Stage Fright (1950)
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It is the masterful presence of the great Alastair Sim, however, that makes Stage Fright one of Hitchock's most enjoyable to watch. Few actors have his ability of making the most average of dialouges sound like a powerful oration, and as Eve's doting father, he makes the movie. His Commodore Gill is always at the ready to harbor a fugitive, clip off a snappy witicism, or scrounge blackmail money for his beloved daughter. He is equally at home playing comic relief as he is to serving as the plot glue that makes Eve's capers possible. But live with his wife? Thank you, no! He is content to live on his boat. Whether he is staging an amusing diversion to aid Eve, dispensing sage bits of fatherly advice, or merely strolling out in public, the man bleeds coolness with every move.
Some can argue that Stage Fright gives but an average treatment to the usual whodunnit murder-suspense formula that Hitchcock (and countless others) have used. This is perhaps true. But compared to the whole lot of crappy facsimile suspense films made since 1950, Stage Fright is quicker to entertain than most.
Be sure to check it out if you want to see Hitch cast his own daughter Patricia in the supporting role of "Chubby Banister." Is that some kind of sick joke or was that name flattering in the fifties?
P.S.-- I can't watch Marlene Dietrich anymore and not be reminded of Madeline Kahn's Teutonic Titwillow. Is there some free therapy I can get for this?
What I find interesting about this particular issue is that the same people who denounce Hitchcock for cheating on this probably have found other films acceptable despite similar "cheating". Take Billy Wilder's WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. We hear Tyrone Power give Leonard Vole's version of what happened to the rich elderly woman (Norma Varden), about how they met, about what he was doing on the night she was murdered. We do not SEE the actual view of his activities for the night of the murder, but we accept his comments - until the end of the film shows what happened. Also check out Kurasawa's film classic RASHOMON, where we see flashbacks of five people who show "what happened" and at the conclusion we really don't know if we heard the truth or if everyone has lied. The same can be said of the American remake of RASHOMON, THE OUTRAGE. Even a musical comedy, LES GIRLS, leaves us all guessing at the end.
Yet Hitchcock was condemned for his cheating. I think he should be praised for his daring, for this film (of all Hitchcock's movies) develops in a unique way. Wyman is determined to prove the truth of Richard Todd's story, and keeps meeting criticism and common sense from her father, Alistair Sim, and from the police led by Michael Wilding, who don't believe him. And as a matter of fact, at the conclusion, it turns out that some, if not all of Todd's flashback has elements of truth in it.
Hitchcock told Francois Truffaud that he saw STAGE FRIGHT as an opportunity to work with some great British character actors (Sim, Joyce Grenville, Sybil Thorndyke, Kay Walsh). The film was definitely lower budgeted than other films (SPELLBOUND, even THE PARADINE CASE) that he had recently made. The most expensive aspect was working with Dietrich which was costly for her salary and her designer clothing. But Hitchcock wanted a chance to work with Dietrich here (just like he had made MR. AND MRS. SMITH to work with Carole Lombard in 1939). The results were quite good. The British character actors did the most with their parts (including Todd, who shows a nervousness and uncertainty in most of the film that is suggestive of possible insanity at the end). Dietrich also, in her closing moments on the screen, shows a bitterness and hatred that I don't think she ever showed in any other film role. Jane Wyman was criticized by Hitchcock for insisting on dressing up as the film progressed. However she does show a resourcefulness and pluck not usually seen in most of her movies. On the whole the film works pretty well to me.
Wyman convincingly plays a drama student who gets involved over her head in a purely Hitchcockian case of murder. When her ex-lover Todd is suspected of killing Dietrich's husband, Wyman hides him and helps him allude the police. Meanwhile, Wyman disguises herself as Dietrich's maid to help find evidence to save Todd's freedom. Wyman falls into a dangerous trap, and danger surrounds her.
