February 23, 2017


Stage Fright – 1950 | 110mins | Thriller | B&W

Plot Synopsis

Stage Fright

Stage Fright is an excellent title for a film that does not really live up to its name. It was the second movie made during Hitchcock’s return to England. He would not produce another in his home country for twenty-two years (although he did shoot some scenes of The Man Who Knew Too Much in London in 1956.) The director has stated that one important quality of his films is their ability to withstand a second and third viewing. Stage Fright is one of a handful of Hitchcock’s films that does not succeed. Hitchcock fell prey to the advice of public pressure: first, in acquiring the rights to the story, simply because the reviewers said that it would make a good Hitchcock vehicle; then in listening to the English casting people when they told him that because Alistair Sim was one of the best actors around, Hitchcock should use him whether he fit the part or not. Probably his biggest mistake, and he is the first to admit it, was lying to the audience. Almost as soon as the title credits are over, we are treated to a flashback which, by the end of the picture, we see was a deception. One of the cardinal rules in movies is that flashbacks should not lie. The audience is deceived and the result is a letdown by the director.

The story is your basic English whodunit with the touches that Hitchcock was fond of. But because of the deceptive flashback at the beginning we are led to believe that the protagonist is innocent, which he is not. Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), suspected of murdering the husband of his mistress, musical comedy star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) enlists the aid of another friend, Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), to help prove his innocence. Eve hides him aboard the boat of her father (Alistair Sim). She then poses as Charlotte’s housekeeper and meets Inspector Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding), a Scotland Yard detective on the case. When Cooper shows up at Charlotte’s theatre, Eve helps him escape from the police. He tells Eve that Charlotte is the guilty one. Eve tries to get Charlotte to confess. Cooper shows up again only this time, under arrest. She helps him escape but soon learns that Cooper really is the murderer and in fact has murdered before. After a chase through the theatre Cooper is caught. Eve, realising she has fallen in love with Smith, returns to him.

If Alistair Sim was not Hitchcock’s cup of tea, Jane Wyman was pure aggravation to the director. Besides receiving top billing over Marlene Dietrich, Wyman emphatically refused to follow Hitchcock’s directions. Wyman was more a star than an actress. Her performance was not in character and she emerged looking more like Nancy Drew, amateur detective, than Eve Gill, aspiring actress. Marlene Dietrich played Marlene Dietrich, singing a few songs and acting glamorous throughout Richard Todd does a convincing job but, as a number of critics pointed out, there is really no motivation behind his character. This was the first picture in which Hitch used his daughter, Patricia, who doubled for Jane Wyman in a few scenes. Patricia Hitchcock would appear in two more of her father’s films, most successfully in the one that followed Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train.

Stage Fright has a subordinate theme that spans the entire film: the pretence of the stage and roles people hide behind, on stage and off. Jane Wyman plays a character who wants to be an actress on stage, yet she is forced into circumstances where she must act convincingly in real life. Richard Todd must maintain an image of innocence so that Wyman will help keep him from the police. Marlene Dietrich plays an actress, and one is never sure when she is acting her ordinary self offstage or putting on an act. Although Alistair Sim as the Commodore is unpretentious and perceptively spots human frailties in people, he also reveals that he occasionally wears an invisible mask.

There is really just one suspenseful scene in the entire movie, and it comes at the very end. Until then, no one is ever in any real danger and that is the main reason the viewer does not care about the people. The sprinkling of humour in Stage Fright is probably its one saving grace. It comes from the four sideline performers who are all so-terribly-English and deftly amusing: Alistair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh, and the marvellous Joyce Grenfell, who does a funny bit in a shooting gallery (“Lovely ducks”). We know from the beginning that we are not going to be scared by Hitchcock in this film, so might as well laugh when we get the opportunity. The most hilarious moments in Stage Fright are when it is very English.

ExtractŠ Richard A. Harris, Michael S. Lasky: The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Production Team

Alfred Hitchcock: Director
Terence Verity: Art Director
Wilkie Cooper: Cinematography
Christian Dior: Costume Design
Milo Anderson: Costume Design
Emard Jarins: Editing
Colin Garde: Make-up Artist
Leighton Lucas: Music
Louis Levy: Music Direction
Alfred Hitchcock: Producer
Whitfield Cook: Script
Alma Reville: Script
Harold King: Sound


Marlene Dietrich: Charlotte Inwood
Jane Wyman: Eve Gill
Richard Todd: Jonathan Cooper
Michael Wilding: Inspector Wilfred Smith
Alastair Sim: Commodore Gill
Sybil Thorndike: Mrs Gill
Kay Walsh: Nellie Goode
Miles Malleson: Bibulous gent
Hector MacGregor: Freddie
Joyce Grenfell: Shooting Gallery Attendant
Andre Morell: Inspector Byard

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