Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)

This is my contribution to the Sleuthathon organised by Movies Silently. Please do visit and read the other entries. The film I’ve chosen is controversial because of some plot elements. I won’t discuss this aspect until the end and will give a spoiler warning, since, as so often with Hitchcock, this is a film where you definitely don’t want to know what’s coming in advance! 

Stage Fright 3Jane Wyman stars as young actress Eve, who turns detective to prove the man she loves is innocent of murder. That’s the starting-point for this unusual Hitchcock thriller, also starring Marlene Dietrich and Michael Wilding. For my money, the movie disproves the claim that he couldn’t do comedy, with many hilarious moments from British character greats such as Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. At times the humour does slow the pace, but it’s all so enjoyable that it’s hard to care – and the tension still builds to an unbearable level whenever the plot calls for it. In particular, the ending of the film is increasingly tense, achieving the same sort of edge-of-the-seat agony as many better-known Hitchcocks.

Hitchcock was keen to work in London at this time because daughter Patricia was at drama school there, and he gave her a small part as a character with the wonderful name “Chubby Bannister”. Despite a mainly British cast, probably with an eye on the US box office, he chose an American actress for the lead role. I’ve just been watching Jane Wyman’s most famous films made with Douglas Sirk, so I was interested to see her in a very different part here. This was made only four years before she played an older woman in  Magnificent Obsession, yet here she is cast as a fresh-faced ingénue who still lives at home with her mother. Well, with her mother (Sybil Thorndike in sublime grande dame form) half the time, and her father (a gloriously grumpy Alastair Sim) the other half.

Wyman and Dietrich

Wyman and Dietrich

Wyman’s character, aspiring actress Eve Gill, is in love with an old friend, Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) even though he only has eyes for showgirl Charlotte Inwood (Dietrich). Jonathan goes on the run when he is wrongly accused of murder, after Charlotte kills her husband. Charlotte claims the death was an accident, but Eve suspects it was pre-meditated. So she goes undercover as the singer’s temporary Cockney maid in order to get the evidence to prove it. Unfortunately, her detective work quickly becomes complicated when she is befriended by a police detective investigating the case, “Ordinary” Smith (Michael Wilding), who starts to fall for her charms  – and she is also attracted by him. There are some scenes of farcical comedy where Eve keeps having to switch between her different personalities at a fair, hoping that nobody who knows her as “Doris” spots her as Eve, or vice versa!

Wyman had just won an Oscar for Johnny Belinda, but here she has the challenge of playing an unsuccessful actress who still has to learn her craft. She does it well, and makes Eve seem convincingly young and tentative – even though her own talent shines through, especially when Eve makes herself look dowdy and speaks with a perfect (to my ears, anyway) Cockney accent. Oddly, Wyman’s London accent is much better than her “posh” English voice, where she does sound slightly American and a line had to be written in to explain that Eve had attended school in the US.

This German poster puts the spotlight on Marlene

This German poster puts the spotlight on Marlene

Good though Wyman is, Dietrich steals an awful lot of scenes from her. She was 48 when she made this film, but looks 10 years younger and as impossibly glamorous as ever – getting all the sharpest lines and most outrageous dresses. As a fan of Dietrich’s unmistakable voice, I always feel a pang if she doesn’t get a chance to sing in a film, so her casting here as a showgirl is great. She gives a sultry, witty performance of a song  specially written for her by Cole Porter, The Laziest Gal in Town, and also performs Édith Piaf’s standard La Vie en Rose. I was interested to note that the German publicity for the film presented it more as a Dietrich movie, with a big picture of her on the posters and the title Die Rote Lola (Red Lola) – presumably inspired by memories of her role as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel. Dietrich is enjoyably multi-faced as Charlotte, putting on different personalities at will – and letting all the masks slip in one scene where she suddenly gives us a moment of pure evil. But then, as several reviews of this film point out, almost everyone in the film is acting.

Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike

Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike

The greatest joy of this movie is the fine British supporting cast, especially Alastair Sim as Commodore Gill – constantly stating his disapproval of his daughter’s detective work, but then joining in with it all the same. He and tragedy queen Dame Sybil Thorndike have some hilarious scenes together, while other greats to watch out for are Joyce Grenfell, running the “lovely ducks” stall at the fair, and Kay Walsh, who played Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, as money-grabbing maid Nellie.  

Be warned – I’m going to discuss the ending in this next bit.

