MIDNIGHT LACE or, You Can’t Go Home Again

Growing up, I watched so much television that it’s a wonder I can form words into sentences. Today, with cable and streaming services, we have access to four hundred options at any given minute, and yet all too often I find there’s nothing to watch. In the 1960’s, we had six or seven stations to choose from – all for free, by the way – and I couldn’t get enough. 

Now, it’s true that I was a child and my tastes were much, er, broader than they are today. My readers know how much I loved Perry Mason, but I was just as happy with The Beverly Hillbillies or Time Tunnel. Oh, and I was crazy about old movies, especially Universal horror films, Charlie Chan mysteries, and those old house thrillers. My parents knew how much I watched, but they also knew that I got my homework done and managed to also be an inveterate reader. (Honestly, they used to be so many more hours in the day.) Thus, my folks adopted pretty much a laissez faire attitude regarding my viewing choices. 

Well, my mom did, but it drove my father crazy if he caught me watching anything featuring two actresses. The first was Shirley Temple. I loved Shirley Temple movies with a passion. Still do, if you must know. I can sing along with any tune she performed as a child star, although I tend to love the songs that introduced by other players, like Alice Faye, Jack Haley, and George Murphy. Maybe my dad thought the films too “girly?” I thought they were wonderful. I still do.

The other actor my dad couldn’t stand, for some reason, was Doris Day. When I was younger, I really enjoyed her musicals. My parents had an album called Day in Hollywood, and I memorized it. As time went on, and I had a chance to watch the films that had featured these songs, I realized that there was something about Day’s sunny disposition that relaxed a very nervous kid like me. 

Doris Day had wanted to be a dancer, but an injury changed her plans. She sang with big bands and then debuted in movies in 1948’s Romance on the High Seas. It’s not a very good picture, and she’s not even the star, but after she sings “It’s Magic” in the movie, she’s the one you remember. She was maybe the biggest musical comedy star of the 1950’s, but she never took on the big Broadway roles, settling instead for original movie plots.  Nowadays,  I don’t think I can sit through most of the musicals I used to adore, although I would gladly watch Calamity Jane over and over. What interests me most about Day is that she wouldn’t settle for the niche in which she so comfortably fit and branched out into drama. Her most indelible role for me is as Jo McKenna in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much

Day + Stewart + Hitchcock = Gold

If you have ever doubted Day’s skill as an actress, two scenes from this film will change your mind. The first is when James Stewart, as her husband, insists his wife take a tranquilizer before he will tell her some important news – that their son has been kidnapped. The second is a wordless scene in a symphony hall where Jo has to decide if she will allow an assassin to do his work and thus save her son. The story goes that Day grew quite neurotic making this film because her director never gave her a word of praise. She finally confronted him, and he explained that he would have let her know if she was doing anything wrong. In fact, he very much liked her performance and saw that she was made for thrillers. 

Ah, but then came Midnight Lace

I just re-watched this film for the first time in many years. It’s the only other suspense film I’ve seen her in (the other famous one, Julie, a noir made in 1956, the same year as The Man Who Knew Too Much was a success for her but remains unseen by me), and as a kid I liked it very much. We all know that sometimes we can go years without seeing something and then when we finally return to it, it doesn’t pack the same punch as it used to do. Would that happen to me with Midnight Lace? Well, yes and no. 

Context is everything. The last time I watched this movie, I hadn’t taught film studies for twenty years. I wasn’t as well-versed in the patterns and predilections of mystery/suspense films. I just knew what I liked. Like so many before me, I have come to realize that a little knowledge can be both a blessing and a curse. A more critical eye can rob you of dumb enjoyment. (Beverly Hillbillies, anyone?)

Midnight Lace is a high-class production all the way. It was produced by Doris Day’s husband, Marty Melcher, who had to convince her to take the role, as she didn’t particularly enjoy the emotional strain of doing a thriller. Indeed, making this movie did a number on her. It’s said that she accessed memories of life with her abusive first husband to get some of the more harrowing scenes right, and that at one point she got so hysterical that she fainted on set. 

