Stage Fright, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller from 1950 begins with a great curtain that opens to reveal a shot of, not a stage, but London itself. It is as if the director is letting us know that the film he is about to show us is not to be taken seriously. That it is not a real story but a theatricality, a show to entertain us. The camera then moves to a car driven by Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) who has just picked up Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). He is flush; they are both in a hurry to leave. She begs him to tell her why she had to pick him up in such a rush. He then tells her a story which we see in a flashback. Once again we have a layer of the theatrical. What we see is what Jonathan tells us has happened. But can he be trusted?
The story he tells is that Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), the famous stage actress. She came to his house and told him that she’s just killed her husband and needs his help. Her dress has blood on it and she persuades him to return to her house to get her a new one. While there, he breaks a window and messes the desk to make it look like a robbery. Then he gets a clean dress and flees, but not before being seen by Charlotte’s maid, Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh).
Eve is secretly in love with Jonathan and thus does everything she can to clear his name. She hides him in her father Commodore Gill’s (Alastair Sim) house. At first, she pretends to be a reporter in order to gain information from Nellie. Then they hatch a scheme for Eve to pretend to be Nellie’s cousin who steps in as Charlotte’s maid when Nellie calls out sick. Eve is a wannabe actress and she’s now stepped into the role of her lifetime, though it isn’t a role it is actual life. Once again, we have theatrical layers upon theatrical layers.
Stage Fright is often considered lesser Hitchcock and the plot is the main reason why. There just isn’t much to it, and Hitchcock never creates the levels of suspense in this film that we’d see in so many of his better ones. Jonathan isn’t given much screen time and as such we never really care for him as a protagonist. We never really care whether he is caught or not. In fact, and this is where I must give away a fairly major spoiler when we learn that he is the killer what little sympathies we had for him vanish.
The flashback at the beginning of the film is a lie. Johnathan tells the story of how he found the dead man in Charlotte’s home, but in fact, he was the one who killed him. The flashback was a story, a lie, he told to Eve and Hitchcock allows us to see it as it was told. This is something that confused audiences at the time and angered quite a few critics. I must admit a bit of confusion when the lie was revealed, and I had to replay that opening scene in my mind a few times before I understood what had happened. We are so used to flashbacks revealing what actually happened that when it reveals a lie, it throws us out of the film. Hitchcock is on record admitting it was one of his biggest mistakes as a filmmaker. Yet, when I think about it some more it feels very modern. I quite like the effect in retrospect.
The suspense is built around the classic Hitchcockian idea of the innocent man, but it turns out that Jonathan is not actually innocent that suspense goes away. There is an attempt, late in the film, to build suspense around whether or not he will kill Eve, but it is too little, too late.
This is not to say that the film itself is bad, for even lesser Hitchcock is generally good cinema. The story might not be that suspenseful but it is still a good tale told well. The actors are all quite good. The film uses its secondary characters very well. This includes the aforementioned Alastair Sim, who is wonderfully funny as the father, and Sybil Thorndike is delightful as the mother. Joyce Grenfell has a bit part as a carnival barker. She’s in just one scene, but she nearly steals the entire movie.
But it is Marlene Dietrich who completely and utterly steals the show. Hitchcock says that he allowed Dietrich to set up and stage her own shots. He also stated that Jane Wyman often left the set in tears for how glamorous Dietrich looked while she was clad in dull clothes looking altogether mousy. Who knows if any of that is true as Hitchcock loved to tell behind-the-scenes stories if it helped to sell tickets. Whoever it was that setup Dietrich’s shots, it is true that she looks utterly glamorous, is wonderfully staged, and lovingly lit. There is a scene in which she sings “The Laziest Gal In Town”, a song written specifically for the film by Cole Porter, and it looks like a big-budget Hollywood musical.
I’ve not even mentioned Michael Wilding as “Ordinary” Smith, the police detective trying to solve the murder. He works closely with Eve, becomes the love interest. and is quite good at both.
Stage Fight might not be top-tier Hitchcock, but it’s still quite wonderful and a great deal of fun. Warner Archive presents Stage Fright with a newly remastered Blu-ray from 4K scan of the original camera negative. Extras include the original trailer and a nice but short featurette about the film.