d. Alfred Hitchcock. United Kingdom. 110 mins.
Note: No serious discussion of Stage Fright, cinematically or historically, would be complete without revealing the rather severe details of its plot. Although it is not one of Alfred Hitchcock's great films, it is nonetheless moderately enjoyable, and if you have an interest in seeing it, you should not read further. That is, until you've seen it – then, of course, you ought to come back.
Stage Fright is the sort of film that can be characterized as a return to Alfred Hitchcock's roots, so to speak. After the failed legal melodrama in The Paradine Case and the extravagant stylistic flourishes in Rope and Under Capricorn, this 1950 film is a murder mystery, and one he made in England to boot. For all its minor (and one major) shortcomings, it was the ideal kind of film Hitchcock needed at the point in his career. His work in the early 1940s ranged from above par to masterful, and by the latter part of the decade, it seems he needed to perform a little backtracking and re-energize himself and cleanse his palette of excessive experimentation. Stage Fright shares many qualities with his British work from the 1930s, namely the director's fascination with the psychological nuances of acting and theater (a theme and interest that occurs a few times in his oeuvre), and in those aspects it is a rather engaging study on deception. However, the film crumbles near the end under the weight of a decision that Hitchcock would later say was the worst mistake he'd made in filmmaking.
The eye of the hurricane is Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich, a pure stretch in the role of a diva actress). She is having an affair with an actor named Jonathan (Richard Todd) and the two become embroiled in the murder of Charlotte's husband. Jonathan, in a panic, rushes to his friend Eve Gill (played by Jane Wyman, a.k.a. the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan), a theater student of the theater who has had a long-standing crush on him. He is panicked and tells her that Charlotte has murdered her husband but it is he who, because of dumb luck in the Hitchcock universe, is the chief suspect. Eve goes undercover as a maid to Charlotte to work as a junior detective from the inside in order to prove Jonathan's innocence. But it gets more complicated when an actual detective begins investigating the murder and falls for Eve, who is in her undercover role but can't tell the detective for fear of Jonathan's arrest.
The story is complicated enough – with all its acting and doubling and overload of information – but the twist comes late in the film. When Jonathan first approaches Eve for help, he tells her exactly what happened, and Hitchcock shows the events in scene that consumes a relatively decent amount of the movie's beginning. But the flashback, without warning or indication, is false. By the film's end, Jonathan reveals to Eve that all of her work to prove his innocence was for naught, because he is the actual murderer. It is surprising and confusing to us, as viewers, because Hitchcock had asked that we not only take Jonathan's word for it (which would have been fine for the purposes of a mystery), but we are taking the camera's indelible word for it, too.
Of course this "mistake" cuts both ways, depending on the viewer. It is as much of a narrative experiment as Rope and Under Capricorn are stylistic experiments, but unlike those, it's not immediately noticeable. Hitchcock was not afraid to revise history as it was being written, and he moved quickly to disown the flashback as a mistake in film production. He noted that the film went through another draft as it was being made and the flashback became erroneous only after much of the story had been filmed. In hindsight, anyone with a minor background in Hitchcock can probably tell he's lying through his teeth; could the notorious planner, who visualized every scene before the cameras started rolling, have filmed such a gigantic narrative error? Or is his other version of the story – an error in the sense that audiences were underprepared for such twisting and bending in the story arc – be more likely? For me, the latter is the obvious answer.
That doesn't mean Hitchcock needed to apologize, or that anyone is wrong in rewarding the film for its experimentation. I appreciate it more in retrospect than in the process of watching it, and it's interesting enough that I can see what drew the director to the material. A loyal band of Hitchcock enthusiasts and art cineastes (including the pro-America cadre at Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s) enjoy the twist, but I believe falsely couple it as an artistic device in the same vein as the other time and point-of-view twist film of 1950, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. To me, the two are completely disparate. Rashomon, as a film, throws itself wholeheartedly into the structure of multiple points of view and unreliable narrators. Stage Fright, which veers close to the illusion, does not feel like it is entirely invested in the device. It hews too closely to the standard Hollywood tradition of classical narration; if anything, the flashback fails because Hitchcock, unlike Kurosawa, didn't go far enough with it.
Although the narrative has some problems, the acting of the leads is topnotch. Wyman and Dietrich have a wonderful screen rapport. Not unlike the huffy and self-important character she plays, Dietrich steals the show. She was one of three veteran actresses to slide into the role of a prima donna in 1950 – Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis were the others, in Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve respectively – and her performance for Stage Fright is juicy and occasionally sultry. Wyman, outshined by Dietrich, is fun as a junior detective, and the two women are the heart of the film. The men on the cast – Todd, Wilding, and Alastair Sim, who plays Wyman's father – are sufficient.
The script is by Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, and Whitfield Cook. Reville steered the story through the adaptation process and Cook wrote the screenplay with additional help by James Bridie (a three-time Hitchcock collaborator) and Oscar-winning writer Ranald MacDougall. Hitchcock had his hand in the script, as he did on all his productions, and such an impressive line-up doesn't lend itself to the early theory initially pushed by the director that its flashback was a slight error in screenwriting and continuity. I think what the writing crew and Hitchcock tried to is pretty admirable, even though it doesn't quite work, and can appreciate Stage Fright more in execution.
And, if it's any consolation, the false flashback is not the worst mistake Alfred Hitchcock ever made. That would still be Jamaica Inn.
01 December 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock. United Kingdom. 110 mins.