Alfred Hitchcock Experiences “Stage Fright”

20 10 2010

“You wonder why I chose that particular story? Well, the book had come out and several of the reviewers had mentioned that it might make a good Hitchcock picture. And I, like an idiot, believed them!”

“Why are none of the people ever in danger? Because we’re telling a story in which the villains themselves are afraid. The great weakness of the picture is that it breaks an unwritten law: The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. That’s a cardinal rule, and in this picture the villain is a flop!” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock launched his second quarter century of filmmaking in 1950 with the strange, and strangely entertaining, “Stage Fright.” Set in London and starring Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman, it’s a murder mystery that takes place in and around the world of theater, like his 1930 film “Murder!”

“Stage Fright” occupies a special place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, however. It is the first of his films to feature an original song, the first and, I believe, only, in which two female stars get equal billing. What’s most memorable about the movie is a major flaw, though: a red herring so large that it could have given viewers whiplash when they learned the truth.

The story begins as Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) is driving her friend, Jonathan Cooper, (Richard Todd) out of London, as he is wanted by the police. He begins to explain the situation, and we flash back to his apartment, where his lover, Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) shows up wearing a bloody covered dress. She’s just killed her husband, she says, and she needs his help. Cooper goes back to her own apartment and gets a change of clothes, but is spotted by the maid. He drops off the clean dress, then contacts Gill to see if he can hide out with her father.

Gill takes Cooper at his word and brings him to her father, the eccentric Commodore, played by the very amusing Alistair Sim, who lives in a remote fishing village. Determined to save Cooper, because she loves him, Gill contacts Inwood’s maid and pays her to take a few sick days so she can get close to her boss and force a confession. She poses as a Cockney working girl, with Hitchcock getting in a great cameo, staring at Gill as she practices her accent while walking down the street.

Gill also crosses paths with Detective Wilfrid Smith (Michael Wilding), who is on the Inwood murder case. Gill struggles to keep up with the imperious demands Mrs. Inwood, while helping Smith and her father with the investigation, keeping Inwood’s real assistant from giving away the game, and continuing her own acting classes. Wyman jumps back and forth from middle class British accent to Cockney with the kind of stiffness you’d expect from a fledgling actor, while Dietrich commands the screen with amazing charisma. Half the fun of the movie is the contrast between down-to-Earth Wyman and diva Dietrich.

Things come to a head at a fundraiser fair. While Inwood is onstage singing, the Commodore pays a boy to hand her a doll wearing a bloodstained dress. (The suspense in watching the Commodore attempt to win the doll at a fairground shooting gallery before Inwood finishes singing is a highlight.) Inwood is shocked by the doll, but does not confess anything. Detective Smith, who’s been watching the proceedings, castigates the Commodore and his daughter for their interference with the investigation, but she convinces him to give her one more chance to get a confession out of Inwood.

Gill confronts Inwood in her dressing room at the theater, which the police have wired for sound. Inwood refuses to admit anything, saying that Cooper did commit the murder. Smith, meanwhile, has caught Cooper and brought him to the theater. On hearing Inwood, Cooper breaks free of the police and finds Gill, who helps him hide. He admits to her that he really did kill Inwood’s husband, but that she goaded him into it – and now, he’s going to have to kill her as well.

This is the point where audiences lost the plot, so to speak. Cooper’s entire explanation of events at the start of the movie, and the flashback that showed it all, was a fabrication. It’s almost too much to believe – that for the past hour and three quarters, we’ve been led in the wrong direction by Hitchcock. If the audience had known that Cooper was the real killer, Hitchcock might have gotten some suspense out of Gill’s attempts to help him.

Gill manages to escape Cooper, and he is killed by a falling safety curtain as the police try to trap him. The film ends as Smith comforts Gill, who is visibly shaken by Cooper’s betrayal and death.

Of course, despite this rather large flaw, “Stage Fright” is enormously entertaining. Hitchcock had long wanted to work with Dietrich, who is a phenomenal screen presence; she even sings an original Cole Porter song, “The Laziest Gal in Town,” halfway through the film. (It’s specifically what Madeleine Kahn was parodying with the number “I’m Tired” in “Blazing Saddles.”) Here’s a look at that song:

Michael Wilding, who had appeared in “Under Capricorn” the previous year, has a lot of fun with his detective character, who is both charming and dogged. His chemistry with Jane Wyman as their romance blossoms is a treat as well. Also, Patricia Hitchcock makes her screen debut with a minor role here as one of Gill’s actress-student pals.

“Stage Fright” was the first picture Hitchcock made in London since 1939, filmed in black and white, and it’s a pleasure to see those familiar places again. He would not work in England again until “Frenzy” in 1972.

Here’s the trailer for “Stage Fright.” It’s an odd one, as it first positions the film as a vehicle for up-and-coming starlet Jane Wyman, but then presents the story as being mostly about Wilfrid Smith:

Up next, Farley Granger and Robert Walker trade crimes with deadly results in the classic “Strangers on a Train.”

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3 responses

20 10 2010
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Great article! STAGE FRIGHT’s stellar cast, especially the electrifying Queen of Suave* Marlene Dietrich, makes the film watchable despite its flawed screenplay. Too bad Dietrich and Hitchcock didn’t get another opportunity to work together after STAGE FRIGHT. I was delighted to see Patricia Hitchcock’s film debut, though; she’s been one of our family’s favorites since STRANGERS ON A TRAIN!

*In case you haven’t a clue what I’m blathering about with the “Queen of Suave” reference, feel free to check out my “Flico Suave” blog post at “Tales of the Easily Distracted.”

http://doriantb.blogspot.com/2010/10/flico-suave-analysis-of-suaveness-in.html

20 10 2010
adamphilips

Thanks, Dorian! I will say it was a little odd that Patricia Hitchcock’s character was nicknamed “Chubby.

21 10 2010
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

I agree that Patricia Hitchcock (one of our family’s faves) didn’t live up to her character’s name, “Chubby,” though I’d say she had curves in all the right places, bless her! 🙂 I understand the name was papa Alfred’s idea; with his typically puckish sense of humor, he specifically described Pat’s character as “Chubby Bannister, a girl you can lean on.”

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