The most controversial aspect of Stage Fright is the fact that, near the end, it turns out that the long flashback at the start of the film wasn’t true. It was Jonathan’s false version of events, casting himself as the innocent dupe of Charlotte – although, in fact, he was the one who killed her husband, and she was the accomplice. This plot differed from that of Selwyn Jepson’s novel. The use of a “lying” or “cheating” flashback was heavily criticised at the time, and Hitchcock himself later said it was a mistake – but was it? Is it really any different from some of the shock twists in his most famous films? I’ll admit I was brought up short by it when I first watched the film, but, thinking it over, I’m increasingly persuaded by the argument that it is just Jonathan’s story, and he fools the audience as he fools Eve. It also ties in with the whole theme of acting in a film where you just can’t believe anybody – and where Jonathan himself ends up fatally trapped under a falling stage curtain, after a tense chase through the theatre’s corridors and cellars.

While I wouldn’t claim this to be one of Hitchcock’s greatest, it is a highly enjoyable film, and one of its pleasures is that it offers such varied roles for women – with good roles for Wyman, Dietrich, Thorndike and  Walsh, and a great cameo for Grenfell.

Stage Fright 5Stage Fright 2Stage Fright 1

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36 thoughts on “Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)

  1. Enjoyed your thoughtful review. I think this is one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films. I’ve always enjoyed it and loved Wyman’s performance, especially as Dietrich’s maid. Good job here.

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  2. I agree this is an underrated film. The ending is so shocking! Normally, we as an audience tend to believe flashbacks because they usually reveal the truth. So when we discover that we’ve been lied to here, it’s shocking but also delightful – because we didn’t see it coming.

    Excellent idea for the Sleuthathon!

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    • I certainly believed the flashback and was shocked by the twist, but wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or outraged – I think I ended up feeling both reactions at once. Thanks, Ruth!

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  3. It is more than a controversial ending, it’s an out and out cheat in terms of traditional narrative tropes. And still I can kind of forgive that. There’s no question that we’re talking about lesser Hitchcock here, but it’s so damned enjoyable, as far as I’m concerned at least. Somehow it works for me, and a good deal of that is down to the memorable performances. I think the women do get the better roles but really I have no issues with anyone in particular.
    Dietrich of course is phenomenal and you can’t take your eyes off her, but she’s really just the icing on the cake. And Sim, a man I’d happily listen to reading out the phone directory. With actors like this you really can’t go far wrong.

    A good choice Judy, and a fine write up as usual.

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    • Colin, it’s interesting to hear that you see the ending as an out and out cheat but can still forgive it – it certainly adds excitement late in the film, as with Hitchcock’s more famous twists. Maybe it would have been more ‘honest’ if we had a voiceover from Todd for the flashback, to make it more arguable that it was just his version of events? Definitely agree that the actors are fantastic in this, and Dietrich and Sim in particular are both a delight, as you say. Many thanks for the great comment.

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  4. I enjoy this film a lot — certainly underrated, and I think the ending is brilliant. It was actually my favorite thing about the film when I watched it for the first time. Nice review!

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    • Thanks, Lindsey – much appreciated. As I said to Ruth above, I wasn’t too sure how to react to the ending… but it is growing on me in retrospect, appropriately enough!

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  5. Dietrich is such a scene-stealer in this film. Every time I fall in love with her fabulous gowns (I think they were designed by Dior) a little more. I agree with a lot of your thoughts about the ending: the first time I watched it I felt really cheated, as I really wanted to believe in Jonathan’s innocence but re-watches have persuaded me that this device adds another layer to the plot.
    Thanks for sharing this great review!

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    • I’ve just had a look at the imdb and they say it was Dior who did Dietrich’s gowns, uncredited – must agree with you that they are fabulous, and she steals every scene in sight! Thanks for your thoughts on the ending – I think it will be interesting for me to re-watch the film in future, knowing about the twist, and look out to see if there is anything signalling what’s to come!

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    • Many thanks, Patricia, and glad to hear you like this film so much! As I said to Colin above, I do wonder if it might make it clearer he was lying if there was a voiceover… but now I’m wondering if that might signal the twist too much in advance? Anyway, I definitely agree the film is very entertaining.

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  6. Judy, as I stated at WitD I am absolutely delighted to see this review up as for me it is so so timely. I will be seeing STAGE FRIGHT tomorrow night (March 17th) at the Film Forum as part of a double feature with FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT in the prolifically attended The Complete Hitchcock Festival at Manhattan’s Film Forum. i will return to this review on Tuesday to add my two cents, but I see already it is a magnificent piece.

