For the Love of Film: On Stage Fright

In a Film Comment essay from 1984 (reprinted in his recent collection When Movies Mattered) on five Hitchcock films that had just been rereleased, Dave Kehr proposes a series of art metaphors for each film: Rope as literature, Rear Window photography, The Trouble with Harry painting, The Man Who Knew Too Much music and Vertigo cinema itself.  The film missing from that series (I assume because it was not among the rereleases) is Stage Fright, whose connection to theatre and acting is perhaps the most obvious of all.  The film begins with a curtain being raised, slowly, on a scene of London traffic, prefiguring the opening credits of Rear Window, and ends with a curtain dropping, literally, on the villain.  The lead is Jane Wyman, a young acting student who is told an elaborate flashback at the beginning of the film by the man she’s in love with (Richard Todd) about how he aided and abetted the covering up of a murder by the woman he’s in love with (a star actress, played by Marlene Dietrich, her husband was the victim) and was spotted, thus becoming the target of the police’s investigation.  This is a classic Hitchcockian wrong man set-up, and the two women are textbook Hitchcockian women: the brunette Wyman that Todd sees only as a friend and the alluring, icy blonde Dietrich, who uses her sex appeal to manipulate Todd to his own destruction.

But the film quickly veers off the expected path.  Rather than following Todd’s struggles to clear his name, a la The Thirty-Nine Steps or North by Northwest, he quickly disappears from the action as Wyman takes on the investigative role, donning a series of disguises and performing her way into both Dietrich’s household (as a maid) and the arms of the dashing police detective (Under Capricorn‘s Michael Wilding) with the help of her father, a kooky old man who likes to pretend he’s a smuggler when really he’s just a nice guy with an awesome voice, played by Alastair Sim.  The film meanders about in the middle (Robin Wood found the film interesting in the context of Hitchcock’s career, but pretty boring to sit through) as Wyman tries to gather evidence of Todd’s innocence and Dietrich’s guilt, but I found the playfulness with the idea of performance pretty charming.  Wyman slowly getting into character as the mousy maid with a ridiculous accent, or getting confused as to which man she’s really in love with and which she’s just pretending is pretty cute and even Dietrich gets a chance to demonstrate that her character isn’t nearly as callous as she appears, that her icy exterior is too a performance.  Also, coming off the extreme experimentation of Rope and Under Capricorn, we see Hitchcock blending the audaciously long takes of those films into a more conventional, less exciting style.  Especially notable is an early track through a doorway that somehow becomes a long crane shot inside a house up a grand staircase and along a hallway.

The long circular middle leads to a predictable, but nonetheless satisfying twist: that we’ve been lied to from the start: Todd is a performer as well and his flashback sequence which began the film was a lie: he actually was the murderer, he was the right man.  The details here are fudged a bit, at least I didn’t quite catch how the whole bloody dress thing came about (this was Todd’s evidence of Dietrich’s involvement in the murder, but he’d faked it to make it look more bloody than it really was, or something), but by this point it doesn’t really need to make sense, nor can it.  When film is shown to be built on a lie, an act, a performance, can anything be trusted to be the “truth” and does it matter?

In Kehr’s scheme, he sees the first two films (Rope and Rear Window) as viewing art (literature, photography) as monstrous while the second two (The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much) see art (painting, music) as life-affirming.  Vertigo, as cinema, “moves beyond pro and con, to confront the issue of full complexity.”  Stage Fright is the flip side of that: it’s isn’t particularly complex, but it’s a comedy where Vertigo is a tragedy.  Both films are built around lies and life as performance, but in Vertigo the lies control us, we are in thrall to the past, fictional or not it doesn’t matter.  In Stage Fright, lies are a means to an end: they liberate and elucidate more than they bind and cover up.  In Stage Fright, there is a final final curtain and (we can assume?) the performance ends; in Vertigo, the madness spirals out of control, into infinity.

This is my second entry in the third annual For the Love of FIlm Blogathon, raising money for the National Film Preservation Foundation to make The White Shadow available for free streaming and to record the score for the film.  Check out the rest of the blogathon at Ferdy on Films, The Self-Styled Siren and This Island Rod, and if you can, click the donate button below:

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7 thoughts on “For the Love of Film: On Stage Fright

  1. Nice write-up, Sean. It's been a few years but I remember enjoying this more than the general consensus.

    Apparently Hitch himself was none too happy with the film. He disliked Wyman's performance and called the false flashback a mistake. I respectfully disagree, at least with the latter assessment. The twist is what makes Stage Fright an interesting movie. Far from grade-A Hitchcock but worthwhile nonetheless.

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  2. Thanks. I actually liked Wyman more than I expected to, having only seen her in the Sirk films before. She struck me as the best realization of the perky-cute HItchcock heroine, a less explored Hitch type but one that's there in The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Family Plot, at least.

    Are you going to join the blogathon? You really should, it's a great cause. Also, I still have your Hitchcock's Music book.

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  3. I also think the lying flashback was an interesting device; what's surprising is that it doesn't get more attention in considering Hitchcock's overall work – the whole basis of the plot is undermined by what is a radical use of narrative. Perhaps it's because the rest of the film seems much more conventional and a little bland in comparison that people tend to forget it? When you think of it, it's not until Vertigo and Psycho that Hitchcock again uses lying devices to undermine his story's believability; in those cases, it's the non- or no-longer-existing character, of Madeleine and Mrs Bates, respectively (also North by Northwest, which hinges on Cary Grant being mistaken for a fictional person). I rather like the 2 quirky parents in Stagefright, particularly Sybil Thorndike as Wyman's dotty mother; she's in that nice tradition of memorable Hitchcock moms.

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  4. Oh yeah, the mom is a lot of fun. Her interactions with Sim are a blast, though everyone's interactions with Sim are great.

    There are a lot of strikes against the film: no real big stars:Dietrich really isn't in it that much, and Wyman is not someone you'd associate with the suspense thriller genre and the male leads are neither big nor especially dynamic (which isn't all that unusual for Hitchcock, but still); the meandering in the middle that Wood complained about, it didn't bother me because I enjoyed the playful atmosphere, but I can see how it'd be a real drag if you're not on its wavelength; finally, it just gets overshadowed by the films that surround it: Rope and Under Capricorn drawing the experimental crowd coming directly before, and the string of undeniable masterpieces from Strangers on a Train through Marnie starting right after.

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  5. Thanks for drawing attention to a film that seems minor. I don't think Wyman can carry her part–mostly because of that abysmal voice and accent(s)–but it's true that there is much to savor here.

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