Saturday, September 13, 2014

MIDNIGHT LACE: Blu-ray (Universal International 1960) Shock Home Entertainment

In viewing David Miller’s Midnight Lace (1960) I am incongruously reminded of the marketing slogan for Paul Masson’s mountain winery: “We sell no wine before its time”; the inescapable fact being, this film is definitely a Ross Hunter picture - the producer’s inimitable stamp in visualized flare for the proverbial glam-bam superseding, and all but deflating, whatever ‘shock value’ Miller, or screenwriters, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts might have brought to the occasion.  And the parallel between this movie, being peddled as cinema art and Masson’s bait and switch of plunk for fine madeira is, I think, fitting.  For Midnight Lace is as half-fermented and sour-tasting as movie thrillers get; its formulaic ‘damsel in distress’ scenario diverging down some thoroughly murky ‘false leads’ in a desperate attempt to play up our sympathy for Kit Preston (Doris Day); a middle-aged newlywed love bunny, under siege from an cryptic would-be assassin with an effetely sinister voice.
There’s more than a hint of George Cukor’s 1944 classic, Gaslight in Midnight Lace (aside: I suppose I should be referencing Thorold Dickerson’s 1940 British-made original here) - albeit, less skillfully executed; combining all of the twists and turns of an amusement park ‘dark ride’ with its ‘women in peril’ treatise clap-trapped together. We’ve seen it all before: 1948’s Sorry Wrong Number and 1952’s Sudden Fear immediately come to mind. I should have clued in; the title, Midnight Lace – denoting a sheer black satin undergarment, worn by Doris Day in the penultimate ‘surprise’ (no surprise) ending. Like director, Douglas Sirk, producer, Ross Hunter’s métier is froth at the expense of story. Day runs the gamut of emotions from ‘A’ to ‘B’ wearing some truly stunning (and occasionally bizarre) haute couture by Irene Sharaff; elegantly sheathed from horn to hoof and looking every inch the fashion plate/star belonging to another bygone era in picture making. Que sera sera: clothes make the woman. Alas, they do nothing for the plot; nor do Robert Clatworthy and Alexander Golitzen’s art direction; cobbling together a faux London from various unconvincing and redressed outdoor sets on the Universal back lot.
Virtually every major female star from Hollywood’s golden age was reamed through this grindhouse of schlock suspense; in hindsight, a mostly predictable cycle of thrillers. The implosion of the studio system in the mid-1950’s really did an injustice to these female legends; particularly, those erroneously considered ‘past their prime’ after the age of thirty. At age 36, it must have dawned on Day that the proverbial ticking time bomb had been set to detonate her career prospects for playing the girl next door.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore Day. But she always seemed much too street savvy to be the virgin-esque ingénue – even when she was the virgin-esque ingénue. Her best movies, Calamity Jane (1953), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), or even Pillow Talk (1959) usually played up that intuitive intelligence, infectiously married to Day’s exquisite platinum beauty. Alas, Day is miscast as Kit Preston, the clotheshorse trophy of husband, Anthony (Rex Harrison). Her ‘mad’ scene, all frantic shrieks, undulating tears and heavy breathing, is particularly well played. But her gazelle-like sprints through perpetually fog-banked London squares, or shimmying from girder to girder in her aforementioned black negligee, in order to escape certain death, are over-the-top bordering on cheap camp; exceedingly strained panic attacks in the worst vein of the ‘scream queen’ tradition.
Despite his aging façade, Rex Harrison oozes an insidiously oily sex appeal from every pore. It’s easy to see why Harrison once earned the moniker, ‘sexy Rexy’. But apart from this intangible erotic larceny, Harrison was, is and will forever remain an exceptionally fine actor. He can basically recite the phone book and I would probably tune in for a listen. Midnight Lace never begins to test the boundaries of Harrison’s formidable strengths as a thespian, but he’s, nevertheless, quite magnificent in a part that, so easily, could have crumbled into foppish cliché. When Harrison’s ‘Tony’ Preston speaks, there’s always a crisp, clean edge to his delivery; a little something extra in double entendre, brewing with a modicum of uncertainty, pathos and manipulation. It’s a delicious, if casual, performance.
