The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Jonathan Cooper is wanted by the police, who suspect him of killing his lover’s husband. His friend Eve Gill offers to hide him, and Jonathan explains to her that his lover, actress Charlotte Inwood, is the real murderer. Eve decides to investigate for herself, but when she meets the detective in charge of the case, she starts to fall in love.
James: Oh man, I liked this flick—at least, until the end. But this film definitely brings back the Hitch we know and love. There’s so much to talk about in Stage Fright. I loved the cast, I loved the plot, I loved the pacing. And it’s a very funny film. Great stuff. Hell, even the opening credits, with the curtain opening on London, are well done.
Jason: I was surprised by how much I liked Stage Fright, considering it’s one of Hitch’s lesser-known films. This reminds me of the “surprise” of watching Foreign Correspondent, one of the director’s less celebrated films that turned out to be one of my favorites. I agree that Stage Fright is a triumphant return to form for Hitchcock, and a return of some much-needed humor to his films.
James: Yes, humor has been lacking in recent Hitchcock films. We’ve been watching some serious films, so now that the humor has returned, Stage Fright has that much more impact. There are some great witty remarks in this film, and I’m glad that’s back.
Jason: Rope had its own morbid brand of humor, but I don’t think Hitch has shown this amount of droll wit since Mr. & Mrs. Smith almost 10 years earlier! (Although, Suspicion and Saboteur had their moments.)
James: For me, the most obvious discussion should center on whether the false flashback helps or hinders this film. When the truth was revealed at the end—that Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) has been lying and is actually guilty of murdering the husband of stage-star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich)—I felt completely ripped off. I felt that the revelation hurt the characters and the entire plot. It wasn’t an acceptable twist. I found myself no longer really caring about anything from that moment forward. Had Hitchcock simply not shown the flashback, it would’ve worked fine, but since Hitch led me to believe Jonathan wasn’t the killer but rather an innocent man wrongly accused, I wasn’t ready for that reveal.
Jason: You’re right, enjoyment of the movie hinges on whether you accept the false flashback, whether we mind Hitchcock essentially lying to us. My first reaction was, “Hey! Wait a second! You can’t do that!” And that led me to wonder why I felt that way. After all, it’s a flashback told from the perspective of the killer, Jonathan, who is the real liar. Why can’t Jonathan deceive us just as he’s deceiving Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), his girlfriend? The flashback begins and ends with his voice. We’re just seeing a dramatization of his lie. Does that really mean that Hitch is lying to his audience, or is he putting false images into the mind of a liar? That’s what I keep mulling over, and the more I think about it, the more I admire Hitch’s balls for going for it. But I’m with you in the sense that it feels like a betrayal at first.
James: I’m still torn about the flashback. I go back and forth. I suppose it doesn’t matter, since my gut instinct is that it was a cheat. As you say, part of the trouble is that Jonathan visualizes the lie for the audience. I can see how it might have worked better had it perhaps come later in the film, had we felt some suspicion here and there, or had Jonathan been the main character. But he basically just gets the plot moving and from then on, he’s sort of an afterthought. At least, he’s not the focal point of the story. He always felt like a darker character, so the revelation itself works. I never really trusted him, but not to the point of thinking his flashback was a lie.
Jason: I read last night in Hitchcock/Truffaut that Hitch genuinely wondered, even long after the fact, why flashbacks can’t lie. I find it interesting that both Alma Hitchcock and her co-writer Whitfield Cook were against the false flashback, believing it was a cheat and a lie. But Hitch stuck to his guns and went with it anyway.
James: I must say that the more I think about it, the more I like the twist. No, I still wouldn’t say I like the false flashback, but I’m very interested to go back through the film with the knowledge I now have. The way Charlotte acts and the things she says . . . I wonder if I’ll look at them differently with my newfound understanding.
Jason: I know what you mean about re-evaluating the film after the twist. Even while watching, I thought Charlotte was behaving erratically, both putting on a bitchy show based on her stage personality and occasionally becoming a human being concerned about Jonathan.
James: Regardless, I think the ending really hampered the film.
