STAGE FRIGHT: Hitchcock Goes Home
As the 1950s rolled in, Alfred Hitchcock needed a change of pace. And a hit.
One out of two ain’t bad.
Stage Fright was certainly different: much lighter, for the most part, than most of his films and a return to his home turf, with an almost entirely British cast. But it was also a resounding flop—his fourth in a row, as filmgoers craved his more conventional thrillers and seemed impatient with movies that were harder to categorize, even if they were fabulous.
The previous decade had featured a string of classics that most directors would give their fortunes and families for: Rebecca, Suspicion, Saboteur, Lifeboat, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and the criminally underrated Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Foreign Correspondent. In their first collaboration, Hitchcock had mostly managed to keep Rebecca out of the clammy clutches of David O. Selznick. (According to director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock recalled that as a climax, the producer wanted the smoke from the chimney to curl into the letter R. “Can you imagine?” he shuddered, even decades later.) But in their other two films together—Spellbound in 1945 and The Paradine Case in 1947—Selznick, who never met a thumpingly obvious flourish he didn’t like, had the gears more firmly in his grasp, with predictable results.
Hitchcock grew to loathe Selznick so much that he was still seething seven years after they parted. Does the uber-creepy wife-beheader in Rear Window remind you of anyone?
Smarting from his servitude with Selznick, Hitchcock cut loose with his own production company, Transatlantic Pictures, closing out the decade with the experimental Rope, which played with extended takes and fluid camera movements, and Under Capricorn, which used many of the same techniques, though less boldly. But neither made much headway with fans or critics, and together, the two financial failures sank his fledgling firm. Still, Hitchcock had reached a turning point: for the rest of his life, he would produce his own movies, under the auspices of larger studios.
Eager for a break from Hollywood, the director talked Warner Bros. into letting him make Stage Fright across the Atlantic. Shrewdly, he took along one of the studio’s biggest new stars, Jane Wyman—fresh off her Oscar win for Johnny Belinda—in the hope of boosting the box office.
Wyman plays Eve Gill, an aspiring actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (where Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, who made her film debut as Eve’s friend “Chubby” Bannister, was studying at the time). Eve’s in love with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), a young actor who’s having a secret affair with Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), a flamboyant stage star. As the film opens, Jonathan breathlessly bursts in on Eve’s rehearsal and begs for help; we learn, via his flashback, that Charlotte came to see him after killing her husband and asked him to hide her bloodstained dress, and that when he went back to fetch her a change of clothes, he was spotted by Charlotte’s dresser, Nellie (Kay Walsh). And now he’s on the run from the police.
Eve spirits him off to the coastal cottage of her father, the Commodore (Alastair Sim), who notices that the blood seems to have been deliberately smeared on the dress. He warns Jonathan that Charlotte may be trying to frame him. Angry at the accusation against his lover, Jonathan throws the crucial evidence into the fireplace. And Eve is knocked a bit backward by his intensity.
With Jonathan parked safely if crankily with her father, Eve heads back to London, still determined to clear the man she perhaps loved a bit more an hour ago than she does now. When she stumbles across a detective (Michael Wilding, as “Ordinary” Smith) in a local pub, she feigns a fainting spell to get his attention—but this actress is just getting started. She tells Smith she’s a reporter working on the case, and later finagles her way into the role of Charlotte’s dresser, after paying Nellie off to disappear for a while…
The romantic sparks between the wide-eyed Eve and the shyly wry detective are clear from the moment he waves a brandy under her nose. During one scene in a taxicab, they stammer and stare and swoon until you’re practically screaming at the screen, “Oh for God’s sake, just kiss!” So now, Eve has to lie to the man she’s falling in love with to save the one she’s pretty much gotten over.
At one point, when Eve’s volunteering at a local fair, she’s shuttling among Smith, Charlotte and her schoolmates, playing three different roles. Meanwhile, her father, who’s now neck-deep in his daughter’s quest to help Jonathan (who, as far as he knows, she’s still in love with), is cheating some skinny little schnook at the shooting gallery, in order to win a doll whose dress he can smear with blood; he’s hoping to unnerve Charlotte—who’s performing at the fair—into confessing. The whole thing is hilariously nerve-wracking—and as if that weren’t enough, Joyce Grenfell is on hand to run the shooting gallery, urging everyone within her (very wide) earshot to try their luck with the “lovely ducks!”