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    • Sam, I hope you enjoy your double bill at the Film Forum tonight – I know that you have been having a whale of a time at the Complete Hitchcock Festival! ‘Foreign Correspondent’ is one of the many Hitchcocks I haven’t seen as yet, but I do hope to put that right. Thanks for the kind comment, and I look forward to your return after seeing the movie in such a splendid setting.

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  7. Judy,
    Despite “Stage Fright” being considered a “minor” effort in Hitchcock’s repertoire, he has provided his audience with an interesting and entertaining film. Hitchcock was never restrained by “rules” and he would use any measure available, to surprise/shock/confuse and even delight, his audience.

    Hitchcock’s concoctions are usually blended with his sometimes sly, macabre sense of humour, however , on this occasion the humour is on full display; in other films, he resorts to more subtle, sometimes visual measures to achieve his aims. It is because of the lack of Hitchcock’s unique sense of humour that many of his imitators, fail.

    What I find particular interesting is that “Stage Fright” served as a milestone in Hitchcock’s career and was instrumental in becoming the catalyst for his subsequent contract with Warner Brothers to produce and direct four additional films for the studio.

    Soon after the completion of WW 2, and anticipating the completion of his contract with David O. Selznick in 1947, Hitchcock and his associate, Sidney Bernstein formed “Transatlantic Pictures” . The intention was to produce films, directed by Hitchcock, in both the USA and the UK. When the first two films, “Rope” and “Under Capricorn” failed to attract the necessary audiences, “Stage Fright” had already commenced production, and “Transatlantic Pictures” faced “financial difficulties”.

    Because of the relationship enjoyed by both Hitchcock and Warner Brothers, the latter stepped in, and funded the project. As a consequence, Hitchcock signed the contract and produced and directed , “Strangers On A Train” (1951); ” I Confess” (1953); “Dial “M” For Murder” (1954); and “The Wrong Man” (1956); quite a good result for Mr Hitchcock’s career.

    Judy, thanks for reviewing this film.

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    • Thanks for this very interesting information putting the film in context, Rod, and for explaining the ‘Transatlantic Pictures’ situation. I’ll admit it puzzles me that ‘Rope’ wasn’t more of a success, since I found it compelling to watch – but, as you point out, he went on to several great successes after this. I’m also interested in your thoughts on Hitchcock’s sense of humour – from the films of his I’ve seen recently, I’m definitely getting the message that a very quirky, black sense of humour is a key quality, even if he didn’t do many out-and-out comedies.

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    • Dietrich is my absolute favourite actress, and she is a joy in this, I must agree. Many thanks for dropping by, and for organising this whole blogathon! I’m looking forward to catching up with more of the entries over the next day or two.

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  8. Great review,though Stage Fright is far down my list of favorite Hitchcocks. I still find it hard to accept Jane Wyman as Alistair Sim’s daughter! I didn’t find the plot strong enough for me. Mr Sim is such a delight,I’m surprised Hitch didn’t find something else for him.
    As much as I like Jane,maybe her casting wasn’t right?
    I ‘m curious to know if any other writer used that devise ( before 1950) of a false flashback. As Patricia said, it’s not unusual for a murderer to lie, but the audience has always believed a flashback in any film.

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    • Vienna, it does seem rather strange casting to have Jane Wyman as the daughter of two actors as quintessentially English as Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike… but, having said that, I do think she carries the part off well in general. Definitely agree that Sim is a delight in this. I’d also be interested to know if this was the first film with ‘false flashbacks’ – if anyone knows, please tell! Thanks so much for your comment.

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  9. Judy,
    Hitchcock’s sense of humour has been described as macabre, deadpan, unsentimental, wicked, prankish, witty, black, and more, but to understand the “Humour of Hitchcock”, where best to look, than to the Director’s own words. When interviewed about his television programmes, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” he explained that, “if the shows were going to be macabre, what I wanted was the counterpoint of “humour” to introduce them. It’s an English sense of humour, I think, rather than American”.

    Hitchcock had brought this approach to his films – his “signature” amusing and unpredictable appearances in the films themselves, brought a “counterpoint” to the suspense, that he engendered. One example of this can be seen in his 1959 spy/thriller, “North by Northwest”, (the American version of “The 39 Steps”), Hitchcock appeared in a “cameo” role as the unfortunate bus traveller who had the door closed in his face. These “cameo” appearances were a regular feature in Hitchcock films.

    Perhaps one of the best examples of his “comedy/thriller” films, was “The Trouble With Harry” (1955). Ironically it was in the idyllic setting of Vermont in autumn that the “trouble” was revealed…..”Harry” was dead, and, of the quirky characters that Hitchcock introduced, each had reason to believe that they were responsible for “Harry’s” departure. The resulting confusion and eventual resolution provided Hitchcock with many opportunities to display his “off-beat” humour. It is little wonder that, while the film did not attract sufficient audience numbers in the USA, it meet with considerable success in the UK and on the Continent.

    When interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich , Hitchcock revealed that, ” “Harry” is very important to me because it involves my own sense of humour of the macabre. It has in it, my favourite line of all the pictures I ever made: when Teddy Gwenn is pulling the body by the legs like a wheelbarrow, and the spinster comes up and says, ” What’s seems to be the trouble, Captain?”

    Judy, I hope that I have been able to give you some insight into this particular aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s character.

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    • Rod, thanks so much for all this. I do always enjoy spotting Hitchcock’s cameos in the films of his I’ve seen so far – I’ve seen one or two where he didn’t actually do one, and everyone was still looking for it!

      Must admit I haven’t seen ‘Harry’ as yet, but will be interested to do so – I have seen one Hitchcock comedy, ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’, which I didn’t like all that much and have largely forgotten, but there does seem to be a lot of great humour in his thrillers, and it’s interesting to hear his quote about that aspect. I haven’t seen his TV shows either – a lot to catch up with!

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  10. Well, Judy, I did see STAGE FRIGHT as planned on Monday night with my son Sammy as the second part of a double feature with FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. We saw both films, and the pristine 35 mm print for STAGE FRIGHT was one of the very best of the festival (I believe we have seen 29 films so far over three-and-a-half weeks, so that is quite a contention I would think) I found the film neither great nor forgettable, though in the end I was sufficiently engaged to count the film as a somewhat overlooked work that was produced during the period Hitch was at the peak of his artistic powers. The film clearly enough lacked the psychological complexity of REBECCA before it and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN after it and lacked the moral complexity of NOTORIOUS, released four years before it, or the great films of the 50’s that were just on the horizon. The film also lacks the famed set pieces in films like SABOTEUR and LIFEBOAT, but of course that was never it’s aim. No doubt these comparisons always held the appreciation for STAGE FRIGHT as guarded. Indeed a good number of critics have long contended the film is plodding and conceptually awkward. I saw the biggest problem the wooden performance of Richard Todd in that vital lead role. Marlene Dietrich was fine, and Jane Wyman (and Alistair Sim and Joyce Grefel in support) even better. Over the years there have been many complaints lodged against the deceptive flashback, but this bothers modern day audiences who by now are familiar and comfortable with such duplicity. Hitch returned to the theatrical world of MURDER (MARY in the simultaneously-filmed German version) for a solid drama that holds your attention up until the shocking finale.

    After reading your terrific review again, I’d have to say I completely agree it is enjoyable, but not one of Hitchcock’s top tier, and that the supporting cast is first-class.

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    • Sam, that’s quite something seeing such a lot of Hitchcock films together. I must admit I’ve only started getting into him in the last few years, so there are still a lot of his films I haven’t seen – and unfortunately, as you know, some of those I’ve seen on the big screen have been in dreadful prints, including Vertigo and Rear Window. It was a good experience to see them at a cinema, but I could have done with seeing them in better shape! I haven’t seen ‘Murder’ or ‘Mary’ as yet but hope to do so in future.

      While I take your point on the film not having the moral complexity of masterpieces like ‘Notorious’, I really enjoyed its humour and great character actors like Alastair Sim. I didn’t find Richard Todd as wooden as you did, but did think he was outshone in this by Michael Wilding. Anyway, Sam, glad to hear you enjoyed this even though you don’t think it is top-tier Hitchcock, and thanks very much for returning to share your further thoughts!

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  11. Judy,
    perhaps at this point in the discussion we should look to Hitchcock, himself, to determine his own feelings regarding “Stage Fright”.

    During an interview conducted in 1963, it was established that Hitchcock disliked this picture. He felt that there was a “lack of reality in one of the characters – the Jane Wyman part” and that she should have been “a pimply-faced” girl ; Miss Wyman simply refused to comply.

    It is apparent that Warner Bros imposed actress Jane Wyman upon Hitchcock as part of the agreement to continue financing the film. She was a form of “insurance” on its success. This reasoning was based upon the belief that, by including a popular and successful American actress in the leading role, the film would attract a substantial “local” audience. Miss Wyman does seem to be somewhat of a “misfit” in the “British” cast and one wonders who Hitchcock had initially chosen for the role.