Jason: One thing I really enjoyed about this film is that it’s Hitch’s first really successful movie about the stage, unlike Murder! or Rope, which have similar thematic and stylistic elements. As with those movies, he dives deep into the “staginess” of the story—as you say, starting the film with a curtain, letting us know that what we’re about to see is a “play.” As such, the movie is filled with performances within performances. Most obviously, the false flashback itself is a “performance,” as is Eve’s quest to find Jonathan innocent. She adopts at least a couple disguises or alternate personae to infiltrate Charlotte’s household and discover the truth. Charlotte is constantly performing her stage character off the stage, frustrating our and Eve’s efforts to figure her out. There are other performances too, among the supporting cast. The only character not really in disguise is the detective, Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding, from Under Capricorn), who becomes known as “Ordinary Smith.”
James: I also enjoyed the performances within performances. It seems that everyone is acting as someone else.
Jason: Along this same notion, I noticed a lot of mirrors in this film, suggesting the dual nature of many of the characters.
James: Ah, mirrors. I hadn’t caught that. And it’s interesting that Eve and her father turn out to be better detectives than the real deal.
Jason: That’s a good catch. Of course, we know that Hitch doesn’t think much about the police, so this element plays to that. Also, it re-introduces Hitch’s age-old concept of amateur sleuths figuring out the big mysteries, as in Young and Innocent and Shadow of a Doubt and others. It’s a classic Hitch theme dealt with in a new way.
Jason: The supporting cast in this film is terrific, isn’t it? I gather many of the actors are old UK favorites, and Hitch had the pick of the litter out there. Everyone in Britain wanted to work with him by this point.
James: Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), Eve’s father, was absolutely perfect. Just his face was funny. But he really brought something to the character. I wouldn’t say it was lighthearted, but the way he spoke, his mannerisms, and so on—it all created a lovable character. And his scene with “Lovely Ducks” (Joyce Grenfell), the sharp-toothed woman at the theatrical garden party, when he gets the baby doll at the shooting gallery, is classic.
Jason: I read a couple of bad reviews of the Commodore character, but I really got a kick out of Sim. I thought he added a lot to the tone of the film and to the father-daughter dynamic. He was like a better version of the blind-man character in Saboteur. And his relationship with Mrs. Gill (Sybil Thorndike) is a riot. They’re separated, but there’s still a funny spark between them, the way he looks at her suggestively when she’s wondering where he might sleep for the night—classic. And yes, his interaction with the crazy woman at the shooting gallery is hilarious. Grenfell has this great horse-toothed insanity thing going on.
James: Good stuff.
Jason: Interestingly, this is also the first time Hitch has tackled a “whodunit” (in the Agatha Christie mode) since that other stagebound film, Murder! I’d say this effort is far more successful. On a side note, I should note that Stage Fright is based on a Selwyn Jepson novel called Man Running, which is part of a detective series in which Eve Gill is the recurring detective character.
James: Eve Gill as a detective? I wonder how she gets herself involved in other cases. But I think you kind of touched on why this whodunit doesn’t work (well, it works, but it’s not quite right with that flashback). Eve and her father go through all this trouble to find the killer and trap Charlotte in her lies, but in the end, even they’re wrong. While it’s an interesting twist, there’s a part of me that wanted them to save the day and find the real killer. Because of that lie, no one is right and no one actually finds the answer since Jonathan spills the beans instead of being trapped.
Jason: Good point about the whodunit not firing on all cylinders. Still, the fact remains that during the process of their sleuthing, Eve is a more effective detective than Smith is. I enjoyed the story of figuring out the mystery, even though it ended unpredictably—and perhaps unfairly, with that flashback. But yeah, Jonathan changes all the rules late in the game, and I guess it does lessen the impact of the sleuths’ efforts. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch says the film ultimately fails because the villain is uninteresting. “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” He also says the characters are never in any real danger. In Stage Fright, the villain is a little schizophrenic, and we don’t have a clear idea of him until the end, when he suddenly changes from sympathetic to downright creepy.
James: Interesting point about the villain and the lack of danger. The only moment we think there’s any danger is when Milly is walking toward the tent, only to be intercepted by Commodore. Even then, it’s not real danger.
Jason: So, the villain aspect of the film does fail, and maybe that means the whole central mystery fails. But I enjoyed the “ride” of the film more than I valued a clean resolution.