Midnight Lace also sports a ‘killer’ cast – pun intended. When all else fails – and it frequently does – we can admire Ross Hunter for assembling some of the greatest talents of the twentieth century for his disposable yarn: Myrna Loy, as Kit’s sympathetic aunt/sex-starved flirt, Bea; Herbert Marshall doing nine minutes as aging con man, Charles Manning; Roddy McDowell, cast against type as the wickedly devious leach, Malcolm Stanley, and ‘then’ resident heartthrob, John Gavin, improvising moody shell shock, as returning war vet cum architect, Brian Younger. So, which one of them is behind the mechanical sing-song pervert terrorizing our dear Kit with the promise of strangulation in the park? Hmmm. More on this later. Consider this your spoiler alert.
Midnight Lace is based on Janet Green’s play, Matilda Shouted Fire (a sort of ‘Never Cry Wolf’ set-up; our rechristened heroine…um…victim, Kit Preston, slowly forced into a nervous breakdown because no one except she seems to be hearing voices in the dark, on the telephone, behind locked doors, goading from just outside her balcony window. Midnight Lace, perhaps might have worked on the stage, as a sort of reconstituted Agatha Christie ‘locked room’ who done it? On film, it has the added impediment of Ross Hunter’s desire to ‘open things up’; taking us on a Triptik of London and the Universal back lot; needless, wasted travelogue footage to gild his lily with glamor. Alas, expanding the material with these lush surroundings also deflates the play’s claustrophobic atmosphere; the ever-constricting and ominous nature of the piece – evaporated. As Kit’s own anxieties take hold, making her world seem much smaller and more treacherous than it actually is, we’re suddenly left to question her motives and her sanity. What’s wrong with this silly female, who otherwise looks physically robust and hearty; as though she could tackle both Rex Harrison and the movie’s red herring killer, Roy Ash (Anthony Dawson) with one arm, while using the other to dial up Scotland Yard Inspector Brynes (John Williams)?  
The Goff/Roberts’ screenplay has some difficulty remembering where we are in the plot; particularly in its third act. After Kit is pushed in front of an oncoming double decker bus, rescued and brought back to her apartment by supposedly devoted friend, Peggy Thompson (Natasha Parry), she suffers an erratic attack of nerves. Bea does everything she can to anesthetize her niece’s fears. But it’s no use. Kit’s gone over the edge – mentally, speaking – screaming, crying and otherwise carrying on. What’s a poor harried husband to do? Draw up the commitment papers, of course. Tony does, in fact, take Kit to see a doctor. But then he decides instead to take his wife on that oft’ postponed Venice vacation they had been planning. Travel seems to be the magic elixir here. For within two short scenes, Kit snaps out of her catatonia, dresses in her midnight lace for the occasion, and packs a few suitcases for the journey. It’s such uneven storytelling that it makes us lose even an ounce of empathy for Kit Preston. As an audience, even we begin to believe she’s been faking it.
Midnight Lace opens with a fog-laden London street at night; the impeccably attired American heiress, Kit Preston departing the Embassy on route to the nearby fashionable apartment she shares with her high-financing hubby, Anthony. But after only a few venturesome steps into this pea soup, Kit allows her mind to play tricks; momentarily unsettled by the tap-tap-tapping of a blind man’s cane on the pavement. It’s silly to be scared. Or perhaps, not. For only a few more strides into the murk and Kit is addressed by a mechanical voice, drawing her attention to the statue of Franklin Roosevelt; the mysterious stranger claiming he is so close to Kit he could reach out, at this very moment, and strangle her. Racing off into the night, Kit manages to make it back to the apartment, frantically calling for her beloved housekeeper, Nora Stanley (Doris Lloyd). Instead, she finds Tony at home, waiting with cocktails. Kit regales her husband with her harrowing experience in the park. Tony makes light of it by suggesting the London fog is full of harmless pranksters who get their sick kicks by upsetting young girls and old women in the dark. Alas, our Kit falls into neither category. She ought to – and does – know better. However, Tony is convincing enough to momentarily relax Kit’s nerves. What can I tell you? He’s a damn good liar. He also promises to take her to Venice for the honeymoon they never had. Ah yes, nothing to calm the nerves like a smooth gondola down the canals.
