Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stage Fright (1950)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                              Writers: Whitfield Cook & Alma Reville
Film Score: Leighton Lewis                            Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Starring: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Alastair Sim and Richard Todd

It’s interesting to contemplate what the critical assessment of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser films would have been if they had been taken out of the context of being surrounded by his masterworks. Would they be viewed differently today, looked at as the unique vision of a distinctive auteur instead of dismissed as second-rate suspense films unworthy of a master? Stage Fright falls into Hitchcock’s brief fallow period between the popular success of his early forties films and the stunning brilliance of his mid-fifties work. And yet, like Rope and I Confess, there is a certain charm to the film that, when given a chance, can be very entertaining. Probably the biggest knock against it is that it’s not very scary, and it’s not. The screenplay tips all the way over into the kind of humor that is typically a part of Hitchcock’s films but not the primary emphasis as it is here. But that is its own reward and there are some very clever lines about detection in Whitfield Cook’s screenplay. The other knock is a mistake that Hitchcock himself began to believe he made in the narrative of the film. But I would disagree with that assessment as well and, when looked at in its entirety, the structure of the entire piece depends on that decision and I think it’s a good one.

The film begins in media res, with Jane Wyman and Richard Todd in a car racing away from someone. Wyman wants to know what happened and Todd tells the story of the hour before, when Marlene Dietrich came over to his house, blood on her dress saying she’s sure he’s dead. The “he” is her husband and Todd, who was having an affair with her, goes to Dietrich’s house like a sap and gets caught by the maid. The police come to see him and he runs, winding up in the car with Wyman heading for her father’s boat where he can hide. Father is, of course, the great Alastair Sim, who takes all of seconds to deduce not only that Wyman is in love with Todd, but that somehow Dietrich has framed him for the murder. Wyman, a young actress, goes back to London the next morning and maneuvers herself next to police inspector Michael Wilding to learn what the police know. After that she pays off the maid to fill in for her with Dietrich, who is a famous actress. Thus begins Wyman’s attempt to expose Dietrich and at the same time keeping Todd safe, all the while feeling her romantic allegiances suddenly start shifting. She’s helped by her father and, unwittingly, her mother, and is amateur sleuthing at its finest.

The first thing one notes immediately is the brilliance of the screenplay. The film was based on a short story by Selwyn Jepson called “Man Running,” and adapted by Hitch’s wife Alma and Whitfield Cook, who can be seen working together in their fictional guises in the 2012 biopic Hitchcock. The dialogue has some incredibly witty lines for Alastair Sim and Michael Wilding. Sim is so good, in fact, that it’s fairly disappointing he wasn’t able to do more work for Hitch. The casting of the two female leads, however, is rather odd. This was Hitchcock’s first film made in England since moving to America before the war, and his choice of Jane Wyman is clearly for box office draw rather than esthetics. Marlene Dietrich is also an odd choice, again, for an actress headlining a show in London. There are a couple of examples of very good casting, though, Kay Walsh as the blackmailing maid and Joyce Grenfell as the charity “carny” in the shooting gallery. The deception that Hitchcock is criticized for in the film is patently unfair, as the entire film is a story about deception with nearly all of the characters lying or pretending to be someone else. Though considered to be one of the director’s unsuccessful films, when viewed on its own terms, not as suspense but as black comedy, Stage Fright is marvelous entertainment.

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