Disappointingly underdeveloped as it starts, "Stage Fright" eventually turns into a first-rate thriller. While Wyman has been better, Dietrich is hilariously catty and Todd is wickedly suspicious. This is undoubtedly a Hitchcock film all the way around, but adding a nice twist to the formula is a soaring, romantic soundtrack. A seriously satisfying film, "Stage Fright" hits most of the right notes.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about 'Stage Fright' is that this daisy chain of betrayal is dismantled with barely a broken heart in sight. Unflinching insights into emotional cruelty and power imbalances in relationships are one of the most under-appreciated aspects of Hitchcock's films ('Rebecca', 'Notorious', 'Vertigo' and 'Marnie' in particular, although even the minor barbs James Stewart throws at Grace Kelly in 'Rear Window' hit the mark squarely), but here one of the most calculated betrayals in all of his work has absolutely no emotional resonance. Eve has already conveniently fallen into the arms of Smith, so there's no sting when she learns of Jonathon's deceit. Charlotte's betrayal of Jonathon carries no greater weight, because by this point the viewer has no empathy left for him. Only 'Ordinary' Smith's rather hurt reaction to learning the truth about Eve means anything, but it feels like a betrayal of a much slighter nature - she's a well-intentioned deceiver. Compare with the treachery of another Eve, in the similarly comic and 'lightweight' 'North by Northwest', and the sheer toothlessness of this film's emotional unravelling becomes apparent.
In fact, the only emotional impact made in the film's finale is by Marlene Dietrich's Charlotte Inwood, mulling over her actions in a beautifully shot scene. Dietrich's sheer luminosity can't help but draw the viewer in, and the direction certainly favours her here. The perversity of empathising with this great manipulator probably appealed to Hitchcock, who would later do the same with Robert Walker's Bruno Anthony and Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates, and I think it's possibly the one great scene in the film (if there's another, it would be Dietrich's self-choreographed rendition of 'The Laziest Gal in Town').
Mention of Walker and Perkins draws attention to the great failing of this film, which is the character of Jonathon Cooper. Richard Todd has been much criticised for his stiff portrayal, and I think it's fair to say he's rather a plodding performer, even if he's never truly bad - although his psychosis under the stage is tremendously effective. The real problem is the script, which denies the character a sense of humour. Almost all of Hitchcock's villains are witty and charming (certainly all his best ones are), but Jonathon is charmless. This is a real problem in a comedy thriller where almost every character has a comic appeal - even Kay Walsh's character has her own sour humour. By contrast, Jonathon seems repellent - he isn't entertaining in the way everyone else is, so we don't root for him. We should surely empathise with Eve's desperation to clear his name, but he doesn't seem worth the effort. Whilst Dietrich is appealing even at her most cruel (a true Hitchcockian villain), Todd is unappealing even in innocence.
The other performances range from the adequate (Wilding, just a little too lightweight as Smith) to the wonderful (Alistair Sim, it scarcely needs to be pointed out, shares the comic spoils with Dietrich, and both Sybil Thorndike and Kay Walsh do great things with limited roles. Joyce Grenfell, meanwhile, somehow turns an irrelevant bit of comic business into a transcendent piece of physical comedy). Jane Wyman seems a little uncertain in places, but funnily enough I think she's most effective in her 'Doris' guise, able to show off her comic skills, and sparking nicely with Dietrich.
The false flashback is a neat gambit, but unfortunately it unbalances the beginning of the film - Eve is sidelined for too long - and forces the script into some rather ugly expositional dialogue. However, the rising curtain is a lovely conceit.
What makes it so enjoyable is the wonderful cast, which was mostly unknown to me before. Jane Wyman makes a lovely heroine for the audience to care about, and Marlene Dietrich is a riot as the stage diva, although I was a bit skeptical toward her at first. The scenes between Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike as Wyman's eccentric parents are hilarious. Richard Todd is perhaps a bit weak as the suspected murderer, but not distractingly so.
All in all, I find this a far more preferable watching experience than some of his more acclaimed films like "Notorious" or "The Birds" which are kind of cold and sterile. See it if you have the chance.
Hitchcock did something in the film, as he did in his classic Sabotage, which upset filmgoers and critics because it was 'not the done thing'. I wouldn't wish to spoil the film for a 1st time viewer by saying what this was but it is mentioned in the spoilers section of trivia on this films IMDb homepage. It is a mistake, I feel to overlook this film, especially due to this 'unconventional plot device'.
I find the 'unconventional plot device' in Sabotage one of a great many highlights of the film and it lifts it beyond what it would have been with the predictable/conventional resolution of that scene. The same is true in Stage Fright. Filmgoers who cannot cope with being confused by clever directorial choices are people I pity. The surprising, unusual aspects of this plot are terrific and Hitchcock was entirely correct in his choices which hugely add to the impact of the film.
