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Stage Fright (1950)

by Glenn Erickson Jan 29, 2022

Alfred Hitchcock puts Jane Wyman in harm’s way, as she tries to rescue her unworthy boyfriend Richard Todd from a murder charge. Is Jane proving her love, or are both of them being manipulated by a scheming actress, Marlene Dietrich?  This is the movie in which Hitch inflicts a ‘frump complex’ on Ms. Wyman — she looks demoralized whenever she shares the screen with Dietrich. It’s also the movie that ponders the cinematic concept of ‘The Lying Flashback,’ which made perfect sense to Hitchcock but frustrated his audience. Also starring Michael Wilding, Alastair Sim and a cherry-picked list of English acting royalty.


Stage Fright
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1950 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 110 min. / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date January 25, 2022 / 21.99
Starring: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh, Miles Malleson, Joyce Grenfell, André Morell, Patricia Hitchcock, Alfie Bass, Irene Handl. Lionel Jeffries.
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Director: Terence Verity
Film Editor: E.B. Jarvis
Original Music: Leighton Lucas
Written by Whitfield Cook, Alma Reville from the novel Man Running by Selwyn Jepson
Produced and Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock

Looking at Alfred Hitchcock’s films of the late 1940s we see a director not quite working to his potential. Hitchcock came from London to conquer Hollywood under contract to David O. Selznick, and he seemingly required years to get Selznick out of his system. Although most of his ’40s pictures made money, even some of the winners see Hitchcock floundering about in Selznickian romances, beautifully-directed movies with tiresome stories (Suspicion) and ridiculous psychologizing (Spellbound). The curious flop The Paradine Case precedes two seriously misjudged if technically ingenious ‘Transatlantic Pictures’ productions, Rope and Under Capricorn. But Hitchcock soon commenced an 11-feature artistic winning streak that includes at least eight masterpieces.

The first WB-released Hitchcock picture is the decidedly un-ambitious Stage Fright, yet another ‘omigosh, an innocent man is suspected of murder’ tale. Filmed in England, it was seemingly planned as a glorious return to Hitch’s U.K. successes of the 1930s, but became nothing of the kind. The casting does not sound promising: do Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich belong in the same movie?  They don’t inhabit the same cinematic universe.

 

Most every Alfred Hitchcock thriller has riches to merit our interest and critical enthusiasm. In this case a rather generic murder mystery is leavened with some cute peripheral characters. Most of the humor feels forced and the main dramatic setup is too pat to generate the expected Hitchcock thrills. Yet there’s always something cinematic to debate in a Hitchcock picture. In this case it’s one of his experiments, what he called ‘The Lying Flashback.’

Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd of The Hasty Heart) has two rather upsetting things to confess to his girlfriend actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman, All that Heaven Allows). First, he’s been seeing another woman, the famous actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich of A Foreign Affair). Second, he has just helped Charlotte conceal the murder of her husband. Eve hides Jonathan at the seaside house of her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim of Hue and Cry) and sets out to help clear her young man. She meets detective Wilfrid Smith (Michael Wilding of The Egyptian) while pretending to be Ms. Inwood’s replacement dressing maid. Things go well until, instead of hoodwinking the young detective, Eve falls in love with him.

An innocent man runs from a crime and his sweetheart becomes a junior spy to exonerate him, taking on false identities. Eve plays cat & mouse Nancy Drew games with the police, too. All that separates Stage Fright from an ordinary whodunnit is its exemplary English cast. Decorative bit parts are inhabited by great actors, including charming nutty types like Joyce Grenfell (of The Americanization of Emily).

 

Jane Wyman spends a lot of the movie pretending to be a drab maid. It’s difficult not to ascribe the unhappy look on Eve’s face to having to play plain Jane opposite furs & feathers Marlene Dietrich. With her recent Oscar win Wyman had finally escaped smiley-faced girlfriend roles in WB comedies, yet her serious Eve Gill is not a very appealing heroine. The script makes both her and her accommodating father look like dolts — he volunteers far too willingly to join her flaky accessory-after-the-fact scheme.

Stage Fright is yet another attempt to make Richard Todd a star name in America. The grouchy Jonathan Cooper seems slippery – whiny from the start. He’s also quite the chump if he’s falling for Charlotte’s transparently wicked machinations. All of them deserve worse than they get, except maybe Jonathan, who pays too dearly.

The romance angle fares a little better, with the charming Michael Wilding in rather good form. Yet there’s not much chemistry between him and Wyman; that end of the story is perfunctory. If Hitchcock came across the play Dial ‘M’ for Murder around this time, he surely wished that this story was one tenth as clever.

As if to compensate Hitchcock fills the picture with his idea of comic relief — little bits of verbal comedy, mildly suggestive jokes and colorful ‘English’ characters like the ubiquitous Miles Malleson and the above-mentioned Joyce Grenfell. Sybil Thorndike’s very light comedy opposite Alastair Sim is certainly well done, but it and all the other trimmings are irrelevant filler.

Hitchcock staves off boredom by entertaining himself with trick shots. At one point a car accelerates directly into the camera, a gag probably done with a mirror. A few minutes later,  an awkward traveling matte optical is used to place Dietrich’s Charlotte in the foreground of a shot with Todd’s Jonathan. The shot took some effort to set up . . . was it just an experiment in ‘deep focus?’  Viewers prone to ascribe lofty motivations to Hitchcock might theorize that the ‘artificial’ image of Charlotte was intentional, to make her seem a little ‘off’ — dubious — untrustworthy.

 

The Whole Truth and Nothing Bu- . . . Fooled You, Didn’t We?