If you have never seen a movie like this before, I imagine that it would be a lot of fun. It follows a lot of the precepts of a classic whodunnit, although there is no murder here. Day plays Kit Preston, a wealthy newlywed living with her executive husband Tony (Rex Harrison) in a posh apartment in London. In a harrowing opening in a fog-shrouded park, Kit is harassed by a voice, a creepy falsetto presence, that taunts her with the idea that it will torment and, eventually, kill her. 

After that, Kit receives a series of phone calls, each accelerating the threat. Unfortunately, we don’t hear the voice during these calls; we have to settle instead for Doris Day getting increasingly hysterical with each call. Pretty quickly, she and her husband turn to Scotland Yard, where the Inspector, played by John Williams, who always plays the Scotland Yard inspector in these films (which is fine because he’s the best), seems a little doubtful about the whole affair. That’s because Theory Number One is that Kit is making things up to get her husband’s attention since he’s always at the office. 

So much fear, so many . . . . . costumes!

Even a first-time thriller watcher will cross this theory off their list and start looking for possible culprits. The film provides many of these, perhaps a few too many. Still, they’re all played by fine actors, so let’s rattle them off: 

There’s the treasurer at Tony’s office (Herbert Marshall) who is fond of gambling and is suspected of embezzling a million pounds from the books; there’s the ne’er-do-well son of Kit’s housekeeper (Roddy MacDowell), who tries to wheedle money out of his mom’s employer; there’s the very good-looking construction manager with a really bad British accent (John Gavin) who seems to have a thing for Kit, as well as a touch of PTSD from the war; and there’s even a mysterious stranger with a scarred face who seems to follow Kit everywhere. 

Each of these men gives Day a chance to be hysterical: at home, on the street, in the path of an oncoming bus, in a stuck elevator, on a scaffold way above her home. What sets apart each of these episodes turns out to be . . . . Miss Day’s wardrobe. She managed to lure her dear friend, famous Hollywood designer Irene, to her side, and the woman made seventeen outfits for Day to wear in this film. That, and the use of Eastmancolor, gives a too slick gloss to the film that makes you wonder when she will break out into a chorus of “It’s Magic” – or maybe just a verse of “Que Sera Sera.” 

The great Myrna Loy as Aunt Bea probably wishes she were offering William Powell her love and support instead of Kit!

Wisely, no singing was used in the making of this picture. Unfortunately, a fine cast and lots of cool dresses cannot substitute for some creativity, and even if you’ve never seen a thriller before – and who hasn’t? – I don’t think too many people will be fooled over who is behind this and what’s going on. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen this sort of thing so many times before. Maybe it’s because I’ve read my Christie! And maybe it would have helped if any of the red herrings here truly had a reason to terrorize Kit. 

Hysterical scene #1,248

That said, the villain of the piece offers a fine performance, underplaying the reveal to give it a nicely chilling tone. And while the whole finale seems a little tacked on, and the rescue comes out of nowhere – as in nowhere do you ever feel that Kit is truly in danger with so many people looking out for her – at least Doris Day finally stops whimpering and does something reckless to give herself a chance at survival. Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about having watched Midnight Lace again. Perhaps some fond experiences from long ago don’t bear repeating. Next time, I’ll watch Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon for the hundredth time. They only get better with age. 

30 thoughts on “MIDNIGHT LACE or, You Can’t Go Home Again

  1. I get why filmmakers didn’t want to go the full John Dickson Carr / Last of Sheila route. After all, cinema was still considered a primarily visual medium (though the logic of why sound film should necessarily be more about image than sound is pretty unconvincing), and passive movie audiences didn’t enjoy being cerebrally overtaxed. But why there weren’t more films in the 1960’s residing somewhere halfway between the transparent simplicity of this one and the complexly clued puzzle plots ushered in by Sheila and Orient Express in the next decade still puzzles me. I mean, I know it was no longer the Golden Age of detective fiction, but there was surely a film producer who had read a few Carrs, Christies, Brands, and Berkeleys and knew there was more potential— and a lot more unfilmed works— than just the Margaret Rutherford Marple series would indicate.