James: You know what’s odd? I’ve already completely forgiven the ending and the false flashback. The journey was so fun and interesting, my mind has stuck with the joy of the moment. Generally, an ending can make or break a film. But here, it turns out that the journey is all that matters. I’ll rank this one rather high despite the fact that I was let down by the climax.
James: Let me take a step back really quick and ask, “Why the hell does Hitchcock insist on setting his films outside the United States?” Is it simply because he knows Europe better? Or that he has a good relationship with the actors there?
Jason: Maybe his experiences in America thus far had been a mixed bag, and he wanted to return to his home turf, for the comfort level. A part of it was also the specter of Transatlantic Pictures, which was his baby. I think Stage Fright started out as a Transatlantic movie before the company folded. And yeah, sure he was more comfortable setting and filming his movies in the UK. That’s where he grew up, it’s what he was most familiar with. He probably had far more relationships out there and just found things generally easier.
James: You know, this film has so many themes that are rampant throughout his career. It seems like a number of his films have a doting mother who is at least a bit eccentric or “weird” in some way but who also seems lost as far as the real story goes. In Rope, the character was actually David’s aunt, but it seems that there’s a motherly type figure in a lot of his films who doesn’t have any idea of what’s going on. Heck, this persona goes all the way back to The Lodger. In this one, I loved when she quickly handed the bourbon to the maid when she realized Smith was a detective.
Jason: Yes, there are more recurring themes than I ever thought there’d be. And I think we’re just getting started on the “mother” motif. That’s really going to become a major theme as we go forward, climaxing with Norman’s mother in Psycho.
James: I just realized something. Many of Hitch’s flicks come full circle. In The 39 Steps, the film opens and ends on Mr. Memory. In Stage Fright, the film opens and closes on a curtain, first rising on the city then lowering on the killer. Hmmm, interesting . . . I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of storytelling.
Jason: Great catch about the curtain falling on Jonathan at the end—literally, decapitating him. The whole ending is well shot, with all the shadows across Eve and Jonathan’s faces, as he confesses to the murder. And The 39 Steps is also revisited at the very end of the film, in which we have a villain killed onstage and a fadeout on the happy couple beginning their romantic life together.
James: Is it just me, or do many of the actors in this film remind you of other actors in other Hitch films? Eve totally looks like Hitchcock’s daughter, Pat (who had the great name of Tubby in this one). I couldn’t figure out who Freddie Williams (Hector MacGregor) looked like, but he was certainly reminiscent of another Hitchcock actor. Maybe Sebastian (Claude Rains) from Notorious? Jonathan reminded me of a demented George Sanders, from Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent. It’s a slight resemblance, but it’s there. A more crazed look, for sure.
Jason: Yes, I’ve believed for a long time that Hitchcock revisits certain character types, and even actor types, throughout his career. The mousy character that resembles his daughter is pretty common, and is played three times by Pat herself! (Her character’s name is Chubby, by the way.) I’d even go so far as to say the two leads are reminiscent of many Hitch leads, from The 39 Steps to The Lady Vanishes to Young and Innocent to Saboteur.
James: I wonder where Tubby came from. I meant Chubby, of course.
Jason: There’s an interesting Hitch quote that speaks to all this. He said, “Casting is characterization,” which tells me that he searched for particular physical types and specific traits in his actors when casting—completely makes sense that they’re often reminiscent of one another.
James: There were some seriously wonderful camera tricks in Stage Fright. That crane shot moving in on Jonathan at the beginning as he enters the house and walks up the stairs . . . nicely done.
Jason: That shot is the most accomplished in the film, and interesting that it happens within the false flashback, a swooping, omniscient shot that perhaps would be better (in that context) as a more subjective shot. (And it’s got the symbolism of the stairs, leading Jonathan to what we’ll discover is his own crime scene.)
James: I loved the interaction between the lead characters in the bar. “You don’t look like an actress.” Hilarious. And then later, Freddie tells her that she’d be attractive if she’d just do something with her face. These are great lines that are at once funny but also support the narrative. It turns out that she’s the best actress of them all because of what she pulls off, but she’s not the glamorous actress that most people associate with a star.