Apart from all that Stage Fright is simply thoroughly entertaining. It is very very funny with Alistair Sim as brilliant and hilarious as ever in a great role for him as well as an entirely satisfying cast. Marlene Dietrich is superbly cold in a wonderful, striking addition to her acting career and sings a classic Dietrich style song. The twists from humour to chilling suspense make terrific enthralling moments.
A highly unusual and near perfectly executed film.
Hitch was also the most prolific film artist of all time. He made over 50 films. He made more masterpieces than any other filmmaker, too. Several, such as Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window, are bona fide masterpieces. No one in their right mind would disagree with their status as some of the best films ever made. But everyone has that one Hitchcock film that they feel that they understand better than anyone else, and always claim that it deserves to belong in the same status as the more accepted masterpieces. I seem to have discovered several. In fact, every time I see one of his less popular films, I think that it has gotten a bum rap. Rope is my favorite underrated Hitchcock film, but I think that it is starting to be accepted by the masses more. Two other great ones that are less popular are Lifeboat and I Confess; Lifeboat is well respected by Hitchcock fanatics, but I Confess is usually dismissed. This sort of dismissal happens because of financial failure upon first release. Hitch certainly was an artist, but, if you've read the Truffaut interview book, you realize that he took a film's financial success or failure very personally.
Now we come to Stage Fright. I don't think that it was an enormous failure, but it was also not an enormous success. Truffaut says something like: "this film neither added to nor took away from your reputation." The main complaint is that the opening flashback is a lie, and that audiences could never accept that. I think that that technique works better now than it may have in 1950. It was sort of daring, but it failed at the time. Although most people still don't want to ever think that the characters in a film are lying, you still see it, especially in neo-noir (think Chinatown, Body Heat, etc, although those aren't flashbacks, per se). Truffaut also derides it for being a whodunit, which Hitch did not like. I don't think that Stage Fright is at all a whodunit. We assume through the entire film that Marlene Dietrich is unquestionably guilty in the crime.
There are just a few very minor problems in the film, most of them stemming from the trick ending: trick endings are in style right now, but they hardly ever work. This one does, mostly, but as soon as we realize we've been tricked, just as happens at the end of The Sixth Sense, a very good film otherwise, we begin to go over the earlier events to see if there was any cheating. There is in Stage Fright, and it loses a tiny bit of credibility from this. The other main problem is just how the police deal with the criminals at the end. It's hardly believable, and they kill the main criminal in a very gruesome way that I would think would get them reprimanded by their superiors (although it was cool). Anyway, it's nowhere near as bad as the way the police act at the end of Hitch's next film, Strangers on a Train, where a cop shoots randomly at a crowd (with the criminal in it) and accidentally kills an innocent man!
The gold of this film comes in the complex situations and characters. One reason why Hitch's films stand so far beyond the run-of-the-mill thriller is that his characters are so well developed. The actors in Stage Fright are also superb. Jane Wyman, the main character, has an extraordinarily complicated role, where she has to act at several different levels (she plays an actress who believes that her skills can help her learn more about a murder); she pretends that she's someone else, and as she meets more people, the more difficult it becomes to handle the situation. She also "switches horses in midstream," where she begins to doubt her relationship with the man whom she is helping and to fall for a detective on the murder case simultaneously. Richard Todd plays a man framed for murder. One excellent twist in the script is that his character is not intelligent. We're so used to characters being as astute as Sherlock Holmes in mystery films, but he's an illogical hothead who takes very stupid risks. Marlene Dietrich has a lot of fun here playing a demon-goddess. She's just hilarious, trying really hard to act depressed over her husband's death (and she's one of the most terrible singers you'll ever hear!). I love how she controls everyone in the film, even those who are trying to be her enemies. You just can't refuse Marlene! Possibly the most memorable and amusing performance in the film is that of Alastair Sim, most famous for playing Ebenezer Scrooge a year later. He's hilarious as Wyman's father. Micheal Wilding, playing the detective who is falling for Wyman, is also great, especially when he finds that she is betraying him and may have only been using him. There are a few very memorable cameos, too, including the "bibulous gent," a turtle-like man who offers Wyman comfort, and the shooting gallery matron (the whole shooting gallery scene is great).
Stage Fright has been trampled by the more outstanding Hitchcock pictures. It is a small gem, not boring in any way. It deserves to be rediscovered by more people.