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Monday, 13 June 2011

Stage Fright (1950)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd and Alistair Sim

When I started watching Alfred Hitchcock seriously, I hit his filmography hard and quickly racked up forty of his pictures. It quickly got to the point where there were precious few left to discover except the very earliest ones. From The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, I missed precisely 3 of 38, and I've found myself stuck there for years. Now, courtesy of TCM, I'm about to cross two of those off my list: 1950's Stage Fright and 1953's I Confess, leaving only Under Capricorn still to find. Why I Confess is so obscure I have no idea, but the others are the two films Hitch made back in the UK, long after his move to the US to make Rebecca. Consequently Stage Fright stars many of the great English scene stealers of the time: Alistair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, André Morell, Miles Malleson, Joyce Grenfell, Irene Handl, even Kay Walsh, who had divorced David Lean the previous year. Lionel Jeffries is omitted from that list only as this was his big screen debut.

Only the two leads are international: a rather strange combination of Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich. It's the latter we see first, opening the story in true Hitchcock style as Charlotte Inwood by stumbling into her boyfriend's house covered in blood and swearing that he's dead, 'he' being her husband, David. These opening scenes, which unfold in flashback as the boyfriend, Jonathan Cooper, tells all to his friend (and wannabe girlfriend), Eve Gill, are Hitchcockian in more than content and style, but I can't explain why without providing a spoiler. If you want to find out why, you'll need to track down the film too, but suffice it to say that he played a trick on his audience, who were not particularly happy to be tricked back in 1950. That may be another reason why Stage Fright is hard to come by today but modern audiences are likely to take it in stride. This little trick set the stage, pun not intended, for many more such cinematic tricks in the future.

What it all boils down to is that Jonathan Cooper is in a very dubious position. Charlotte Inwood is obviously already in trouble, as befits the blood on her dress and the corpse in her front room, but Jonathan goes to sort it all out, just as she expects him to, by staging a break in, that sort of thing. Unfortunately the maid shows up at just the wrong moment and he runs. He's succeeded only in shifting suspicion away from Charlotte onto himself, something he promptly underlines in no uncertain terms by running away from the police when they arrive to question him. Then again, he does have her blood stained dress in his pocket. So all he can do is have Eve Gill hide him, just as he expects her to, while she investigates Charlotte's apparent guilt. That's a lot of assumption to build a plot but such is the power of love and, sure enough, Jonathan does what Charlotte expects and Eve does what Jonathan expects, and that's where our story comes from.
What's patently obvious here is that the title of the film doesn't just refer to the fact that the lead characters are performers. Sure, Jonathan locates Eve at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where both are students, and Charlotte Inwood is a professional performer, but none of the characters stop acting when they leave the stage. That's most obvious as Eve goes undercover as Charlotte's maid, but it's a constant throughout. Jonathan acts for Eve's benefit, Eve acts for Charlotte, Charlotte acts for the police. It's all as if the whole is a play but we're watching actors not characters who haven't been let in on the script yet. In fact, it could be that Commodore Gill, Eve's father, is the playwright who remains a step ahead of the rest of us all along. He's played by Alistair Sim, who steals his first scene effortlessly with the aid of an accordion, and continues to do so throughout. He deconstructs everything, a sort of writer/critic/actor hybrid.

Late in the film Dietrich and Wyman walk down a hallway together backstage and the impression is totally that Dietrich is the woman and Wyman is the girl. Wyman had plenty of experience, in life and on screen, given that she'd already divorced third husband Ronald Reagan and had won an Oscar the previous year for Johnny Belinda. Yet she was still only 33 and looked it, making it hard to see Eve Gill as anything but a naive young girl in love, rather than a naive young girl in love who can move mountains to save the man she's in love with. For her part, Dietrich was 49 and costumed exclusively in Christian Dior, as she demanded. As Dietrich often did, she looked like she'd been everywhere and done everything, but was still young enough to look great. Dior demanded a screen credit. Paramount demanded a 25% discount. Everyone got exactly what they wanted and the result is that Wyman has difficulty registering when Dietrich is on screen.
Dietrich is very noticeable, though her part is much smaller than those of her fellow leads, with Wyman racking up most screen time by far. Dietrich said that, 'She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn't play a woman of mystery: that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve.' Certainly Eve Gill is a transparent character who merely thinks that she has mystique, while Charlotte Inwood is mystique without ever having to try. She's set up as the villain of the piece from the very first scene but it's never quite that simple. Dietrich capably keeps us on the hook as to whether she's guilty, innocent or somewhere in between. Wyman does everything apparently right, but just doesn't engage well. A strange choice to play an English actress, she succeeds well as the innocent but dedicated girl but is much less convincing as the actress taking on roles as circumstances require.

Similarly, Michael Wilding, as the real leading man, private detective Wilfred 'Ordinary' Smith, is just as capable but bland, even though whatever he did in Under Capricorn a year earlier must have impressed Hitch enough to cast him again. The man caught up in the intrigue of the story, Jonathan Cooper, is nothing much to write home about either, even though he's played by solid leading man Richard Todd, also riding high after The Hasty Heart the previous year, which saw him receive his sole Oscar nomination. Instead of the leads, this film belongs to the character actors, of which there are many. After all, when your father is played by Alastair Sim and your mother by Sybil Thorndike, you have to do a heck of a lot to make yourself remotely visible and Wyman doesn't seem to want to do that. Sim and Thorndike are both very watchable indeed, as are Kay Walsh as a mercenary maid and Joyce Grenfell outrageously running a shooting gallery.

Quite why Stage Fright is forgotten today, I have no idea. American audiences didn't enjoy the trick Hitchcock played on them, but the French critics of the time, who had a particular fondness for Hitch, didn't have a problem with what he did. Given that Rashomon was released to huge acclaim the same year, emphatically for the trickery of its plot, it's hard to believe too much in that as the cause. It was made in England with predominantly English actors, but America has never had much of a problem with that. It came right before the beginning of his greatest period, which began the following year with Strangers on a Train, but it doesn't disappoint. Historically, it has note, as the debut of his daughter Patricia, but she doesn't do much more than Hitch in his traditional cameo. For me, the biggest problem was the lack of prominence from the leads. It's a film about character and that's all in the supporting players. I don't mind that. Maybe others do.

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