Spoiler Alert: The following review reveals the film’s ending.
As the film that preceded Alfred Hitchcock’s “comeback” classic Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright (1950) is typically glossed over in the famed director’s filmography. While it’s true that it doesn’t rank with his masterpieces (e.g., Vertigo, Rear Window), Stage Fright has much to offer: a clever opening, a playful homage to acting, a pair of delightfully quirky supporting performances, and–of course–that infamous flashback.
The proceedings get off to a fast start when two people in a convertible exchange the following dialogue as the car whisks through the streets of London:
EVE: Any sign of the the police?
JONNY (looking over his shoulder): It looks like we’re getting away with it.
It quickly becomes apparent that Jonny (Richard Todd) is in trouble and has turned to Eve (Jane Wyman) for help. When probed by Eve, he explains that his lover Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), a famous stage actress, came to him after murdering her husband following a quarrel. Charlotte needs Jonny to destroy her bloodstained dress and fetch a new one from her flat. Jonny does more than that–he restages the crime scene but is spotted by a maid and transitions from accomplice to suspected murderer.
Eve, who believes she’s in love with Jonny, deposits the wanted man with her oddball father (Alastair Sim). She also becomes determined to prove Jonny’s innocence. After a chance meeting with Charlotte’s dresser, Eve hatches a risky scheme to go undercover and collect the evidence that will clear Jonny.
The twist in Stage Fright is that Jonny is not Hitchcock’s typical innocent-man-on-the-run. Indeed, Jonny murdered Charlotte’s husband and everything he told Eve at the start of the film–shown to the viewer via a flashback–was a lie. This revelation slips out as Eve and Jonny hide from the police in an opulent theatre at the film’s climax. In a matter of seconds, Jonny evolves from hero to villain.
Much has been written about the “lying flashback,” chiefly that it doesn’t play fair with the audience–a view postulated by François Truffaut in his book of Hitchcock interviews. However, this contention assumes that everything we see in a film is the “truth” as presented by the filmmakers. Hitchcock makes it clear that we are hearing and seeing Jonny’s version of the events. It’s not dissimilar from the various versions of the truth recounted (also in flashback) by the different characters in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The key difference is that Jonny is an actor and he casts himself in the role of the framed innocent man–a part he plays not only in the flashback, but also in his post-murder dealings with Eve.
Acting and the theater are a recurring motif in many Hitchcock films: Judy played the role of Madeleine in Vertigo; Uncle Charlie was just a character masking a serial murderer in Shadow of a Doubt; and the mini-plays in the apartment building universe of Rear Windows were framed by windows, an analogy to the confines of a theatrical stage. However, Stage Fright trumps them all in the number of characters playing parts. In addition to Jonny playing the innocent man, Eve assumes the roles of newspaper reporter and Charlotte’s dresser. Since deception is acting, too, Eve’s father gets in the act by lying about Jonny to Eve’s mother. The theater motif is emphasized too strongly perhaps, with opening credits against a stage curtain and a backdrop that crushes Jonny at the climax.
One imagines that Hitchcock was drawn to the source material because it stands one of his favorite themes on its head. Quick, how many Hitchcock films can you name about men wrongly accused of a crime who set out to prove their innocence and/or stop the bad guys with the aid of a strong woman? It’s dominated his career from Young and Innocent to The 39 Steps to Saboteur, North By Northwest, and others. But in Stage Fright, the innocent man really is a killer–a point that must have amused Hitchcock.
In Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense maintains that the two great flaws in Stage Fright are that the villain is weak and the characters are never in any tangible danger. I disagree with the villain being weak–when Jonny finally reveals his true self to Eve, he becomes an acceptable villain. I maintain that the problems are that: (1) Jonny is a minor character who disappears from the film for long stretches; (2) since Jonny is role-playing a good guy, there is no villain until the climax. And, as a standard mystery, Stage Fright puts forth few legitimate suspects: Charlotte, Jonny, Charlotte’s manager manager, or the dresser Nellie (with the latter two in very little of the picture).
While the principals in Stage Fright carry the load admirably (especially a charming Michael Wilding), two marvelous character actors almost steal it. Alastair Sim injects the film with some much-needed dry humor (“What sort of father are you?” asks a police inspector. The reply: “Unique.”) Yet, even he is upstaged in a delightful scene with Joyce Grenfell manning a fund-raising booth for an orphanage at a garden party (“Half a crown to shoot a lovely duck!)”. These two veteran British comedians play off each other brilliantly, providing the perfect levity for the classic Hitchcock scene that follow them: a young child carrying a bloodied doll through the crowd as Charlotte’s performs on a stage.
While the entertainment value is high in most Hitchcock films, I have a soft spot for the lighthearted ones that seem to show the director in a playful mood (this one, To Catch a Thief, and I’m slowly turning the corner on The Trouble with Harry). That’s one of the reason why I find Stage Fright methodically moving up my list of favorite Hitchcock films with each viewing.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café . He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, and is a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!