An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A young acting student in London attempts to prove that her friend is not a killer…
A curtain rises up the screen to reveal not a theatrical stage, but the bomb-damaged London of 1950. It’s a cheeky way to begin in the film, Hitchcock winking at us and telling us that this is an artificial world – and it’s not to be taken at face value.
This is a movie about lies and deceptions, about acting and pretending. No one can be fully trusted, whether they’re the student who poses as a dresser to spy on a famous actress, or her smuggler father, or the self-obsessed star, or the man who kicks the plot off with a torrid tale of murder.
As the story begins, a frantic Jonathan Cooper asks for help from his friend and fellow acting student Eve. She has a crush on him, so is happy to drive him out of London as he explains what’s happened. In flashback, we learn that he’s been having an affair with the noted stage actress Charlotte Inwood, and that she showed up at his flat with blood on her dress after killing her abusive husband. Jonathan then headed to her house to clear up the mess but was spotted by Charlotte’s maid and now fears that he’ll be accused of the crime.
Sensing an injustice and suspecting that Charlotte has tried to frame Jonathan, Eve resolves to investigate herself. She stashes Jonathan at her father’s seaside hideaway, then accidentally-on-purpose gets to know a private detective who’s looking into the case. She also seeks out Charlotte’s assistant and bribes her into feigning an illness so Eve can masquerade as her replacement. To do this, she uses her acting talents to adopt a new persona: the meek, cockney-voiced Doris Tinsdale. (There’s a great gag when, after carefully putting on clothes, make-up, a wig and glasses, Eva bumps into her mother… who doesn’t bat an eyelid: ‘Oh, there you are, Eve darling…’)
Eve is played by American actress Jane Wyman, whose mid-Atlantic accent is explained by saying the character was educated abroad. She has expressive eyes, which get archly lit in the revelation scene towards the end of the film. But she’s perhaps a bit too tightly bound to be the lead of a thriller. We rarely get a sense of her being pushed to extremes emotionally. Hitch wasn’t a fan for another reason, later arguing that the part had needed a more ‘real’ look. ‘[She] should have been a pimply faced girl,’ he said. ‘[Wyman] just refused to be that and I was stuck with her.’ Despite knowing that the director wanted her to appear frumpy and plain, Wyman was putting on flattering make-up in secret.
Co-star Marlene Dietrich, who plays Charlotte, also didn’t warm to Wyman. ‘I heard she’d only wanted to do [the film] if she were billed above me and she got her wish,’ the German star was once quoted as saying. ‘Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. 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.’
In Stage Fright, Dietrich gives a big, theatrical performance of a big, theatrical character. For the role of Charlotte, Hitch had originally wanted Tallulah Bankhead, who had been in Lifeboat for him six years previously, but the studio lobbied for someone more bankable. It was Dietrich’s only role for Hitchcock, and he must have been pleased to have the legend on board because he – uniquely – allowed her a far-ranging freedom over the way her character appeared on screen. She insisted on artfully lit Hollywood close-ups, even telling cinematographer Wilkie Cooper where to put his lights, and also was also given a song specially written by Cole Porter and costumes designed by Christian Dior.
Stage Fright is well cast generally, in fact, with even interest in the smallest parts. Richard Todd is sturdy and believable as Cooper. Alastair Sim is especially fruity and likeable as Eve’s father, while Sybil Thorndike is her uptight mother. There’s a nicely comedic cameo from Joyce Grenfell as an eccentric stallholder at a funfair. Irene Handl plays Charlotte’s maid, and even the Major from Fawlty Towers, Ballard Berkeley, shows up as a nonplussed copper who shares a scene with Marlene Dietrich. Hitch also cast his daughter, Pat, as one of Eve’s RADA pals. (The character is called Chubby Bannister, which was an in-joke – she’s the girl you can always lean on. Pat Hitchcock went on to appear in several episodes of her father’s TV show and had a small role in Psycho. In recent years, she’s been a well-informed and welcome presence on many documentaries about Hitch’s work.)
And the cast get an intriguing thriller plot to play with. Hitchcock and his writers – including wife Alma Reville, who worked on almost all of his films as a writer/producer – often reveal their characters’ motives and secrets, allowing the audience to know what they’re thinking even if other characters don’t. This not only raises the suspense levels – we usually know what’s at stake in a scene – but it also makes the film great fun because we have to see characters (especially Eve) improvise their way out of trouble.
But one element of the movie caused trouble. Hitchcock even later said it was the second biggest mistake of his career (after a plotting misstep in 1936’s Sabotage). Towards the end of the film, as the truth starts to seep out, we discover that the flashback we saw at the start – Jonathan’s story of Charlotte killing her husband and his attemp to cover it up – never actually happened. In reality, Jonathan killed the husband.
‘A lot of people complained because the opening flashback was a lie,’ said Hitch 13 years later. ‘Now, why can’t a man tell a lie?’ His argument is sound in theory. Storytelling – especially Hollywood narrative cinema – is all about point of view. We experience stories through characters’ eyes, so when Jonathan tells Eve what had happened, he’s simply lying – and characters lie in fiction all the time. However, by *showing* us the fantasy, Stage Fright breaks a vital convention.
The greatest writer ever to tell mystery stories, Agatha Christie, understood that. Characters can lie, yes. But her books don’t; the authorial voice doesn’t. The audience must be given a fair crack of the whip, and by dramatising a sequence that didn’t happen, this film cheats. It doesn’t ruin the movie, which is still a very enjoyable thriller. In fact, it fits the theme of deception and theatrical trickery. But it stops Stage Fright being one of the very best Hitchcocks.
‘You see, if you break tradition,’ said the director about this film, ‘you are in trouble every time.’
Eight men in the street out of 10