Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: STAGE FRIGHT (1950)

Released just before the wildly successful Strangers on a Train (1951), Stage Fright (1950) ranks among the minor entries in the Alfred Hitchcock canon. It lacks the screw tightening suspense of the best of the director's pictures, and its humor, while engaging, never reaches that pitch black, twisted level that fans adore in the most iconic Hitchcock films. That said, Stage Fright offers an assortment of entertaining performances from its cast, especially a collection of delightful character actors in supporting roles. Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich carry the lightweight murder plot, such as it is, but the scene stealers here are Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh, and Joyce Grenfell, each playing the sort of offbeat character you'll remember long after you forget the details of the fuzzy central narrative.

The film opens with aspiring actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) trying to help Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) escape a murder charge that he claims to have gotten mixed up in on behalf of the seductive stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). Charlotte's husband has been killed, with Cooper spotted leaving the scene by Charlotte's maid, Nellie (Kay Walsh). Eve enlists her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), as a confederate in hiding Cooper from the police, including the charming Detective Smith (Michael Wilding), for whom Eve rapidly develops some very inconvenient feelings. Determined to expose Charlotte as the real killer, Eve disguises herself as a mousy dresser named Doris, but her efforts are complicated by the constant appearance of people who know her as Eve.

Several elements make this movie a less than successful Hitchcock production. The most glaring is the flashback used at the beginning to create a set of expectations for both Eve and the audience. There's something not quite right about it, as later events prove. There's also not much suspense in the way that the action unfolds. Eve's deceptions provide plenty of comedy, but it's more straightforward than perverse, and she never encounters any seriously dangerous situations until the very end of the film. Contrast the pacing and mood here with those in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for instance, and it's easy to see that Stage Fright wanders a bit and lacks real teeth as a proper thriller. More might be made of the uncertainty the audience feels about Cooper, who exploits Eve's unrequited affection to save his own neck, but Richard Todd's perfectly acceptable performance is overshadowed by the livelier character actors and the very engaging Dietrich, who makes a far more interesting murder suspect as the selfish, glamorous star.

What it lacks in suspense and narrative thrust, Stage Fright makes up for in the little things, and it's still a movie worth seeing if you're a fan of English character actors. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike are delightful as Eve's eccentric, estranged parents, with Sim getting an especially juicy role. The scene in which Cooper asks to spend the night at Eve's home gives the pair a great scene together; watch their expressions and body language as they discuss where everyone is going to sleep. Kay Walsh is pricklier but no less engaging as the scheming dresser, Nellie, who lets Eve bribe her and then demands blackmail money to continue their ruse. She and Sim get big laughs when he brings the required funds to the garden party but fails to recognize their intended recipient. Joyce Grenfell, billed in the credits as "Lovely Ducks," has only one scene, but it's a corker, a sublime example of feminine physical comedy. Just watch how she fumbles and chatters her way through an attempt to load the Commodore's gun. Speaking of characters with limited scenes, be sure to note the director's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, as Chubby Bannister, one of Eve's friends from the drama school.

With its English setting and characters, Stage Fright hearkens back to the films Hitchcock made before his move to Hollywood. Try The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) for a sense of that phase of the director's career. Jane Wyman won the Oscar for Best Actress for Johnny Belinda (1948); you'll also find her in The Yearling (1946), The Glass Menagerie (1950), and Magnificent Obsession (1954). Marlene Dietrich's other films from the 1950s include Rancho Notorious (1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958). Catch Michael Wilding in Torch Song (1953), and see Richard Todd take a more saintly turn in A Man Called Peter (1955). Although he appeared in more than fifty films, including Green for Danger (1947), An Inspector Calls (1954), and School for Scoundrels (1960), Alastair Sim is best remembered today for his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol.