Midnight Lace (1960) ****

Works for the very reason that it shouldn’t – Doris Day’s off-the-scale hysteria. The actress junks her usual screen persona of spunky occasionally lovelorn heroine and channels her abundant physical energy into an exceptionally good portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

And, unlikely as it sounds, this a companion piece to David Miller’s later Lonely Are the Brave (1962),which equally presents a discordant character at odds with their surroundings whose inability to settle into the norm precipitates downfall.

Heiress Kit (Doris Day) is being hounded mainly over the telephone by a creepy stalker with a high-pitched voice, threatening to kill her. Before you can say Gaslight, you are casting a suspicious eye on millionaire businessman husband Anthony (Rex Harrison). But that only lasts for as long as it takes for a whole bunch of other suspects to hove into view.

The sinister man in black hat and coat appears too obvious a contender. Others have something off about them or appear at the wrong time and wrong place. Unemployed ne’er-do-well Malcolm (Roddy McDowell) who sponges off his mother, attempts unsuccessfully to tap Kit for funds and makes it plain he won’t be doffing his cap to her. Builder Brian (John Gavin) is over-friendly and, we overhear, makes a lot of phone calls.

And you wouldn’t count out gambler Charles (Herbert Marshall), an executive in Anthony’s firm, which, by the way, has uncovered a bit of fraud. Nor happily-married Peggy (Natasha Perry), Kit’s friend, who turns up in a bus queue the very moment Kit nearly ends up under the wheels of a London bus. And then there’s Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) who’s arrived from America and seems determined not to take Kit’s side.

Naturally, nobody can allay Kit’s suspicions. The police are the first to suggest she’s going off her head, seeking attention because neglected by her husband.

But this is so well done, Kit jumping at the slightest noise, that you are pretty much convinced it’s going to be one of those films where every incident is imagined, especially since that would be a helluva coup to have an actress of the lightweight caliber of Doris Day to play her.

Whenever anyone else answers the phone it’s to an innocent caller. And when Kit persuades Peggy to pretend she heard the voice, discovery of that ruse appears to seal her doom.

When we’re not stuck in Kit’s head, there are sufficient tense moments to keep the plot ticking along, trapped in an elevator, shadows on a ceiling, faces glimpsed in windows, voices appearing out the fog, whispers behind her back, friends turning against her, every  police ploy a dead end.

Quite why she’s such a giddy character to begin with is never explained, except of course being a millionairess, three months married, with nothing better to do with her time than waltz around in one stunning fashionable outfit after another, life a succession of expensive treats, and whisked off her feet, when he can spare the time, by adoring hubby.

So maybe it’s something as simple as a loved-up wealthy woman finding cracks appearing in her perfect life and in trying to ascertain the cause whirling round faster and faster. There’s certainly no sense of a solid character who could sit down and give herself a good talking-to or transform herself into an amateur sleuth. When the façade breaks, it’s a dam burst.

If at the beginning Doris Day seems already too-wound-up it doesn’t really matter, her lust for life turns very quickly into abject fear as the terrorization becomes only too real. This is a fantastic performance from the actress, woefully under-rated, and the scene where she collapses on the stairs is only too believable.

Rex Harrison (The Happy Thieves, 1962) is excellent in a custom-made role, handsome adoring husband, but every time he clasps her in a sympathetic embrace, the camera lingers on his eyes showing growing fear at her condition. The roster of supporting stars each brings something distinctive to their role, from the wheedling Roddy McDowell (Five Card Stud, 1968), in only his second movie role after eight years of solid television,  the too-good-to-be-true John Gavin (Back St, 1961) and old-timers Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, 1934) as the doubting aunt and Herbert Marshall (The Letter, 1940) as the impecunious gambler.

Director David Miller (Captain Newman, M.D., 1963) moves the camera in disconcerting fashion. You think you’re settled in for a stage-style scene when suddenly the camera whirls away and focuses on one character. The scene in the elevator is exceptionally well-done as is the finale, but possibly his biggest attribute is encouraging Doris Day to just go for it rather than reining in her character the way Hitchcock did for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (Portrait in Black, 1960) put together the screenplay from the hit Broadway play Matilda Shouted Fire by Janet Green.

I came at this with low expectations, not imagining Doris Day could pull off such a difficult role, and I came away wondering why she had not in consequence been given other opportunities to show off her dramatic skills.

The Long and the Short and the Tall / Jungle Fighters (1961) ****

The Brits were onto something in wartime Malaysian jungles in 1942 – sonic warfare. Imagine the franchise possibilities for comic-book or spy villains (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966, or Some Girls Do, 1969, anyone?). Fortunately, this ignores such temptations and takes a long hard raw look at the reality of conflict, courage and cowardice, the desire and reality of killing.  

Beginning as a fairly stock examination of men in combat, the usual clash of personalities, bullying loudmouths, and it being British elements of class distinction. But it quickly moves on to something much deeper, initially tough guys worrying about what their wives are getting up in their absence back home, but on capturing a Japanese soldier what exactly to do with him once his usefulness is over. Treat him according to the Geneva Convention as a prisoner-of-war and escort him back to base or just get rid of him and save yourself the trouble.

Five main characters make up this squad. Sgt Mitchem (Richard Todd) is the ruthless leader under pressure. He was busted down to corporal for losing a previous patrol, has got his stripe back and wants to prove his worth. But he appears to be from a different generation to his troops, his stiff upper lip only too evident while the others just give lip.

Corporal Johnstone (Richard Harris) likes to remind him of his previous misdemeanor and question his judgement. Racist Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey) riles everyone, especially picking on Lance Corporal Macleish (Ronald Fraser) who is as likely to reply with his fists. Radio operator Private Whitaker (David McCallum) is over-keen on the spoils of war, kitbag stuffed with enemy mementoes.

After apprehending Jap soldier Tojo (Kenji Takaki) Johnstone is inclined to bayonet him right away (a bullet would attract attention). Others, more squeamish than principled, balk at the deed. At first Bamforth makes fun of the captive, belittling him, but then views him as a human being caught up in a war not of his making, giving him cigarettes, trying to make him more comfortable. When Macleish starts slapping the prisoner around, Bamforth defends him, though it’s obvious Mitchem and Johnstone have no intention of taking him back.

Then the tide turns. They are surrounded by Japs and it’s battle for real with an enemy who can defend itself. Action determines character. Some are revealed as complete cowards, others will abandon colleagues to save their skin, others are instinctively courageous, others yet again with a bit more cunning.

But the firefight when it comes is nothing like any other battle you have seen where Allied forces invariably triumph. There’s none of the clever ruses more typical of the genre.

This is by far the rawest depiction of British soldiers on the battle. The characters and conversation hit home. Tough guys are nothing but vulnerable. Although it appears that way, none of the characters actually change, it’s more that their real personalities emerge.

This is Laurence Harvey’s (The Running Man, 1963) best performance. In other pictures, his clipped delivery hid an edge of malevolence, and especially to retain audience sympathy he restrained an inner nastiness, even when ruthless as in Room at the Top (1958), this aspect more important if the male lead in a romance or essaying a decent character. Here, the real Harvey is let loose in the sense that his delivery is more normal, as if he delights in taking pleasure in using language to gut his victims. Sure, it’s an ideal central role, the guy who starts off one way and ends another, but he really brings it to life.

Richard Harris (This Sporting Life, 1963) was a rising star at this point. And it shows. He’s always trying to steal scenes, an unnecessary gesture, a roll of the eyes, forceful delivery. He turns out to be nastier than everyone else. Richard Todd (Subterfuge, 1968) also plays against type, no longer the heroic figure of The Dam Busters (1955) but fighting not just the enemy and his fellow soldiers but his internal demons.