    Hitchcock also expressed his regret that there was a “lack of menace” in “Stage Fright”. The villains – Dietrich and her partner lacked “menace” because they were afraid, themselves.

    In response to the complaint that, “the opening flashback was a lie”, Hitchcock asked, ” Now why can’t a man tell a lie?” The Master of Suspense, found, on a number of occasions, that, “If you break a tradition, you are in trouble every time”.

    I considered the self-criticism of his own film to be most interesting.

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    • As most people realize, it is often a faulty barometer to judge a film’s worth by the sentiments of its creator. In an interview for The New York Times on June 18, 1971, Hitchcock stated that THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY was his favorite of all his films. That 1955 film is widely considered one of Hitchcock’s least impressive films by the critical mass and by fans of the director. Hitchcock did also identify a much better film, SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) as his favorite to other interviewers, so the matter is reasonably clouded. Still his summary judgment of the later film is clear enough. It is also widely known that Hitch expressed some serious issues to Francois Truffaut in his landmark interviews with VERTIGO, which is now seen as one of the greatest films of all-time and was in fact voted Number 1 by SIGHT AND SOUND in 2012 after a six-decade reign of CITIZEN KANE at poll position.

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    • Rod, it’s interesting to hear that Jane Wyman was foisted on Hitchcock by the studio – I’d read somewhere that she was his choice, which seemed surprising to me as you’d think he would have wanted a British actress for the role, so it makes more sense that Warner insisted on her. I agree it would be interesting to know who he would have chosen, but, although Wyman might be surprising casting, I did enjoy her performance in this.

      Also an interesting comment from Hitchcock about the lack of menace – I think this is a fair criticism, but it doesn’t really bother me because the film has other things to make up for it, like the humour from Alastair Sim. Thanks for all this great information.

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    • Sam, I definitely need to see Vertigo again in a decent print – will aim to do so soon. It did make a strong impression on me at the cinema, but I was distracted by the terrible condition of the picture. As I said to Rod above, I haven’t yet seen ‘The Trouble with Harry’, so can’t comment on it – but again I do intend to. I have a lot of catching up to do! I do always find it interesting to read artists’ comments on their own work, even while not always agreeing with their judgements. And, yeah, I need to read those Truffaut interviews.

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  12. I remember seeing Stage Fright for the first time and feeling cheated, even though I had been warned, I think, by reading the Truffaut book. I don’t mind anymore. It’s a lot of fun, and so was your post. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

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    • Sounds like I ought to read that Truffaut book, Joe. It’s interesting that you minded at first but don’t now. Thanks for your nice comment!

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  13. Many thanks to all for the further comments – I’m a bit tied up over the next day or two, so can’t respond to each comment now, but will do so as soon as I can!

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  14. It’s been years since I saw this Hitchcock film and have never returned to watch it again. I should take another look. I really don’t remember much about it and assume that at the time i did not find it memorable enough and that has kept me from taking another look. I have never cared much for Jane Wyman, maybe that’s another reason I have not gone back, but your comments on how Marlene just about steals the film does entice me. Dietrich is always intriguing. A wonderful read as always!

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    • Yes, Dietrich is fantastic in this, as always – I’ve just seen a comment at the imdb saying that there was a longer take of her Cole Porter song on an old French VHS of this film, which makes me hope that take will turn up somewhere more accessible! If you like Dietrich and character actors like Alastair Sim, then I think you would enjoy this, John. Many thanks for the comment!

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  15. I have a soft spot for Stage Fright; it was the first Hitchcock film I ever saw. While I don’t think it ranks among his best, it does succeed at everything it sets out to do, giving you a funny, charming mystery with great side characters and a nice twist. The flashback never bothered me, even as a kid, but that’s just my own personal take on it. Jane Wyman is as likable here as I’ve ever seen her, even if her casting is a little inscrutable, and it can’t have been easy to hold her own against Dietrich’s glamorous scene-stealing. But Alastair Sim is definitely my favorite in the cast. His reactions crack me up every time.

    Thanks for this great review!

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    • Definitely agree that Alastair Sim is so much fun to watch in this – his humour is very dry and I think he makes a deliciously batty combination with Sybil Thorndike. It seems, from all the great comments that people have made, as if there is a lot of affection for this film even though few people would rate it as one of Hitchcock’s greatest. Thanks so much for the comment, Aubyn.

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