Menu
Home / Columns / Gods & Monsters: Operator Terror: Anxiety on the telephone line in Midnight Lace (David Miller, 1960)

Gods & Monsters: Operator Terror: Anxiety on the telephone line in Midnight Lace (David Miller, 1960)

Editor’s Note: Diabolique would like to extend our condolences to the family and fans of John Gavin, who passed away last week. He played the character of Brian Younger in Midnight Lace, alas the only man to offer Doris Day’s Kit Preston any reassurance. He will be missed.

The film opens in brightness, first on a blue sky overlooking the Thames, a bright and bustling London. But this only lasts long enough for a single credit to be declared on screen. Doris Day, as American expat Kit Preston, leaves her native Embassy and wanders into a darkened Grosvenor Square, grey and thick with fog. Growing increasingly nervous as she becomes cloaked in the fog, she hears a tapping sound, similar to the anxiogenic sensation of a ticking clock in an otherwise silent atmosphere; this turns out to be a blind man tapping a stick in front of him as he walks across the square. Her sense of security already disturbed, she hears a mellifluous, sinewy voice call out to her, “Mrs Preston, over here!” The voice further threatens her security and safety. She finally panics and runs, terrified, towards an iron fence, and grabs at it suddenly as her name appears in the credits. Thus, from the beginning, Day’s popular persona – which had of course already been challenged by certain performances in films like Love Me or Leave Me (Charles Vidor, 1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956) – is dissolved, punctured by the sharp contours of the fence.

David Miller’s Midnight Lace, based on a play written by Janet Green, has become one of Universal International Pictures’ most famous films in the telephone horror subgenre. It was an early film in a new decade, premiering in New York City on October 13, 1960. Although not very well received, it did garner two Golden Globe nominations, one for Doris Day’s performance, and one for Irene Lentz’s costume design. Response to the film at the time was, generally, that it looked sharp and had a stylish production design, but the story was a little stale, a bit too simplistic, even implausible.

Such criticisms, however, are not the most useful or relevant when considering a film. (Implausibility is a limited and flawed accusation, regardless.) Where Midnight Lace excels is in its wider recognized genre of tense, melodramatic horror. It is a film defined by an almost complete run time of sustained anxiety. What is so cinematically and dramatically exhilarating about telephone horror is that it is most often spatially limited, so enhanced by a claustrophobic awareness of entrapment, of fear confined to a small space. Yet due to the telephone connecting disparate spaces, serving as a link between two otherwise isolated voices, it is simultaneously a horror of an unknown vastness. Telephone horror films, and others that call on the telephone as a mechanism of tension and anxiety, feast in a metaphorical pit of the unknown. The blind man whom Kit encounters in the opening scene has great resonance in the film, which later becomes driven by the claustrophobic fear of being able to hear but unable to see, and to not know when our ears are lying to us.

Once home after her first encounter with the terrorising voice, Kit narrates the experience to her husband Tony, the unsettlingly uncharming Rex Harrison. The voice was “very high and sing-song… it was like a puppet’s,” Kit says, very short of breath. It was, to her perception, omnidirectional, perhaps even artificially manifested in some way. Here, the uncanny connection between the telephonic voice and body is almost explained, although without conscious acknowledgement of it. After this introduction, Kit receives a phone call and seems to hear the same voice on the end of the line. Graduating from an omnidirectional aural threat to one squeezed into a telephone line, the horror of Midnight Lace spreads: unsafe outdoors, Kit is now unsafe in the space of her domestic shelter.

The first three phone calls she receives take place in the space of her apartment, and we are not privy to hear the voice of her abuser; this technique allows for the suspension of trust in Kit’s experience and she becomes, in a way, an unreliable narrator. She describes the phenomenon of such abusers to her Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) as “telephone talkers,” although to this point, we have been given no aural evidence of anyone actually doing so. It isn’t until a fourth phone call that Bea reports to hear the talker on the other end of the line, although still, we do not.

During the fifth phone call, when Tony is finally listening in, we do hear the voice of her aural abuser, so as her story and experience is corroborated for her husband, it also is for us in the audience. While we don’t see the source of the voice, we see the telephone, its receiver pulled out of frame beyond the cord, and an ashtray full of cigarettes, including one lit, its smoke wafting quickly upwards. This phone is a symbol of the disembodied voice – a voice that becomes truly disembodied later that evening, in the Prestons’ apartment, when Kit hears it coming from thin air. Although without emanating from any particular body, to her knowledge, the voice is a threat because it has travelled unseen, as if through walls. It is now no longer only a distant threat.

