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: