Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stage Fright: Hitchcock, Lovely Ducks, and a Controversial Flashback

Spoiler Alert:  The following review reveals the film's ending.

As the film that preceded Hitchcock's "comeback" classic Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright (1950) is typically glossed over in the famed director's filmography. While it's true that it doesn't rank with his masterpieces (e.g., Vertigo, Rear Window), Stage Fright has much to offer: a clever opening, a playful homage to acting, a pair of delightfully quirky supporting performances, and--of course--that infamous flashback.

The proceedings get off to a fast start when two people in a convertible exchange the following dialogue as the car whisks through the streets of London:

EVE: Any sign of the the police?

JONNY (looking over his shoulder): It looks like we're getting away with it.

EVE: Good.

Jonny enters the apartment--the start of
a memorable, single-take tracking shot.
It quickly becomes apparent that Jonny (Richard Todd) is in trouble and has turned to Eve (Jane Wyman) for help. When probed by Eve, he explains that his lover Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), a famous stage actress, came to him after murdering her husband following a quarrel. Charlotte needs Jonny to destroy her bloodstained dress and fetch a new one from her flat. Jonny does more than that--he restages the crime scene but is spotted by a maid and transitions from accomplice to suspected murderer.

Eve, who believes she's in love with Jonny, deposits the wanted man with her oddball father (Alastair Sim). She also becomes determined to prove Jonny's innocence. After a chance meeting with Charlotte's dresser, Eve hatches a risky scheme to go undercover and collect the evidence that will clear Jonny.

The twist in Stage Fright is that Jonny is not Hitchcock's typical innocent-man-on-the-run. Indeed, Jonny murdered Charlotte's husband and everything he told Eve at the start of the film--shown to the viewer via a flashback--was a lie. This revelation slips out as Eve and Jonny hide from the police in an opulent theatre at the film's climax. In a matter of seconds, Jonny evolves from hero to villain.

Jonny reveals the truth in
the theater.
Much has been written about the "lying flashback," chiefly that it doesn't play fair with the audience--a view postulated by Francois Truffaut in his book of Hitchcock interviews. However, this contention assumes that everything we see in a film is the "truth" as presented by the filmmakers. Hitchcock makes it clear that we are hearing and seeing Jonny's version of the events. It's not dissimilar from the various versions of the truth recounted (also in flashback) by the different characters in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. The key difference is that Jonny is an actor and he casts himself in the role of the framed innocent man--a part he plays not only in the flashback, but also in his post-murder dealings with Eve.

Alastair Sim, as Eve's father, paying
off blackmailer Kay Walsh.
Acting and the theater are a recurring motif in many Hitchcock films:  Judy played the role of Madeleine in Vertigo; Uncle Charlie was just a character masking a serial murderer in Shadow of a Doubt; and the mini-plays in Rear Windows were framed by windows, an analogy to the confines of a theatrical stage. However, Stage Fright trumps them all in the number of characters playing parts. In addition to Jonny playing the innocent man, Eve assumes the roles of newspaper reporter and Charlotte's dresser. Since deception is acting, too, Eve's father gets in the act by lying about Jonny to Eve's mother. The theater motif is emphasized too strongly perhaps, with opening credits against a stage curtain and a backdrop that crushes Jonny at the climax.

One imagines that Hitchcock was drawn to the source material because it stands one of his favorite themes on its head. Quick, how many Hitchcock films can you name about men wrongly accused of a crime who set out to prove their innocence and/or stop the bad guys with the aid of a strong woman? It's dominated his career from Young and Innocent to The 39 Steps to Saboteur, North By Northwest, and others. But in Stage Fright, the innocent man really is a killer--a point that must have amused Hitchcock.