Both confined and immense, telephone horror is a genre that invites a very specific participation. Its horror is both in its vast unseen, unknown dimensions, and in its containment, in its restriction. This fear is one of unique paralysis, in which one cannot run to any certain sanctuary, but also cannot feel safe to remain in place. This paralysis is made quite literal in one of the most famous telephone thrillers, Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948), in which Barbara Stanwyck plays an invalid who is traumatized after she overhears two hitmen on a crossed line on who are planning a murder. The murder turns out to be her own, and she cannot even leave her own bed to escape. It is made apparent in many varied phone booth scenes in films like The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1962) and Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). Kit’s safe romantic alternative in Midnight Lace, Brian Younger (John Gavin), has “very little affection for closed-in places; elevators, phone booths,” identifying a common physical fear of confinement.

In films of this kind, the telephone acts as the aural equivalent of a cloak. The harasser on the telephone is the cloaked stranger, the stalker who hides behind a veil, behind a mask, behind a wall. While Midnight Lace is an outlier in some way, because the voice on the telephone is first heard in a public space, the fog is only another type of telephonic cloak. In I Saw What You Did (William Castle, 1965), the horror is suggested as the telephone book itself, a household feature as ubiquitous as the telephone, an inescapable element of daily life. The same is done with the device, of an unknown on the other end of the line and of a spatial vulnerability. But thematically the focus of the horror is different. As John Ireland says, “Don’t use the phone for fun and games anymore!” The telephone can be a serious trap, as in The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951) when the emotionally manipulative husband keeps the phone off the hook to both eavesdrop on his wife and prevent her from contacting anyone on the outside. He continually interrupts her calls, hijacks them. Is there something about murderous husbands and telephones?

It isn’t as neat as all that. Like with sound, any sound, the telephone makes us all vulnerable. We neither know when it is going to ring, nor who is going to be on the other end. As our ears remain open, we can hardly protect ourselves against sound, and so anything unexpected may be a shock. Picking up the telephone in her apartment, Kit has no way of knowing who will be on the other end of the line, leaving her vulnerable. As Bea says, Kit is being tormented. It’s evident from her voice, too; she is becoming increasingly exasperated, out of breath, that very thing of life gradually drained from her tool of vocal communication as it is redirected into simply staying alive, simply existing. The analogue telephone, holding the voice hostage, can be a frightfully expressive medium, can terrify with vivid aural storytelling. This can be traced to how many successful films—like Sorry, Wrong Number—were first radio plays, voice and sound effects only, and the number whose success was rediscovered on the airwaves as aural narratives later, produced on series’ like the Lux Radio Theatre. Film can give the blind ear of the telephone eyes, can allow it to see. In Midnight Lace, though, there is no visual revelation of the corporeal owner of the voice, and the only time the film cross-cuts to the other end of the line, the person is cropped out.

The moment that Kit realizes her husband is her attacker, her abuser, is the moment that he cuts off her telephone connection when she is trying to dial the police. He reveals to her that he doesn’t want her to use the telephone as a refuge, as a connection to safety, but wants it to remain a device that entraps her. This is what gives him away– although he isn’t hiding it by this point. Ironically, it was the telephone that gave him away to the police, too, who had tapped their home line and noted the deceptive call he made, mimicking a conversation with the police.  When she escapes the apartment, climbing out on to the steel girder scaffolding clutched to her building – another form of lacework, both cloaking and also protecting Kit from intruders – a shot from above echoes similar shots from the climaxes of Witness to Murder (Roy Rowland, 1954) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) where characters look down within a similar structure. This links Midnight Lace to other films about entrapment, with strong anxious sensations, although it is still distinguished as telephone horror.

Interestingly, despite it being pivotal to the plot and the film’s thematic relationship to others in the genre, not all advertising material for the film utilised the image of the telephone receiver. Across a few posters was a cubic spiral, as though to mimic the coil of a telephone cord, although this imagery is fairly abstract. Some poster art simply had an image of Day with an expression of terror, while some others showed an image of Day with her hands clutched over her ears as she barricaded herself from sound. Even without the phone, this is a key message: our ears can be our enemy, and they can be exploited for harmful means. Watch out—and listen carefully.

About Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross is a film historian and university lecturer, and has a PhD in cinema studies specialising in film sound and embodiment. She writes about these things too, and also about pre-Code cinema and Classical Hollywood mostly, in various places in print and on the internet. She's President and one of the programmers of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, and co-hosts the Cultural Capital and the Senses of Cinema podcasts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Stay Informed. Subscribe To Our Newsletter!

You will never receive spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

You have Successfully Subscribed!