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Stage Fright (1950)

October 17th, 2007 · 3 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) speeds through the London theater district with her friend Cooper (Richard Todd). In flashback, Cooper reveals stage legend Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) arriving at his flat in distress, claiming that she accidentally killed her husband while arguing with him over Cooper. Her dress stained in blood, Cooper goes to her house to get her new clothes, and tampers with the scene to make it look like burglary.

Eve – a drama student who’s in love with Cooper – hides him with her smuggler father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim). The Commodore believes that Charlotte has set Cooper up because the blood on the dress seems to have been put there deliberately. Cooper becomes upset and throws the evidence in the fire. To prove his innocence, Eve pays off Charlotte’s maid (Kay Walsh) and goes undercover as an assistant to the stage diva.

Eve meets a man named Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding). Nicknaming him “Ordinary”, she discovers the man is a detective searching for Cooper. Eve has to keep from being seen in Charlotte’s employ whenever the sleuth comes around. Cooper has to be stashed out in Eve’s mother’ home, further complicating Eve’s relations with the detective when he comes to visit her. Then Eve’s father hatches a plan to prove Charlotte killed her husband.

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Production history 
In 1945, director Alfred Hitchcock and producer Sidney Bernstein formed Transatlantic Pictures. The enterprise was envisioned as a mini-studio that would offer filmmakers from England and the U.S. creative autonomy. Transatlantic would still have to partner with a major studio to split the financial risk. Jack Warner proposed a deal whereby Hitchcock would get to do a Transatlantic film – subject to studio approval – in exchange for a film for Warner Bros.

After Rope and Under Capricorn, it was Hitchcock’s turn to do one for the studio. Warner wanted the director to adapt a British crime novel by Selwyn Jepson called Man Running. The first in a detective series, it focused on Eve Gill, daughter of a smuggler who impersonates a maid, then an actress, to clear a man she loves of murder.

Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville and playwright Whitfield Cook completed a treatment in late 1947. To write the script, the studio proposed Ranald MacDougall, who had adapted Mildred Pierce for them to great success. Hitchcock held out for his friend Cook to write the script with him. Both James Bridie and MacDougall ended up doing uncredited polishes.

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To star as Eve Gill, Hitchcock wanted Jane Wyman, a rising star who had just won an Oscar in Johnny Belinda. For the role of the stage legend, Hitchcock proposed Tallulah Bankhead, but the studio countered with Marlene Dietrich, who was 50, but still a siren. Wyman may have played the heroine, but Dietrich was given all the best dialogue and ended up looking more attractive as well.

In addition to a sensational title, Stage Fright opens with an attractive credits sequence, and boasts a strong musical score by Leighton Lucas. Once the movie begins, any style or sophistication the movie started with wheezes out like a punctured bicycle tire. Within a few minutes, a weak script and poorly miscast performers strand this movie in a ditch, where it resides among Hitchcock’s worst movies.

What’s shocking about Stage Fright is that the script never takes advantage of the duplicity of the theater. This was a setting ripe with clever opportunities to deceive the audience, but the material that ended up being shot is just dull. There’s not one decent set piece in the entire film. Jane Wyman and Richard Todd are hapless, and while Marlene Dietrich acquits herself, her torch singing is impossible to endure with a straight face.

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Terrence Brady at Dial H For Hitchcock says, “Stage Fright is one of those Hitchcock films where all the key elements are in place, a whodunit murder mystery, yet falters because it betrays the viewing audience.”

“Minor Hitchcock? Perhaps. But Stage Fright is a skillfully crafted, well-acted, enjoyable film, and for my money it’s more entertaining than some higher-profile Hitchcock works,” writes Amanda DeWees at DVD Verdict.

Christopher Null at writes, “Alfred Hitchcock might have had a fair-to-good thriller here with Stage Fright had he not blown it with cheap plotting that has made the film one of his most reviled among Hitchcock enthusiasts and historians.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Femme fatale · Interrogation · Woman in jeopardy

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 17, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    I don’t know that there isn’t “one decent set piece in the entire film.” I think the climax in the theatre works rather well. Plus, I think one could argue that the film does deal with the duplicity of theatre and, ironically, film in a manner that sort of got Hitch in trouble back when he made it.


    The fact that early on in Stage Fright Hitchcock shows the audience a version of the events that never actually happened (i.e. that shows Richard Todd as being innocent) is an illusion, an act of deception because we find out at the end that he’s really guilty. So the “falshback” isn’t really one; it’s just a visual depiction of his version of story. At the time people were angry with Hitchcock thinking that was essentially a “cheat,” but in our post-Rashomon and Usual Suspects era, it’s not quite so maddening. Hitch later said that there were two decisions he regretted making in two of his movies because they so enraged audiences. One was that he killed the little boy with a bomb explosion after an extended suspenseful sequence in Sabotage. The other was that he simulated an imaginary occurrence (that is imaginary from within the story) in Stage Fright. In the case of the former I can understand why people would be upset, but in the case of the latter, I think Hicth was just, once again, ahead of his time.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 17, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Damian: I know that many Hitchcock scholars feel the same way you do about the “false flashback” in Stage Fright. Actually, I didn’t mind it at all, and yeah, the final two or three minutes set in the empty theater are pretty good, the best thing in the film. In my opinion, absolutely nothing else works at all.

  • 3 Rio // Feb 17, 2010 at 6:33 am

    “A weak script and poorly miscast performers strand this movie in a ditch, where it resides among Hitchcock’s worst movies.” What? Are we
    REALLY talking about Dietrich and Wyman? Gosh, I’m afraid to check your opinion on the other Hitchcock’s movies… AWFUL review.

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