However, the next day a pressing business matter forces Tony to cancel their luncheon date. It seems one of his company’s investors, Victor Elliot (Rhys Williams) is charging someone within the organization of deliberately forcing his stock prices down, thereby pushing his small investment firm into premature bankruptcy. Tony assures Victor this is not the case, but later we hear Tony’s treasurer, Charles Manning on the telephone, encouraging his broker to buy up even larger quantities of stock in Victor’s company, presumably to force the price of its shares down even further. In the meantime, the company’s younger colleague, Daniel Graham (Richard Ney) begins to investigate this matter on his own.
We shift our attention to Kit once again; left to her own accord for the afternoon and almost flattened by a heavy girder, breaking free from its restraints at a construction site adjacent her apartment complex. The building’s architect, Brian Younger dashes to Kit’s rescue. But she is mildly unsettled when he inquires about her safety using her last name; knowledge he claims to have gleaned off the couple’s mailbox. Okay, even so, this still sounds stalker-ish and creepy. Peggy leans out her second story window, inviting Kit up for some tea. Alas, Kit also encounters Nora’s shiftless son, Malcolm Stanley, whose sycophantic pleasantries disgust her; also, the way Malcolm constantly leans on his mother as a light touch from some quick, disposable cash. We witness Kit’s benevolence as she replenishes Nora’s purse with the small stash Nora gave her son so he can attend the opera with a girlfriend; Kit explaining she wants Nora to use the money to buy herself a new coat.
Left alone in the apartment, Kit promptly receives another call from the mysterious stalker who, once again, threatens to squeeze the life from her body. Kit panics and Peggy implores Tony to take her to make out a full report at Scotland Yard. Kit regales Inspector Byrnes with her story. But Byrnes is decidedly jaded. At best, he believes Kit is being pursued by some harmless hooligan who derives his sick sexual satisfaction from listening to Kit’s heavy panting on the telephone. At worst, Kit is mentally ill and making up these incidents to garner more attention from her husband. Nevertheless, Byrnes has Kit listen to a series of prerecorded voices of some of the city’s most notorious phone fiends; none of them matching the voice Kit’s has now heard twice. The next night, Tony surprises Kit with a stunning diamond clip in the shape of a gondola; a present meant to divert her fears; also, to mollify her disappointment upon learning from Tony their planned trip to Venice will have to be indefinitely postponed, due to a pressing business matter. Kit’s unhappiness is offset by a telegram, announcing the arrival of her favorite aunt, Bea.
A voracious flirt, Bea has picked up a portly bachelor, Basil Stafford (Rex Evans) on the plane. Aside: the film rather pointlessly introduces this character in a tedious dialogue scene at the airport, but then jettisons him entirely from the story. It’s probably just as well. For Bea seems more interested in rekindling a romance with her old flame Charles Manning; Kit, Bea, Chuck and Tony making a handsome foursome as they hit the nightclubs for some badly needed rest and relaxation. The seeds of doubt, as to the validity of Kit’s stalking claims, are planted in Tony’s head, first by Inspector Byrnes, then by Bea, each suggesting a woman desperately in love – but bored – may concoct such a story of persecution to get her husband to pay more attention to her. Tony is reluctant to buy into the possibility. But the next day, we see Kit overreact yet again, this time to getting momentarily stuck in the elevator; rescued from her own hysteria by an empathetic Bryan Younger who takes her to the pub across the street, managed by Dora Hammer (Hermione Baddeley). The pair stops off for a quick one to calm their nerves. During this tête-à-tête, Bryan confides in Kit, that ever since the war he has suffered blackouts, occasionally losing whole days at a time. Grateful for the kindness he’s shown her, but mildly rattled by his confession, Kit retreats to her apartment; Dora approaching to ask Bryan if he would like the telephone calls he made the previous night put on his bar tab.  Could Bryan be…? Hmmm.
