Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Midnight Lace (1960)
Creating a tangible thriller is both simple and incredibly difficult. Simple, because the goal is straightforward. The story doesn’t have to be a tangled mess or the characters complex in any way – you simply have to create an environment on the screen that translates into the seats. Difficult, because that’s easier said than done. Darkness, shadows, and jump scares just won’t do it on their own.
Of course Hitchcock was the master, but there are also many more films worthy of checking out. One of them is Midnight Lace, the David Miller-directed movie that finds Doris Day getting phone calls from a mysterious voice that promises to kill her.
Day plays Kit Preston – an heiress whose recently married Rex Harrison’s Tony. When the phone calls start, Tony promises to whisk her away to the safety of a delayed honeymoon in Italy, but work keeps getting in the way. Then one million pounds goes embezzled to thicken the plot.
The film is really two things: a detailed portrait of Kit that is punctuated by sinister phone calls. These two things outline the difficult of the thriller perfectly. The first isn’t an easy task – a pared-down character study so that we care about Kit. Of course, this is made less difficult by casting Doris Day since she is instantly lovable. Day in midnight lace pajamas is even more so.
The phone calls, on the other hand, are simple enough to add into the story, but the sheer amount of them, and the voice on the other end promising a violent end, are enough to keep us all on the edge of our seats. They are timed perfectly. They’re a constant reminder that something gruesome will happen by the end of the film – an unseen figure is threatening murder. Is there anything more effective than that? Confrontation is one thing, but someone alerting you to the fact that they intend to kill you is something altogether different. It shows a considerable lack of need for the element of surprise, a strength of confidence that they can get the job done no matter what. It starts to wear on your mind with the repetition that there’s a person confident in their abilities to end your life. It starts to make you believe that death is inevitable.
And that’s what happens to Kit. Along with the fact that no one else has heard the phone calls – and the subsequent questioning of her sanity – the calls begin to work on her (and on the audience) exactly as intended. Is it just a prank caller or is it someone strictly bent on killing the beautiful, young woman?
Beyond the premise, the movie is fantastic because of Doris Day (a far better actor than most people believe from her popular, innocent comedies) and Rex Harrison (who is brilliant in everything he’s ever touched). They play off each other well, have chemistry in a stuffy British way, and his natural sneer balances how sweet he is to her.
Over all, the movie is a brisk experience and a fine example of a thriller that takes the audience, shoves them into Kit’s shoes, and makes them live briefly with the idea that a dark voice on the other end of the phone will eventually manifest itself in physical form with tight fingertips wrapped around their throats.
It may be a bit dated, but it’s still just as frightening as anything you could hope to be made today because it achieves that difficult task of making something difficult look so simple.