedroom is extremely pink. Even her telephone is pink. On the surface everything is cheerful and bright. Much too cheerful and much too bright. It’s interestin
g that this was a Ross Hunter production, since it has much of the look of the Douglas Sirk movies of the same era, also produced by Hunter. And just as in Sirk’s movies, the brightness is misleading.

Doris Day goes t
otally overboard with her performance. It’s all suppressed hysteria, except when the hysteria isn’t suppressed at all. But it works perfectly. It’s a suitably camp performance for a rather camp movie. Rex Harrison is much too charming, which again is the right performance for the movie. Myrna Loy seems perpetually amused, which she probably was, and she’s also perfect in her role.

This is another example of just how interesting the period from the mid-50s to the mid-60s was in Hollywood cinema, a period that saw the Production Code gradually lose its teeth, and a period that produced some delightfully outrageous movies, from Baby Doll in 1956 up to Valley of the Dolls in 1967. Midnight Lace is a bit of an oddity, but it’s an exceptionally interesting oddity that is very much worth checking out. Highly recommended.

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