The next evening, Tony decides to make a minor mends for his absences of late by accompanying his wife, Bea and Charles to a ballet performance of Swan Lake. Alas, at intermission Tony is summoned to his office by Daniel Graham, who informs his employer the company’s ledgers indicate someone has embezzled nearly £1 million from the firm. Knowing of Manning’s gambling debts Tony cleverly points the finger at Charles while never entirely coming right out to make his accusation stick. In the meantime, Malcolm, who is also at the ballet, uses the intermission to confront Kit in his feeble attempt to procure some money from her, supposedly on his mother’s behalf. When Kit instead offers to provide Nora with whatever necessity (and even a few luxuries) she could use directly, Malcolm vaguely threatens her. Tony, having returned from the office, swats back with a threat of his own, ordering Malcolm never to set foot in their apartment again.
Having established several characters who could possibly harbor a motive to want Kit dead, the Goff/Roberts’ screenplay now spends a goodly portion of its third act whittling down this list of deviants to the only two cast members the audience, presumably, have not yet even begun to suspect. In broad daylight, and with a crowd of onlookers surrounding her, Kit is pushed in front of a moving bus. The driver narrowly averts running over her. Now, Peggy appears out of nowhere and escorts Kit back to her apartment. Nevertheless, Kit is certain she is being stalked. A mysterious stranger knocks at her door, never identifying himself as Roy Ash – Peggy’s sweetheart. Instead, he ominously looms, and then approaches Kit, dressed in a black trench and fedora, and, with a perverse grin as she runs to scream for help. Once more, Bryan rushes to her aid. Alas, in the few seconds it takes Bryan to ascend the stairs Roy has vanished into thin air. Kit pleads for Peggy to lie for her; that she was present when another phone call came to the apartment; her corroboration necessary to convince Tony Kit’s claims of persecution are not delusional fantasies.
But Kit’s plan backfires when Tony arrives home and Peggy and Kit fabricate their story; Tony informing the pair the house lines have been down all day due to the construction going on next door. Inadvertently, Kit’s lie has managed to make her whole story seem even less credible. Concerned Kit may be on the verge of a nervous breakdown Tony takes his wife to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Garver (Hayden Rorke).  Only Garver is not terribly worried about Kit’s condition, even though she appears to be in a near catatonic state. Where did he get his medical license – out of a Cracker Jack box?!? However, the ‘good’ doctor does prescribe rest. Thus, Tony elects to take Kit to Venice. Only hours before seemly nearing the abyss, Kit has now miraculously recovered, peering from her upstairs window as Bryan toddles off to the pub across the street for a quick pint. Inside the pub, Bryan takes notice of Roy Ash reading a newspaper by the window. The gossipy Dora informs Bryan she doesn’t like the looks of him. After all, he’s been hanging around the neighborhood for days, presumably waiting for something to happen.
After Roy leaves, Bryan elects to keep a vigil on the Preston’s apartment. In the meantime, Kit receives her final phone call from the malicious stalker, forewarning that her end is near. Alas, Kit puts Tony on the phone this time to hear the man’s voice. Tony feigns disgust; also, telephoning the police, then making up an elaborate plan of action whereby, under Inspector Byrne’s direct orders, he will leave the apartment to set a trap for Kit’s assailant, who is most certain to come looking for her if he believes she is alone. True to form, Roy does reappear through the unlocked French doors with gun in hand, terrorizing Kit, as Tony leaps from the shadows to wrestle Roy to the ground in the dark. In the ensuing struggle, Tony manages to fire the gun and wound Roy in the stomach – discovering a mini tape-recorder in his pocket with prerecorded threats.