Marlene singing: "My poor heart is
aching to bring home the bacon..."
In Truffaut's interview with Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense maintains that the two great flaws in Stage Fright are that the villain is weak and the characters are never in any tangible danger. I disagree with the villain being weak--when Jonny finally reveals his true self to Eve, he becomes an acceptable villain. I maintain that the problems are that: (1) Jonny is a minor character who disappears from the film for long stretches; (2) since Jonny is role-playing a good guy, there is no villain until the climax. And, as a standard mystery, Stage Fright puts forth few legitimate suspects: Charlotte, Jonny, Charlotte's manager, or the dresser Nellie (with the latter two in very little of the picture).

Joan Grenfell promoting the chance to
to shoot "lovely ducks."
While the principals in Stage Fright carry the load admirably (especially a charming Michael Wilding), two marvelous character actors almost steal it. Alastair Sim injects the film with some much-needed dry humor ("What sort of father are you?" asks a police inspector. The reply: "Unique.") Yet, even he is upstaged in a delightful scene with Joyce Grenfell manning a fund-raising booth for an orphanage at a garden party ("Half a crown to shoot a lovely duck!)". These two veteran British comedians play off each other brilliantly, providing the perfect levity for the classic Hitchcock scene that follows them: a young child carrying a bloodied doll through the crowd as Charlotte performs on a stage.

While the entertainment value is high in most Hitchcock films, I have a soft spot for the lighthearted ones that seem to show the director in a playful mood (this one, To Catch a Thief, and I'm slowly turning the corner on The Trouble With Harry). That's one of the reasons why I find Stage Fright methodically moving up my list of favorite Hitchcock films with each viewing.

16 comments:

  1. Insightful piece on one of my favourite Hitchcock films. Love the relationships between Eve and her parents. They clearly adore her, and she them. Dame Sybil Thorndike is a treat to watch. Thanks for the post, going pull out the dvd tonight!

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    1. Mothers are always interesting in Hitchcock pics, so it's nice that the father plays a important role in this one. I, too, adore both Dame Sybil and Alastair. She has one of the best lines of the movie when she introduces the Commodore to Inspector Smith: "This is Eve's father. We see him now and again."

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  2. Rick, it's good to see someone writing about a lesser-known Hitchcock film. I think "Stage Fright" has been unfairly put down. It may not be of the same caliber as his masterpieces, but it does have quite a bit to offer even if it doesn't hang together as a whole the way his best films do. Any movie with Alistair Sim and Joyce Grenfell is worth watching! And then there's Marlene Dietrich singing "The Laziest Gal in Town" in such an enervated style.

    I knew about the false alibi and how Hitckcock felt about it before seeing the film so wasn't really able to judge it objectively. I think this might have worked better if Richard Todd had just told his version of events and they hadn't been shown like a flashback. Given audience expectations of this type of movie, it encouraged the wrong reaction, and while audiences loved Hitchcock's devices for creating suspense, they didn't expect to be misled.

    I do know that Hitckcock was always cognizant of how well his movies did at the box office and when they didn't do well looked for an explanation. I've always wondered if he seized upon this as a convenient explanation. The other time I recall his saying he had made a strategic mistake that harmed the movie is when Sylvia Sidney's little brother is blown up by the bomb in "Sabotage."

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    1. R.D., you make an interesting point in that seeing STAGE FRIGHT not knowing about the lying flashback--and prior to RASHOMON--could make for a different experience. Yes, I've often read where Hitchcock regretted the bomb explosion in SABOTAGE, but--in retrospect--it's what made the movie interesting. Other filmmakers would have opted for the last minute escape.

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  3. Rick, I'll admit I used to turn up my pert little nose at STAGE FRIGHT because that notorious "lying flashback" annoyed the heck out of me! However, over time this movie has grown on me, in large part because of the wonderful cast of memorable, often-endearing eccentrics, including Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, and Hitchcock's winsome and talented daughter Patricia Hitchcock as Jane Wyman's pal Chubby Bannister, whom Hitch wittily described as "a girl you can lean on." :-) Very enjoyable review, Rick, as always!

