Week 35: ‘Stage Fright’ – 1950

And so the curtain rises on the 1950’s and, for Alfred Hitchcock, the real golden age of his cinema (not to denigrate in any way previous astonishments). This is the decade that he will give the world ‘Rear Window’, ‘Strangers on a Train’, ‘To Catch a Thief’, ‘Dial M for Murder’, ‘North by Northwest’ and (and!) ‘Vertigo’. To cap these ten years with ‘Psycho’ in 1960 is nothing short of wondering amazement.

The decade kicks off with the sometimes maligned but actually pretty good ‘Stage Fright’, a tricksy little story of deception and a falsely accused murderer (or is he?). Jane Wyman plays Eve Gill, aspiring actress and friend (though she wants more) to Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) who comes to her asking for help as he as been accused of murdering his mistress’s husband. The mistress is the famed actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) who appears to be stitching up her young lover as the murderer. Eve starts to investigate and along the way meets the handsome detective Wilfred Smith (‘Under Capricorn’s Michael Wilding) and the two start to fall in love – conflicted by their parallel investigations.

The film is bookended appropriately with a theatre safety curtain and this item will eventually cause the demise of the murderer. London locations are established from the outset with typical St Paul’s Cathedral background shots, followed by Eve and Jonathan steaming along in his convertible, paranoid about being chased by the cops.

We then enter into a flashback sequence that has caused some consternation amongst certain of the film’s critics – in that it present a flashback that will later be revealed to be untrue. I personally liked this and felt it was a bold play with the audience’s expectations (and Hitchcock has always been adept and exploratory in his leading the audience hither and thither).

The director plays around with some longish takes also and the kinds of camera moves he had used to varying success in his previous two movies: as Jonathan enters Charlotte’s house to reorganise the murder scene (to make it look like a bungled burglary), the camera follows him through the doorway and cranes up the staircase (hello!) in a nice fluid motion. The director seems to hold himself in check and it’s all the better for it.  He cuts as Jonathan enters the murder room on the sound of the door opening which works perfectly – whereas in, say, ‘Under Capricorn’ he’d most probably have walls flying off and the camera clanking around everywhere in one continuous movement*.

A rather bizarre process shot occurs about eight minutes in with Dietrich shot large frame right and Todd in the extreme background, she clearly against a green or blue screen and looking slightly strange and ‘cut-out’.

It’s an odd effect and slightly jarring as it’s pretty much the only example of this kind of shot in the picture (maybe this was added later when both actors were not available at one time). There’s also a cute superimposition in the later fairground scene as Eve’s father (Commodore Gill, played by the wondrous Alastair Sim) imagines the bloody murder stain on the dress of a lady at the fair – a bit abstract but a typical Hitchcock idea.

I liked the mental image as Jonathan imagines what Charlotte’s housemaid would be doing (she spotted him fleeing the house) – a series of dissolves as he envisages the police talking to her about him, his nightmare then born out as the cops arrive on his doorstep.

He flees his own place with great vavavoom also – a pacey speeding off in his car, the police trying to break the windows with a humorous cut to him pointing out that he has safety glass.

Alastair Sim. So well known as Headmistress Millicent Fritton (and her brother Clarence) from the marvellous 1950’s St. Trinian’s films, he’s great here as the accordion playing rather shady Commodore, who gives the couple on the run brief solace (curiously his name is mis-spelt as Alistair in the credits, I bet he was hacked off).

He also is the first to spot the potential holes in the tale Charlotte is spinning. His resigned befuddlement at dealing with his estranged wife (when he tells her the truth about Jonny she dismisses his answer out of hand) is all good – and Sim does it very well. In the later fairground scenes he exhibits a strong steely side that is also very admirable, coming up with the cunning plan to bamboozle the great actress Charlotte by getting a young cub scout to present her with a blood stained doll so as to gain a reaction that Smith can witness and follow up on**. A lovely Hitchcock moment of tension, drama and the exposure of deception.

Using Eve’s actress credentials allows Hitchcock to have her adopting various guises – the main one being an impersonation of a maidservant, which allows her to gain access to Charlotte and the crime scene. He also plays around with p.o.v. shots as Eve wears thick glasses purloined from her landlady’s house – some nice play on the blurred vision she has to endure. There’s also a genuine tension as she is in the murder house and Detective Smith is there also – will she be discovered and rumbled?

Marlene Dietrich. How could Hitchcock resist working with one of the cinemas greatest iconic blondes. She is wonderful – sophisticated, actress-y, scheming and vulnerable.

She’s great in the scene where she is dressing and chatting to her manager– she using her voice to feign pretence of what a trauma it will be for her to appear onstage but not wanting to let her public down. Eve is present and realises what a good liar Charlotte is. It’s another Hitchcock play on sound and perception as she then asks Eve to listen to the police interview from the other room. Dietrich is superb, hamming it up beautifully as she regales the police with b.s. and faked coughing. Wyman is also good, in a contrasting mousy way, herself acting as the maid with a mockney accent. It’s a neat skit on the level of stardom of Dietrich and Wyman also.