It all seems to be ‘conveniently’ over - except Tony now reveals himself to be the embezzler of his own company’s funds. It was he who plotted to be rid of Kit by making everyone think she is going insane, thereby setting up the premise she might commit suicide. Having heard the gunshot, Peggy bursts into the room. Kit urges her friend to hurry and telephone the police. Instead, Peggy confesses she too is in on the plot; Tony’s lover, in fact, and looking forward to putting a period to both Roy and Kit’s lives. But Roy stirs on the floor and Kit seizes the opportunity to escape onto the balcony, reaching for the girders of the adjacent construction site and shimmying across the suspended catwalk to relative safety.
Meanwhile, Inspector Byrnes arrives with several Scotland Yard bobbies in tow. Having put a tap on the Prestons’ phone, he became rather perplexed, the concerned by Tony’s fake phone call to the police; especially since Tony never dialed the number. Bryan takes a construction elevator up to rescue Kit; reuniting her with Bea on the ground, who is waiting with a nice warm fur coat. Tony helplessly observes from the balcony as the police move in to arrest him and Peggy for Roy’s homicide and Kit’s attempted murder. The movie concludes with Kit bravely marching off, flanked by Bea and Bryan, whom we might assume will now present himself to her as a prospective suitor.
Midnight Lace is unintentionally farcical and grossly derelict in its setup of false accusations. These effectively make everyone except Tony and Peggy look suspicious. The implication of Charles’ complicity in the embezzlement is one of the more egregious fibs told for the sake of throwing the audience off the scent as to the real culprits. But the Goff/Roberts’ screenplay also lobs distasteful hints of larceny at dear old Aunt Bea – who, in tandem, seems to fear for her niece’s safety but is rather too interested in having Kit committed to an asylum.
Another red herring involves the emotionally emasculated Bryan Younger. He spends a good deal of his time skulking about the shadows, just as a stalker might; reading people’s names off their mailboxes and spookily staring off into the distance when questioned by Kit about his past. But the worst offender is Roy Ash; Peggy’s beloved. He pops in and out of the narrative like an apparition; presumably, out to exact revenge on his cheating mate, but not above spooking Kit half out of her wits. It’s almost as if producer, Ross Hunter is relying solely on our collective memories of the actor, Anthony Dawson (and his star turn as Grace Kelly’s would-be killer in Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder 1954) to bolster this mute performance as Roy.
Only in the eleventh hour do we learn Roy suspects Peggy of having an affair. In fact, he has come home to murder her and her lover. Why he never bothers to explain this scenario or his presence at Kit’s apartment is another mystery (how he vanishes from the apartment even after Bryan has already sealed off every available exit route, is an even bigger mystery). None of these ‘loose ends’ is ever satisfactorily resolved; ditto for how Tony managed to slip his tape recorder into Roy’s pocket during their frenetic struggle inside the dimly lit apartment; or why Roy should have partook in Tony’s plan to drive Kit insane by playing a recorded message from a nearby payphone. Roy’s complicity in the crime is a mystery, indeed.
The premise for Midnight Lace – a woman in danger – is ruined by the audience being misled in too many conflicting directions all at once. When one of these dead end ‘what if?’ setups becomes problematic, it is simply discarded instead of being cleverly explained away. Occasionally, such absences of clarity can work in service to a story, building necessary tensions via ambiguity. Life is, after all, full of uncertainties and imperfect circumstances. And if art is an imitation of life, then it is plausible to have some incongruities within the script and still make sense; even within the fictional realm of a classic Hollywood thriller (Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep 1946– makes no sense at all – as example, and yet it’s a quintessential crime/thriller). Tragically, Midnight Lace is no Big Sleep; just a languid snore; the audience infrequently forced to suffer from bouts of insomnia. There are too many unexplained fool’s errands. Too soon these prove counterintuitive to our enjoyment. We lose interest in what happens to Kit or who is responsible for the sinister plot afoot.
