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!
Jane 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’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.
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.
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.