Dietrich gets some of the best lines as well:

On detectives: ‘They’re only police men with smaller feet’

And on her audience’s interest piqued by the scandal:

‘We were playing to capacity – Now they’re hanging onto the chandeliers’

Eve’s parents are beautifully played by the aforementioned Sim and Sybil Thorndike, the latter coldly dismissive of her estranged husband, he in turn smooth and mickey-taking of her unwelcoming attitude to him. Smith the detective runs down his list of crimes, including smuggling – ‘brandy’ he says, as Mrs. Gill hides the obvious stolen bottle she has been given by the Commodore. There’s a lot of gentle humour in the film, much of it in this scene  – and elsewhere the picture is peppered with neat little one liners (Mrs. Gill to Smith upon not remembering his name: ‘Smith? That name seems familiar somehow’)

Dietrich gets to sing also, it must be written into her contract. I‘ve always felt she doesn’t have a great voice – technically – but so laden with character and magic (this is Marlene Dietrich after all) that it’s eminently listenable and enjoyable. She’s fantastic. The Commodore evidently agrees and as Eve urges him to get going to save Jonny he can’t resist repeated views of Charlotte on stage. Charlotte’s main song (the Cole Porter penned ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’) is shot luminously and Hitchcock is well served by his d.o.p Wilkie Cooper (who shot the Brit wartime classic ‘Went the Day Well?’ in 1942) – his star shot mainly in full length showing her whole splendidly exotic diaphanous costume. Yes, it slows down the narrative a little but then the director twists it and has Charlotte spy Jonny in the audience and the tension ramps in once again.

Eve’s change of heart regarding her love interest is well done also – as her previous crush Jonny embraces her and says how much he needs her, her eyes wander to the piano that Smith had played, a little neat tinkly theme coming in as she emotes her new romantic interest. The eventual kiss between Eve and Smith in the back of a taxi is nicely built up, she becoming more discombobulated and rambling about the case and what goes on in a woman’s mind until he finally moves in on her. It’s very tender and believable and nicely handled.

The very rainy (typically English) fair is a great set piece episode. The real house maid Nellie Good (played by Kay Walsh) popping up to prise more money from the hapless Eve, who is looking more and more panicky as things get further into the quagmire of deception she is swamped in, the cops then popping up so she has to swap herself back to her Doris role to see Charlotte. Wyman is very good at flitting between all the different roles adeptly. It prefigures the marvellous set piece in ‘Strangers on A Train’ – more on this next week. When Dad pops up he is smooth and, with his villain’s history as a smuggler, he handles Nellie well. Some cool dialogue also:

Commodore Gill: ‘The next thing, I suppose, is to await the arrival of Mr. Ordinary Smith with his posse to arrest the whole boiling lot of us’

Smith: ‘What sort of father d’you think you are?’
Gill: ‘Unique, quite unique’

I felt that Richard Todd was only ok in the picture – he is a bit star(r)y eyed but feels a bit out of league here – but when he lies that he still has her dress he does exhibit the kind of steel required. When the final reveal of him being a total nutjob from childhood occurs, he ramps in a lot of wild eyed KrazyEyedKiller activity – a bit overboard.

In the book of Truffaut interviews the director and his interviewer hit on the formula that the greater the villain the greater the picture – and Todd as Jonny is distinctly second tier.

As for his male co-star, Michael Wilding, I find him a tad too effete for the role of the handsome detective – he’s smooth and well spoken but seems a bit too delicate in what is a fairly macho character. Widing worked well as the plummy  useless Charles in ‘Under Capricorn’, in awfully awfully period dress, but I don’t buy him as a London detective.

The photography of Dietrich is lovely throughout, she well known for having strong opinions on how she should be photographed. The noirish lighting in the final scenes – all bright lit stare-y eyes – is also effective, Jonny confessing it’s all a lie and he’s been a nutter since childhood and that he lied to Eve. At this point, I quite liked Jonny and he became a much more interesting character being guilty rather than the usual innocent guy thing – as he turns his murderous intent towards Eve to establish ‘a clear case of insanity’.

‘Stage Fright’ is a neat enough twisty turny thriller, a bit pedestrian in places and certainly second tier Hitchcock man-on-the-run stuff, but it has enough good qualities, imagination and performances to make it all worthwhile and pretty intriguing. It has a good way of dealing with pretence and disguise in a very humorous way. Sim is great – and a good cameo featuring the great Joyce Grenfell at the fair (running the shoot gallery).

The finale – the trapping of Charlotte via recording her trying to buy the bloody dress back – is a playful Hitchcockian sound experiment that also works a treat, their voices echoing around the theatre as the cops take shorthand notes. The final denouement – Jonny effectively guillotined by the safety curtain, is nicely bloody (if offscreen) with a typically brief follow on to the end of the picture as Eve and Wilding walk away together.

As I say, I didn’t object to the ‘false flashback’ and felt this was a neat diversionary tactic to throw the audience off the scent. Dietrich is always very watchable and classy, Sim slyly amusing and cunning as a fox, Wilding and Todd kind of ok – Wyman good in her own mousy way. It’s a good old yarn set against a fresh backdrop of the London stage and allows the director freedom to play around with some of his favourite preoccupations – disguise, the thrill of the chase and the duplicity of love.

Miscellaneous notes

*the camera experimentation of ‘Rope’ and ‘Under Capricorn’ is to be admired and shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial – it feels like Hitchcock has a genuine love for the new technology of the day and can’t wait to experiment with it, although it does tend to get a bit extreme at times as mentioned.

Miles Malleson appears in the Shepherd pub and tries to schmooze Eve – he played the rather elderly perv who comes into the newsagent in Michael Powell’s 1960 ‘Peeping Tom’ to purchase some ‘views’. He’s also had uncredited roles in both ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘Secret Agent’.

** There are also (as elsewhere in Hitchcock) many examples of the preoccupation with blood (and the colour red) – in particular female blood and its menstrual overtones. The blood stained dress of Charlotte, and later when the Commodore cuts his finger and smears it on the playground doll, all evoke a kind of  preoccupation with these matters. I thought it interesting also that the rather prim Eve has a skirt with three big crosses stitched right across her nether regions in the first scene with her father.

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