Friday, May 10, 2013

Hitchcock's Stage Fright ( 1950 )

"Hands that applaud can also kill!"

The stage is set. The curtain is drawn. Act One begins. Eve Gill ( Jane Wyman ) is helping fellow dramatic art student Jonathan Cooper ( Richard Todd ) escape to her father's coastal home to hideout until they can smuggle him across to Scotland. He's in an awful jam you see, as he explains to Eve he has just unwillingly become the prime suspect in the murder of flamboyant stage actress Charlotte Inwood's 
husband. In a flashback of his account we see how Charlotte manipulated him, her lover, into returning to her townhouse to fetch a dress after she had stained her own with blood while bludgeoning her husband with a fire-poker, only to be seen by Inwood's maid before fleeing. 

Eve sets out to prove his innocence and with the help of her father and Detective Smith ( Michael Wilding ) lead the police to whom she believes to be the real murderer - Charlotte Inwood ( Marlene Dietrich ). 

"Stage Fright" was released on February 23rd, 1950 and marked the first picture in a four film contract agreement Hitchcock had signed with Warner Brothers. While it garnered rave reviews by critics it was rather harshly received by the general public due to the key element in this intriguing film - the false flashback. Hitchcock himself dismissed the film in later years because of this flashback, a technique he considered was the second worst directorial mistake he had ever made in his career. 

Alfred Hitchcock had gained notoriety as a suspense film director in the UK as far back as the mid 1930s with such films as "The Lodger" and "The Lady Vanishes". It was not until the early 1940s that he became known in America making such hits as "Suspicion", "Notorious",
"Lifeboat" and "Shadow of a Doubt".                                                                                 

"Stage Fright" was a sojourn back to his native land. It was filmed entirely in England at Associated British Pathe Studios and boasts a superb English cast. Michael Wilding, a very charismatic actor who was popular overseas in his frequent pairings with Anna Neagle, plays a dapper gentleman detective with his eye - and heart - on Eve. Alastair Sim, one of England's most engaging character actors, costars as Commodore Rill, Eve's father, who fancies himself a notorious criminal for having once smuggled two cases of brandy across the Scottish border. Dame Sybil Thorndike portrays Mrs. Gill, Eve's mother, a very dotty mother whose prim and properness contrast starkly with those of her husband, the Commodore. 

" Forgiveness is the secret of a happy marriage...that and good long stretches of the absence that makes a heart grow fonder "  - Commodore Rill

Although "Stage Fright" lacks in suspense it more than makes up for it in sheer entertainment. For viewers, it is a leisurely stroll to capture a criminal versus an energetic race to clear the guilt of an innocent man and we are sidetracked along the way by some delightful little characterizations by Kay Walsh and Milles Malleson, as well as Joyce Grenfell doing a wonderful guest appearance as a shooting booth attendant at the theatrical garden party. 

Richard Todd had previously scored a hit in the WWII drama "The Hasty Heart" and was fast becoming a leading star. Why Hitchcock chose not to use him in other films remains a mystery. His portrayal of the distraught Jonathan Cooper is quite chilling. Today, "The Dam Busters" ( 1955 ) remains his most recognized movie although he made many other excellent films throughout the 1950s including several Walt Disney live-action films. 

"She made me do it! Don't you see? I had no other choice"

Jane Wyman was dressed down for her role as Eve and plays a soft-spoken timid young lady who endangers herself for the sake of the man she believes she loves. When "ordinary Smith" comes into her life her affections take a new direction though. Marlene Dietrich, on the other hand, is as Dietrichesque as ever as Charlotte Inwood and is especially alluring in one particular scene. Cole Porter wrote the song The Laziest Gal in Town for her one musical number in the film and it remained a signature song in her repertoire until her final days. 

"Strangers on a Train" would be Hitchcock's next picture and its success, both critically and commercially, would knock "Stage Fright" away from the spotlight to the back rows of obscurity. Nevertheless, it is an underrated gem from the master of suspense and deserves to be recognized among his fans for its charm and character, if not for its "fright".

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