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Hitchapalooza 12: Role Playing Fun With “Stage Fright” (1950) July 9, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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IMPORTANT WORDS OF WARNING: There’s no way to discuss this movie without spoilers a-plenty, so if you’ve never seen it, I’d suggest ordering it off Netflix right now & then reading this blog entry after you see it. Yes, I recommend this one – it’s fun, witty, well-paced & clever, although the ending is a tad lame & it pulls a movie “cheat” in a way that makes it more fun to think about after rather than when you’re watching it and well, feel cheated!

Did you watch it? Good! Wasn’t Hitchcock’s cameo rather obvious this time? I thought you’d agree.

Hitchcock was drawn to this material since it involved the idea of people assuming different roles in everyday life for various reasons of deception, and how those deceptions would eventually overlap and implode each other – perhaps it’s why the middle chunk of Stage Fright works the best on you when you view it for the first time, since at that point the disguises & role playing by Jane Wyman in her determination to turn Nancy Drew and prove her unrequited love innocent of murder are laid out pretty explicitly to the audience. It’s only after the revelations towards the end that we are told that we too, along with Wyman, have been played by Jonathan (Richard Todd) as well as Hitchcock, who gives us a flashback sequence that turns out to be a total con job, breaking the usual rule of film where it’s one thing for a character to tell us a lie, it’s another thing for the director to show us that lie and have the plot spin off of it. In this way, Jonathan is also playing a role in real life – that of the wrongly accused innocent on the run, a character all too familiar to Hitchcock fans. Since amateur actress Eve (Wyman) buys his story, she uses her acting chops to play reporter, damsel in distress, and ultimately substitute maid to murder suspect Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). These multiple personas cross her up when she falls for police detective Smith (Michael Wilding) and eventually must confess to harboring the fugitive Jonathan as well as messing around with her own investigations.

If this sounds more like a comedy, well, it actually plays better as one. In a way, it has the tone I think Hitchcock was trying for in his final film Family Plot, that of the comedy murder mystery, only it works better here since the story is simpler and the rear projection doesn’t look at hokey. The technical touches in this one are very nice indeed – from a very impressive cutless crane shot of Todd entering Dietrich’s apartment from the street and following him upstairs, to the way in which we know Eve is about to abandon her pursuit of the indifferent Jonathan aside for Detective Smith when we see her POV of the piano Smith had been playing earlier and we hear the music in her head, to the way that Hitchcock lights & focuses on Eve & Jonathan’s eyes in a final tense confrontation where Even can only save herself with one final bit of role playing, one that can overcome the stage fright we can feel in real life when we are threatened (something we see happen to Dietrich earlier in the film when confronted with a bloodied doll)… this one is put together very well. In the long view too, Stage Fright is masterfully paced – starting up at a breakneck speed (literally) as a speeding car down the road to the flashback of the murder – but then gradually slowing down and quieting, all the way to the final confrontation between Eve & Jonathan, which is all calm, deliberate, quiet – this time, in a still carriage, reflecting the opposite pole of where we started out, not only in terms of movement, but in terms of their relationship.

Though she’d never be in such a dangerous position if someone didn’t suddenly lose all their intelligence and yell out something totally unnecessary that only exists to set up the danger and nothing else (hence my “lame” alarm going off).

But forgiving that – Great performances all around! Wyman is very appealing and plucky (although never allowing herself to look as frumpy as a real nerdy maid, something that annoyed Hitchcock about working with her), Wilding does well as Mr. British Charm, Dietrich is vampy and (as per her own instructions, to no surprise) lit as well as Von Sternberg ever lit her. Alastair Sim is also good fun as Eve’s eccentric dad. Hitchcock felt annoyed at having been given Sim for the role since Sim was a leading British name at the time, but I thought he did a great job here.

In short – highly recommended! This was one of the Hitchcock films I’d never seen, it’s never shown too often, and that’s too bad. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a neglected masterpiece, but it’s certainly a neglected winner from the guy, certainly up there with To Catch A Thief or Dial M For Murder. Perhaps it gets overshadowed by the truly great films he made shortly after, like Strangers On A Train and Rear Window, but it’s definitely worth your while.

On deck: early Hitchcock from the big DVD collection I got some time back. Stay tuned!

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