Eventually, of course, Smith discovers Eve’s true identity and her motives, but sets aside his battered ego long enough to help her trap Charlotte. Still posing as the diva’s dresser, Eve tells her she has the bloodstained dress, suggesting she’d part with it for a price. Charlotte confesses that she did plan the murder but that Jonathan carried it out, and offers Eve £10,000 to keep her mouth shut. All of this is being picked up by hidden police micophones in the theater, and soon Charlotte is arrested, but Jonathan, who’s long since bolted from the Commodore’s cottage, slips the police net. Eve is certain Charlotte is lying about Jonathan’s involvement, and sets out to save him once again…
Caution: Spoilers Ahead…
This is just about the only Hitchcock film you’d need to do a Spoiler Alert for, since you usually know who the bad guys are right from the jump. But here goes. Remember Jonathan’s desperate recounting of how Charlotte showed up in the bloodstained dress, and all the flashbacks that followed? Yeah. Those were all humongous lies. Which Eve finds out the hard way—that awkward moment when the cute guy you had a huge crush on turns out to be a raving homicidal maniac…
Eve catches up with Jonathan in the trenches of the theater, and once they’re hidden away there, he tells her that Charlotte goaded him into killing her husband, and he’s the one who smeared the blood on her dress. He also confides his cunning plan to get away with it: kill Eve for no reason, to shore up an insanity defense. Suddenly things get much more Hitchcockian: victim and killer are thrown into sharp, shadowy relief, and it almost becomes a different film—in keeping with the sense that everything that has gone on before was mere artifice and now we, like Eve, are face to face with the dark and dangerous reality.
After several excruciating minutes, Smith and the police arrive and flush out the killer, who, attempting to flee, is caught and crushed under the stage’s (ironically named) safety curtain.
Critics and audiences came at Hitchcock with everything but pitchforks for the “lying flashbacks” from an unreliable narrator; the director countered that this was simply one character’s version of events and needn’t have been taken as gospel. But he later called it one of the biggest missteps of his long career.
I like his first take better. Over the years, moviegoers had grown to care deeply for Hitchcock’s wrongfully accused victims, and I understand how they might have felt betrayed. But it’s not a director’s job to spoon-feed people the same formula in film after film. I loved the surprise—and that, in a movie rife with deception, we were as fooled as Eve was. It put us right there with her in that dark corner, deepening our sympathy and adding another layer of emotion to a finale that’s as creepy and suspenseful as almost anything Hitchcock ever put on the screen.
…End of Spoilers
Stage Fright also has just about as much sheer chemistry as any of Hitchcock’s films. Wyman and the always-brilliant Sim are in perfect rhythm as father and daughter—quirky kindred spirits caught in the middle of a murder mystery. (Have you ever watched an Alastair Sim movie and tried to picture anyone else in his part?)
And Dietrich and Wyman play beautifully off each other as the glam goddess and the modest maid she takes under her wing, somewhat mirroring their relationship offscreen, which got off to a shaky start but ended with Dietrich insisting on retakes when she felt Wyman wasn’t lit properly.
Draped in Dior from start to finish, Dietrich is beyond fabulous, even when she’s being fitted for her widow’s weeds. “This is very nice, if you can call mourning nice,” she confides to her maid, “but isn’t there some way we could let it plunge a little in front?” (Dietrich’s own bracelet sets off every gown; the modest little bangle, made for her out of some stray diamonds and rubies she had lying around, sold for almost a million dollars at Sotheby’s in 1992.)
And finally, how many Hitchcock movies feature Dietrich purring through a Cole Porter song…
…which I’m pretty sure was the inspiration for this:
All in all, Stage Fright is Hitchcock’s most fearfully underrated film.
- Posted in: Movie Briefs ♦ The Story Behind the Film
- Tagged: alastair sim, alfred hitchcock, david o. selznick, foreign correspondent, jane wyman, kay walsh, lifeboat, marlene dietrich, mr. and mrs. smith, notorious, richard todd, rope, shadow of a doubt, stage fright, suspicion, the paradine case, under capricorn, warner bros.