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    1. As I mentioned above, I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and most of it was . . . stupid. The 60’s were all about experimenting with color and glamor in the movies and putting a lot of product on television. In terms of mysteries, I also can’t think of anything that embraced the intellectual aspect of problem-solving. Sure, there were witty series, like Burke’s Law, but they weren’t ratiocinative.

      It isn’t news that Agatha Christie resisted film adaptations throughout her lifetime mostly because the producers who wangled the rights from her kept screwing things up. They wanted more sex, they wanted more violence, they wanted to dumb down her plots. The Alphabet Murders is an egregious example, one that almost makes the Rutherford Marples seem faithful to their source. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as one who pretty much despises what Sarah Phelps did to Christie after only one brilliant adaptation, but at least in her version of ABC, Phelps is trying to make people think and feel something.

      Still, neither of these versions focuses on the puzzle plot, not like the Suchet version did. Hitchcock made it clear that puzzle plots didn’t interest him in terms of cinema; he was all about the chase and its effect on the leading characters. Same with horror: the “puzzle” of the birds (why are they attacking us?) is “solved” with a toss-off answer in the diner when the waitress calls an order for chicken dinners. Solutions don’t matter to him, especially in a genre where people remain essentially unchanged at the end.

      For us, it would be more interesting if Richard Hannay had to solve a bunch of clues to figure out who/what The 39 Steps was and who the mastermind was. As it is, he stumbles upon both answers in very entertaining, but hardly intellectual, ways. In short, I just don’t think anyone saw mind-challenging puzzle mysteries as inherently cinematic. Alas, they rarely do.

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      1. Yes, but my point is that it bothers me that it generally seemed to be a case of all or nothing. Much as I love Dial M For Murder, I can understand why people find that type of film too talky and cerebral. I adore it, but I realize that most audiences want “a little less conversation, a little more action please.” But an occasional moment of puzzle/solution “synapse” goes a long way. I feel the moment that L. B. Jeffries asks “since when do flowers grow shorter?” makes Rear Window significantly more interesting, and I personally feel the film could’ve used a couple more of them (a couple more, mind you— I’m really not asking it to enter Sheila territory). The same with the Apple Core / Albacore bit in Chinatown, or Ambrose Chapel in TMWKTM. Such moments don’t dominate the films, but they do add significantly to them, IMO— they’re awfully memorable.

        And however people may deride them, the whole DaVinci Code / National Treasure trend indicated that the same people who like suspense and action also have some interest in cerebral puzzling (most people don’t read GAD, but something most explain the appeal of escape rooms). It just seems to me odd that we generally went from the likes of Midnight Lace (which, as I recall, had not a single moment of clueing) to Murder on the Orient Express or Sheila, with their near half-hours of denouement. Surely, the marketable entertainment ideal must lie somewhere between the two— and as I say, it only takes a bit here and there to add a lot (I think Charade would be considerably less a film without the postage stamp element, and that hardly eats up much of the running time, or makes the film too talky). It seems to me a lack of imagination on the part of filmmakers that they generally seemed to view clueing, or any moments of Aristotelian anagnorisis— aha! moments— as necessarily uncinematic elements that would bring action to a halt. Quite the opposite, if handled correctly.

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      2. Incidentally— and to its credit, I think— I’ve always felt that Charade also made a very commercial (a.k.a. not overly cerebral) use of the backstory situation of The Three Coffins. Another example of its savvy sense of combining genres.

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      3. I liked Midnight Lace, although agreeably the plot between the perpetrator and accomplices wasn’t very well fleshed out. I consider Midnight Lace a good late-night rainy night watch. For a better mystery, there is 23 Paces to Baker street.

        Richard Hannay didn’t solve any mystery because he wasn’t in in TO solve the mystery. An unwitting and unwilling participant, the solution was consistent with the story.