Ah, yes. We know that Alfred Hitchcock was neither an actor’s director nor one with a social agenda. But he believed in the Gods of Montage and the Mystery of Subjective Camera — and he surely pursued cinematic experiments to keep himself interested in the game. Some of his technical challenges are easy to list, like making the best 3-D movie,  playing an entire drama in a confined space, and seeing what happens when cuts are eliminated.

We can imagine that Hitchcock paid attention to other directors’ experiments as well. He surely examined the subjective camera gimmick in Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake and found it had serious limitations — and later all but perfected the technique in an impressive TV show with Joseph Cotten.  Hitchcock tried a few of his experiments more than once. He refined his no-cuts Rope experiment in his very next picture Under Capricorn.  It’s a somewhat dull movie, but its many uncut moving camera scenes are magnificent.

In Stage Fright Hitchcock experimented with what he described to Francois Truffaut as The Lying Flashback. (spoiler ahead) When a movie character tells a story, leaping back to a chronologically earlier event is a standard practice fully established in silent days. But what if the storyteller isn’t telling the truth?  As soon as Stage Fright begins we rush into an extended flashback. A full 13 minutes long, it shows how the innocent Jonathan became implicated in a murder. There are several flashbacks inside this flashback, brief images of what Jonathan is thinking. He rightly guesses how the detectives will trace him.

But at the film’s conclusion it is revealed that most everything in the flashback is a lie,  told by Jonathan to secure Eve’s help in evading the police. Nothing in the flashback is unusual, except maybe that odd matted image of Marlene Dietrich. The lengthy sequence initially seems confected to give the movie a more interesting opening. We see Eve and Jonathan racing along in her car … and the flashback folds time back to establish why.

Hitchcock’s use of the Lying Flashback is not particularly cinematic, as he himself defined cinema. At the concusion we learn that the ‘storyteller’ was lying through a very un-Hitchcockian device . . . a long scene of dialogue.

Audiences of Stage Fright have always felt cheated, in the same way they might feel cheated in movies where ‘everything turns out to be a dream.’  They’ve been made to emotionally invest in a false character assumption. In the absence of stylistic clues or pointed announcements (‘That guy always lies!’ or, ‘Everything is an illusion!’), viewers will assume the literal ‘truth’ of what they’re shown. Even in a back-story they will assume that the camera will remain objective: if we see something happen, it happened. If you show a real cow in a scene, you’ll have a hard time later explaining that a character was just thinking of a cow.

Hitchcock’s interviews suggest that he wanted to give film language the same flexibility as a novel — if people can lie, why can’t his camera?  But this particular flashback construction doesn’t really do what he wants it to: Jonathan Cooper isn’t lying, the storyteller Hitchcock is. The director called himself a ‘simplifier’ and not a ‘complicator,’ but the Lying Flashback seems a problematic ‘complicator.’ If a movie can lie like this, then we can’t trust anything we’re seeing.

 

Rope is to Under Capricorn as Stage Fright is to I Confess.

Hitchcock refined his ‘Lying Flashback’ idea in I Confess  but still couldn’t make it work right. In that film Anne Baxter plays a romantic fool. When she relates the story of her romance with Montgomery Clift, much of what she says is an idealized illusion. Hitchcock tries to stylize it as false by tilting the camera, adding gauzy filters and overlaying lush romantic music. But the audience still didn’t follow — those devices are just too subtle. Viewers expect romantic flashbacks to look like idealized valentine cards. Audiences for I Confess laugh at Hitchcock’s first view of Baxter descending a staircase in slow motion — they see corny overstatement, not subjective exaggeration. Audiences want thing to be clear — in un-cinematic dialogue if necessary.

Hitchcock’s ideas about what audiences do and don’t perceive must have changed over time. Here he expects them to be sensitive to finer points of expressionist stylization. A few pictures later, he makes characters re-cap his mystery storylines, on the assumption that audiences aren’t paying attention and need refreshers.

In most every other respect Hitchcock doesn’t seem all that engaged in Stage Fright. It’s difficult to defend or even discuss the mediocre mystery constructions. They’re way below Hitchcock’s ability level — the doll with the bloodstain, the ‘hidden microphone confession’ in the theater. It’s as if he was marking time waiting for material that got his juices flowing.

Just in case you think I can’t come up with anything positive to say about the show – It’s also too long!  Hitch’s talented daughter Patricia makes an appearance in a bit role and does fine, even when she’s stuck with the demeaning nickname ‘Chubby.’  I don’t recall that detail showing up in trumped-up essays about Hitchcock’s perversity:

“Very well Patricia. You may play a role in my next moving pic-ture, but you’ll have to go by the name Chubby.”

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Stage Fright is a big improvement over the old DVD from 2004, which was marred with occasional scratches, even in Marlene Dietrich’s sultry song number. Everything looks clean now, with excellent contrast values. The scenes in the darkened theater are now rich and detailed.

No, this new encoding is a 4K scan from original elements that raises the show’s appeal by several points. The clear image is helped by Leighton Lucas’s music score, which kicks things off nicely under the main titles.

The 20-minute docu from 2004 is brisk and light, and — what’s the correct phrase? — critically diplomatic. Peter Bogdanovich manages to find subjects to talk about other than the film’s merit. Richard Schickel sidesteps actually coming out and calling the lying flashback a failure. Other spokespeople try to put the best face possible on things. Jane Wyman appears in an old Turner interview with an anecdote about Marlene Dietrich. The movie begins with the raising of a stage safety curtain, a stylized opening that’s called out as a clever device. But nobody notices that this same curtain is what cruelly bisects the villain at the film’s conclusion.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Stage Fright
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette docu, original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 25, 2022
(6654stag)CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.