Ronald Fraser (Fathom, 1967), often condemned to humorous supporting parts, also has a meatier role as does David McCallum (The Spy in the Green Hat, 1967).

Apart from a heavy dose of rain and some stock shots of animals, it betrays its stage roots, based on a play by Willis Hall, but that hardly matters when the dialog is so sharp, the characters so well-drawn and the drama so intense.

Leslie Norman (Dunkirk, 1958) does an excellent job of focusing on character and making the action believable. Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961) was credited with the screenplay.

High-quality stuff.

Hostile Witness (1968) ***

Shoddy initial release means this is unlikely to have been on your radar, but this entertaining courtroom drama plays on madness, involves minimal sleight-of-hand, employs some notable reversals as a defence strategy sinks under the weight of its own misplaced ambition.  Courtroom dramas were a scarce commodity in the 1960s, the sub-genre almost killed off by U.S. television hits like Perry Mason (1957-1966) and The Defenders (2961-1965).  Although, technically, Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird were of the same ilk, they did not rely on last-minute intervention or the normal twists and turns of legal dramas as evidenced by Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Hostile Witness only saw the light of day because Oscar-winner Ray Milland had starred in the Broadway version of the British play, author Jack Roffey experienced in the mechanics of this kind of fare after British television series Boyd Q.C. (1956-1964).

Daughter dead in a tragic car accident, top-notch Q.C. Simon Crawford (Ray Milland) is accused of killing the man he believed deliberately responsible. Unable to defend himself, he relies on his junior Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms). Circumstantial evidence links him to the crime. Questions surround his mental health, which disintegrated following his daughter’s death, especially after he cannot prove claims that would exonerate him. Casting around for the potential killer leads to a cul de sac, each clue that could absolve him rapidly dissolves and as he is soon fighting for his life. And as tension mounts, the defence team is soon in disarray, Sims quitting on a point of principle. Like all the best court cases the proof is in front of his eyes if only he could see it, and the traditional last-minute witness and twist does not disappoint. 

The courtroom aspect is very well done, great banter between the lawyers and swift and witty put-downs by the presiding judge (Felix Aylmer). While the story demands that Crawford remains off centre-stage at times, his presence, as a tense observer of proceedings that could spell his fate, calls on Milland to display probably the widest set of non-verbal reactions you will ever encounter. Syms (East of Sudan, 1964) is excellent in a role that offers greater scope than her usual female lead and while carrying a torch for Crawford she is more than capable to standing up to him and is ruthless in cross-examination. Geoffrey Lumsden (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968) tickles as a befuddled major and Raymond Huntley (later a success in Upstairs, Downstairs) sparkles as the grumpy prosecutor. To some extent, the picture plays on the film noir ethos that good guys often turn out to be anything but and Milland has the undoubted gift of looking both villain and hero dependent on the time of day.

By this point Welsh-born Milland was an odd refugee from Hollywood’s Golden Age, fallen far below the box office peaks of Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend (1948) and noir turns like The Big Clock (1948). Apart from Dial M for Murder (1954) he was mostly became a television stalwart – the eponymous Ray Milland Show (1953-1955) and Markham (1959-1960) – and turned his hand to occasional direction. An unexpected dip into horror – The Premature Burial (1962), Panic in the Year Zero (1962) and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) failed to revive his mainstream career and prior to Hostile Witness had only appeared in one other movie.

For a time Hostile Witness did look as if he would put him back on top after taking up an offer to make his Broadway debut in the play. Although not a stand-out hit, it ran for a decent 157 performances, then went on tour in the U.S. and later Australia, leaving Milland with the impression that, with himself directing to cut costs and running to a tight 24-day shooting schedule in Britain, it might just be the correct vehicle. Unfortunately, it was probably the staid direction that put paid to any prospect of box office success. A director like Billy Wilder or Hitchcock would have concentrated far more on character ambiguity and  made more of the unreciprocated romance and either tightened or opened up the original play to add more tension. Even so, it is pleasant enough viewing, not a dud by any means.

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