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      4. But I don’t see any reason why the protagonist’s intent should have anything to do with the level of mystery. An unwitting and unwilling participant does whatever necessary to extricate himself from the situation, whether it entails determining the meaning of “Ambrose Chapel,” deciphering the DaVinci Code, rallying enthusiasm at a political assembly, or climbing the face of Mount Rushmore. The point is, the mystery is what it is, regardless of what he went into it for. And hopefully he’s got the skills or luck required to get out of it.

        I like 23 Paces to Baker Street as well, though I much prefer the much harder to find 1939 screen version, The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, which is more faithful to the novel.

        None of them is what I would put in my list of greatest whodunit films (Green for Danger, The Last of Sheila, Death on the Nile,And Then There Were None, etc…), but I think films like Charade and 23 Paces to Baker Street illustrate the difficulty in dividing into clear genre categories of whodunit, thriller, etc… The Kennel Murder Case is certainly more of a whodunit than North By Northwest, but where one category ends and the next begins is difficult— nay, I’d say, impossible— to determine.

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      5. In terms of Dial M for Murder, I think it suffers from Hitchcock’s desire to experiment with 3-D. Aside from an exciting moment with Grace Kelly finding the knife, all the gimmick does is make the film even more like Frederick Knott’s play. And watching a filmed play can be a great big bore. Thank goodness for John Williams, that’s all I can say!

        I think an interesting hybrid here is Psycho because Hitchcock does offer clues – yet the clues are more for his audience than for the characters who are playing sleuth in order to find Marian Crane. The clues are in the camera angles and the contents of Norman’s bedroom. Maybe Lila can inch closer to the truth about Mrs. Bates after viewing the latter, but she doesn’t have the access we do to the director’s film vocabulary. So we marvel at the birds-eye view of Norman carrying his mother down to the basement, but a smart viewer/detective will note that the use of this angle must be to hide something. Same with the lighting on Mrs. Bates or the fact that she is always behind window shades or shower curtains. I’m not trying to draw serious parallels between this and the truly cerebral clueing we find throughout, say, The Kennel Murder Case (which still amazes me in how GAD it’s willing to go). All I’m suggesting is that this is the area where Hitchcock prefers to do his “clueing.” The more plot-driven clues tend to be revealed through the hero’s stumble, rather than his/her intelligence.

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      6. Exactly. My point is that while it’s easy to identify Green for Danger as a whodunit and North By Northwest as a comedy thriller, there are works all along the continuum between the two that are more difficult to classify because, ultimately, genres are essentially artificial constructs and— as every work contains different levels of different elements— all works are fundamentally sui generis. How many more clues does the DaVinci Code need before it is properly a puzzle plot, and how many more chases does it need before it is properly a suspense thriller? I’m not saying that no one can delineate the boundary of a genre, but I defy anyone to satisfactorily justify that delineation.

        If any element does distinguish the puzzle plot from others, I’d suggest it is not merely the presence of an intended surprise and of clues, but the acknowledgment of those clues immediately prior to or following the intended surprise. That’s why— if forced to designate a genre for Psycho— I would never call it a puzzle plot. Yes, it has a surprise solution and, yes, it does have clues indicating that solution. But those clues are not called attention to or explicated immediately leading up to or following the surprise (and indeed, are never ultimately registered by a majority of viewers, I’d say). There is little calling attention to the connection between puzzle and solution (unlike, say, Spellbound, which clearly explicates its clues, even if they are are only interpretations of the subconscious), which I would suggest is the hallmark of the genre. But then again I maintain that truly defining a genre is ultimately an impossible task.

        Incidentally, while I understand why people are not entranced by Dial M For Murder, I am, entirely. It always holds my interest— something I can’t even say for Psycho.