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    1. Patricia is quite fun in her small role. She was attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at the time. I believe the other young women in the garden party scene were her classmates.

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  4. *D-OH!!!* I was so caught up in singing the praises of STAGE FRIGHT's wonderful character actors that I forgot to praise Marlene Dietrich's superb performance as the sexy suspect! Just seeing her go to pieces at the sight of the blood-stained doll is worth the price of admission, so to speak! Who'd have thought Dietrich would be upstaged by a doll? :-)

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  5. I'd add Sybil Thorndyke's performance as Wyman's mother as one of this film's acting delights.

    You make a good point about Todd not being in the film enough. He was a wonderful actor; and maybe his ambiguity as a character (and his flashback) would have been bolstered if he had more presence in the film - perhaps showing him making other, ambivalent, possibly lying statements. There's a lot of focus on Dietrich and her own alibi, so maybe that's why Todd seems shortchanged.

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    1. Dame Sybil was perfect in her part; I love her reaction when she sees Eve practicing her initial disguise as a maid. I wonder if Charlotte would have been in the movie so much if the role had been played by an actress of lesser stature.

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  6. I think this is my favourite Dietrich film. I absolutely adore her in this movie.

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    1. She seems to be having a grand time with the part. However, I think she's even more fun in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION.

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  7. Rick - Great review of an underrated Hitchcock. I have no trouble with "the lying flashback" - and actually think it's a fascinating concept. My primary criticism of "Stage Fright" is the casting of two key roles - Jane Wyman (admittedly not my favorite actress) as Eve and Richard Todd as Jonny. I've read that Hitchcock had not been that keen to cast Wyman (maybe he already knew of young Grace Kelly) and later had problems with her. Apparently she was flustered at how plain she appeared next to Dietrich and began to wear more and more makeup in an effort to appear more glamorous - even though her character was pretending to be Dietrich's maid. I can't help but imagine Teresa Wright in the role. As charismatic killers go, Richard Todd is no Joseph Cotten, Robert Walker or Anthony Perkins (I wonder if Richard Burton was available). That said, I agree with your take on the film and "Stage Fright" is making its way up my list of Hitchcock films, too.

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    1. Eve, I could easily see Teresa Wright as Eve (not you, but Ms. Gill). However, I did like Jane Wyman in the part. It would have been more fun if she had worn her initial disguise--imagine the shock then when Freddie sees her dressed up at the garden party! As for Todd, I thought he was very good, but he's just not in the movie enough to make a strong impact. He really only has significant scenes at the beginning and ending.

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  8. I adore "Stage Fright" and the first time I was hoodwinked I thought "serves me right". Always had a thing for Richard Todd and adore Jane Wyman. I love the relationship between the Commodore and Eve. When isn't Sim the most watchable thing in any movie? I maybe could do with a little less singing from Marlene, but it doesn't keep me from enjoying the movie.

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    1. CW, I love Sim and was surprised to learn that Hitch (and Trauffaut) thought he was miscast as Eve's father. I thought he provided a delightfully deft touch of humor.

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  9. I had no idea of the lying flashback the first time I saw the film, and I LOVED it. I'm fascinated by narrative tricks like that, and unreliable narrators are the best kind. I don't know of other examples this far back in Hollywood narrative that had as blatant an example of an unreliable narrator (if there are some, tell me, so I can go watch them!), and I love the film for that. It's not quite as big a shift as Rashomon, because we do eventually find out for sure what did happen, but at the same time, it's kind of trickier because you don't expect a flashback in a Hollywood film to lie to you.

    Aside from that, Dietrich and the supporting cast are a ton of fun, but I kind of agree that I would've preferred someone a bit more, I don't know, charismatic in the lead role than Jane Wyman. Wyman is fine, but who's going to notice her when Dietrich is around? I guess that's part of the point, but still, it made her parts of the film rather dull.

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