Jason: Your mention of the bar scene makes me want to talk about Jane Wyman, who played Eve. I agree that she looks a lot like Pat Hitchcock, and I don’t doubt Hitch was going for that look intentionally. I read, though, that Hitch had a lot of trouble with Wyman on the set. He wanted her to dress down for her impersonation of Charlotte’s maid, but she resisted, thinking she looked awful in comparison with the glamorous Marlene Dietrich. Obviously, Hitch was going for an unremarkable look for Eve, as with Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent, but through the filming, Wyman ended up gradually making herself more pretty and ultimately spoiling the effect Hitch was going for. Nevertheless, I liked Wyman in the part, finding her a good combination of smart and naïve.
James: Yeah, it’s obvious that the look he was going for was the homely type. I think it makes sense that she would look different from the star. But the idea of an actress not going for it because she essentially doesn’t want to be upstaged is ridiculous. It’s amazing the lengths that stars will go to in order to not look bad.
Jason: Warner’s was even behind Wyman on her complaints. She’d just won an Oscar for the studio, so Warner’s wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of Hitch dressing down their star of the moment.
James: I wonder if all of this ties in with Hitch’s supposed contempt for actors. In a way, he’s saying that the average person is above the stars.
Jason: I think it’s interesting that, at first, Eve blindly trusts Jonathan (the man she loves in the beginning), going to great lengths to prove his innocence, regardless of the truth—shades of The Paradine Case. And eventually, her affections move to Smith, so we have another case of a duplicitous woman, even though it’s played comically. I loved the shot of Eve hugging Jonathan uncertainly, later in the film, all the while watching the empty piano and hearing the tune that Smith had played. A nice switch of affection right in that one shot.
James: I actually thought that shot with the piano was going to play out differently. I thought it was in reference to her mom saying that a simple tune could often send Sherlock Holmes onto the correct line of thinking that would eventually help him solve the case. I thought her remembering the tune would give her the inspiration to figure it all out. But instead, it’s as you stated. Just her realizing it’s the average man, Smith, who she really loves.
Jason: We should also talk about Marlene Dietrich, the biggest star in the film . . .
James: I really liked Dietrich in this part. She’s actually somewhat spooky. But I couldn’t really get into her singing, which seemed odd. I did appreciate her as the scheming, conniving little stuck-up starlet. But as I said, considering the revelation at the end, I wonder just how evil she would be on a second viewing.
Jason: I think when we watch Dietrich and listen to her sing that song, “The Laziest Gal in Town,” we have to watch with a sense of cinema history. She was a genuine legend by this time, and she had a very particular persona attached to her, the ultra-sultry, deep-voiced siren, sort of reminiscent of Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat. I think at the time, she had this huge mystique surrounding her that was perfect for the role. She had a certain way of singing that was different to our ears, but people (i.e., men) of the era loved it, and that worked for Jonathan’s obsession. She actually reminded me of an actress I’m more familiar with, Madeleine Kahn, who did a great Dietrich imitation in Blazing Saddles, singing “I’m So Tired.” All these years, and now I finally understand what Kahn was doing.
James: Ah, a little explanation. Fascinating.
Jason: Apparently, Dietrich had quite a bit of control over her own direction in Stage Fright, making certain demands over how she was shot and even which songs she sang. She had a lot of clout as an aging but still very popular diva.
Jason: Here’s a fascinating tidbit: At about this time, Alma was having an affair with her co-writer Cook. Apparently, Hitch had been sexually inactive for years, and it’s possible that Alma began the affair with Hitch’s consent. Interestingly, both scripts she worked on during the affair—Under Capricorn and Stage Fright—involved women torn between two lovers. Also, perhaps because of the repercussions of her affair and the utter failure of Under Capricorn, about which she was inconsolable, Stage Fright was the last movie she would ever be credited for writing.
James: Man, that is a juicy tidbit. Alma was sleeping around? Interesting. But I’m not sure that pointing out two films about a woman torn between two men is necessarily a big deal. I mean, there are many instances of infidelity throughout Hitchcock’s career. Of course, maybe she was able to bring more to the script than usual. Maybe the characterizations are improved because of the circumstances of her life.
Jason: What did you think of the Hitch cameo?
James: It was a little too obvious for my taste.
Jason: Same here. Didn’t like the double-take as Eve walks by. Funny that he’s watching her ass, though.