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    1. Two words: Mrs. Drayton! Brenda de Banzie created one of the most indelible women in the whole Hitchcock canon. She makes the movie for me! However, I agree with you, Mr. Byrnside, that the second version tends toward flab, with a middle section that’s utterly pointless. I don’t think we can lump TMWKTM with the really great films of the 1950’s, but I think Hitchcock was in deep thematic mode when he made it, while the first time he was making a light-hearted thriller. (Lorre is the best thing about that film, and when you compare it to his work in M, I don’t think we can underestimate that he was a stellar actor deserving of more than being lumped in with the stars of horror films.)

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      1. TMWKTM was way creepy. I saw it when I was a kid and it scared me so much. Somehow, I will always remember how brave I thought Doris was as she sang Que Sera Sera even though she was scared to death. As I grew up I developed the habit of singing when I am afraid. Weird, eh?

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    2. I prefer the 1934 version, though I’m not really crazy about either. They both have moments, but neither is top Hitchcock to me. And the moment walking down the stairs (and knocking out the villain) in the 1956 version is one of the most awkward and anticlimactic moments I know of in any film.

      But any film that includes Alan Mowbray always gets extra points for me.

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  2. Enjoyed your post so much–I love The Man Who Knew too Much, and enjoyed Midnight Lace a lot as well — reading your post reminded me of all those that I enjoyed– these, the Thin Man films, and the very unsettling Gaslight.

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    1. I definitely want to explore these kinds of movies more frequently here. I don’t consider myself a particularly adept armchair detective, but I’m “cursed” with the ability to recognize certain tropes and patterns that writers – and, especially, screenwriters often use, to the point of overuse. It means I’m not surprised very often by what I see at the movies. Sometimes that’s fine – the film industry has studied this, and people like familiarity. Movie trailers are designed give away most of the plot because people want to be sure of what they’re going to see. That also explains the popularity of genre films.

      This contradicts my love for surprise, for not seeing the twist ahead, for being completely fooled. That’s how I like my mysteries, in any form. It doesn’t mean I don’t have fun, even with mysteries that follow the same pattern over and over. I could almost always pick the killer out in an episode of Perry Mason. There’s an obvious pattern to all six Thin Man movies, too, but those movies are joyous due to the Powell/Loy chemistry; that’s why we can watch them over and over, even after we know the solutions!! 🥰

      I’d love to hear more of the favorites you enjoy. I find myself with LOTS of time for watching movies!!!

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      1. I would agree on mysteries–book or movie, I like them to take me by surprise; but then again when I watch a movie adaptation of a favourite mystery book (Agatha Christie, for instance) and they’ve changed things, I don’t always react to them so well all the time. Though the whole reason why I enjoy Christie’s books is she puts me on the wrong track almost every time.

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      2. the Thin Man series is enjoyable, although Hammet didn’t really write most of them.

        Blow Up is a brilliant, but modern mystery.

        Dead Again, also a good modern mystery

        DOA (the original)

        L.A. Confidential (5*)

        Larsson’s Milenium Trilogy is absolutely without peer. The original Swedish films only.

        A made for TV production: Rehearsal for Murder

        The Uninvited (a hybrid mystery-ghost story)

        Witness to Murder

        These are just a few enjoyable mysteries. I may have previously mentioned Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken, a wonderful Japanese adaptation of MOTOE. In addition to a faithful reproduction of the story (Poirot’s name was changed) the production also treats us to a wonderful and imaginative back story.

        You may have success finding this gem on https://simkl.com/tv/462648/orient-kyuukou-satsujin-jiken/season-1/episode-2/

        ENJOY

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      3. MarbleX, regarding the list you sent:

        I’ve watched the Thin Man series many times . . . well, the first three, which are much better than the last three. I didn’t know this until quite recently, but Hammett created detailed plot drafts for films 2 and 3, so his touch is very much there, even if he was too far gone to write the scripts.

        Dead Again is one of the few films that completely surprised me with its main twist. I still think it rather clever but haven’t watched it in years.

        I actually own DOA (the original), L.A. Confidential, and the original Swedish Millennium Trilogy, which I first saw in a movie theatre and is so far superior to the dreck that David Fincher (?) made that it’s embarrassing!

        I saw Rehearsal for Murder when it was first on TV and was so struck with its twist that years and years later, I directed it with my high school students. We all had a terrific time doing it, too!

        I actually own a LOT of mystery films. I should really start reviewing some of them for fellow fans, but I haven’t figured out how to hook up my VCR to my new smart TV. Evidently, nobody uses VCRs anymore; they just stream! Ultimately, I either have to get rid of the hundreds of films I have upstairs or get a little machine that plays them and keep it upstairs for cold nights!! 🙂

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      4. The films on Marblex’s listed are enjoyable, and fall into the broader category of “mystery,” but seem further from the core appeal of the GAD whodunit— not just in their superficial trappings, but in their structure. Ironically, of the English-speaking titles on that list, the hybrid mystery-horror film seems to share the most with the list of what I consider to be the classic whodunit films:

        The Last of Sheila 1973
        Green for Danger 1946
        Death on the Nile 1978
        And Then There Were None 1945
        The Kennel Murder Case 1933
        The Verdict 1946
        Knives Out 2019
        Love Letters of a Star 1936
        Crime on the Hill 1933
        From Headquarters 1933
        The Phantom of Crestwood 1932
        The Ninth Guest 1934
        Charlie Chan in Paris 1935
        The Westland Case 1937
        The House of the Arrow 1952

        Even there, there is some genre uncertainty, but these all closer to (what I consider) the core of the genre.

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  3. Thanks for the discussion of those movies folks. I did not know of that 1930s version of The Man Who Knew Too Much until reading this discussion. I watched it yesterday … I prefer the later version, but Peter Lorre and that scene in the dentist’s chair are indeed great.

    I am fond of Dial M for Murder, though I must admit that Grace Kelly is an important reason.

    OK, I am now off to see if I can find 23 Paces to Baker Street and/or the Nursemaid Who Disappeared …

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    1. The Nursemaid Who Disappeared is awfully difficult to track down (unless you visit the BFI) as is the wonderful Love Letters of a Star (1936). But, besides the more well-known classics of the genre (Green for Danger, The Kennel Murder Case, The Last of Sheila), I most highly recommend the following films, which aren’t as hard to find: From Headquarters (1933), Crime on the Hill (1933), The Verdict (1946), The Night Club Lady (1932), The Phantom of Crestwood (1932), and Affairs of a Gentleman (1934).

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  4. @Scott Kramer, would love to get The Nursemaid Who Disappeared on film, never have seen it. Original book renamed to Warrant for X. Do you have any idea where I can get the film version? Many thanks.

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    1. I’m assuming that question is for me (my last name is Ratner). The BFI has a print of The Nursemaid Who Disappeared— I know of no other print, and I’ve never been able to get a copy on video.

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  5. I love your taste in mystery books and films. I also enjoy your writing style itself. Frank and glib at the same time. I though completely disagree with your review on Midnight Lace. You blew over the first opening scene and it’s effect on watching in the middle of the night. A voice coming out of the dark mists is the stuff of nightmares. More credit was due to that opening scene. You also give proper credit to the plot device of gaslighting. The opening scene not only sends a chill down your spine, but to show us the viewer the voice is really a threat. This opening scene is the key to the whole movie , allowing us the audience privy to the gaslighting. But how? The point of the film wasn’t who was behind it (as you said yourself it’s a thriller not a who dunnit )

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    1. Actually, somewhere in there I meant to give credit to that opening because it is the best thing about the movie, so my error. The second best thing to me is the extreme close-up on the face of the killer at the end as they confess . . . and the mask of love and concern they’ve had throughout is stripped away. (In recent months, I’ve come across a number of comments indicating that this actor was actually not a very nice person to work with. True or not, that self-absorbed cruelty is beautifully displayed here.)

      And listen, if I can grab you with my style even if we don’t completely disagree about something, I feel pretty good!! Please keep coming back! 😎

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