Nevertheless, Midnight Lace has a following – or rather, it has acquired an appreciation among Doris Day fans for whom the actress can do no wrong.  I disagree. Day is too regal in stature; too physically robust to play the shrinking/shrieking/terrorized little violet. To listen to her screams is to want to give her a violent shake and then, a mighty thwack across the cheek: to have her be the Doris Day we all know, love and expect to see. Day never lives up to her back-catalog of memories. And despite a glittering assemblage of A-list star personalities to buttress her performance, no one is particularly well served by this anemic story.
The acting is, as to be expected, mostly top notch. And having such luminaries give themselves wholeheartedly to this flimsy material lends a certain cache to the story it otherwise would not possess.  There is much to be said for intangible ‘star quality’; the characters taking on ballast because of each star’s built-in presence. But the warm, glossy ‘feel good’ we derive from seeing these perfectionists at play is more for their presence - as stars - rather than the characters they inhabit during the next hour and forty-eight minutes.  Bottom line: I couldn’t get my knickers in a ball for Midnight Lace. It lacked the essential ingredient of suspense, minus a good story to propel and hold one’s interest for very long. There aren’t enough moments of genuine tension to offset Ross Hunter’s fervent desire to shake us another bubbly cocktail, meant more to captivate the eye rather than to tickle and titillate the senses.
Midnight Lace gets a region free Blu-ray release in Australia from Shock Entertainment, under a franchise distributor deal with Universal Home Video. There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of quality control regarding TCM’s Archive Collection DVD of Midnight Lace; also, a few reviews of Universum - Region 'B' - Blu-ray in Germany, but virtually nothing on this disc, making it something of a hidden treasure for fans in North America, who desperately want to add Midnight Lace to their libraries. Rejoice then, because this appears to be the same transfer as the Universum. It isn’t perfect. But frankly, it’s a lot better than I expected. Colors are generally solid, and overall color saturation is competent, if not robust.
The image has a consistent, slightly grainy quality, probably in keeping with the vintage film stocks. Grain, if heavier than normal, is nevertheless, evenly rendered and – better still – age-related artifacts are reduced to a minimum. Best of all, Midnight Lace looks fairly clean with excellent contrast levels. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the image harvest, particularly since Shock’s release of Exodus – also, under the Hollywood Gold label and region free – was a fairly pathetic gesture to Otto Preminger’s 1960 classic.  One hiccup: like the Universum German release, this Aussie import is framed in 2.0:1, not 1.78:1 as its’ back cover suggests.
The framing, at least to my mind, looks natural. We, of course, lose information on the top and bottom when compared to the old DVD transfer from Universal; but no egregious cutting off the tops of people’s heads. And in examining the credit sequence, 2.0:1 seems a fitting aspect ratio for this presentation. Techniscope? Not sure. The audio is DTS 2.0 mono, but remarkably solid, crisp and exhibiting no untoward distortions. So, good stuff here.
The TCM DVD contains a lot of junkets, advertised as ‘extra features’. What they boil down to is an intro from Robert Osborne, and a fashion featurette; plumped out by stills galleries, a radio excerpt, and a trailer. We get only the trailer on this Shock Blu-ray. I’m still okay with this because the quality of the hi-def transfer beats the pants off TCM’s tepid DVD. Aside: why TCM (who’s Archive Collection has already given us The Lady From Shanghai in hi-def) could not be bothered to do as much for Midnight Lace when a competent image harvest currently exist in 1080p, is a marketing decision beyond me. I don’t think logic was ever applied. Bottom line: you want it, you got it. Midnight Lace in hi-def from Shock Home Video comes recommended by me.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

1

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