Stage Fright

STAGE FRIGHT, an overlooked and quite enjoyable Alfred Hitchcock delectation from 1950 gives Marlene Dietrich a showcase part as a theatrical diva ensnared in a murder investigation and offers plum roles for choice players in the mostly British cast. To draw US box office, Jane Wyman is first-billed (she’d just nicked an Oscar for Johnny Belinda) but the movie belongs to flippant fatale Dietrich, devilishly funny Alistair Sim and of course, the dilemmas and perils arranged by ringmaster Hitchcock. *

I had a dog once. He hated me. At last he bit me and I had him shot! When I give all my love and get back treachery and hatred it’s – it’s as if my mother had struck me in the face.”

London. Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts student ‘Eve Gill’ (Wyman) shelters her panicked boyfriend ‘Jonathan Cooper’ (Richard Todd), being sought as a suspect in the murder of the husband to dynamic stage actress/singer ‘Charlotte Inwood’ (Dietrich). Eve’s father, ‘Commodore Gill’ (Sim) helps her protect Jonathan, who we know is Charlotte’s lover: Eve is unaware of that sticky wicket. While who did what is sorted, Eve develops a thing with relaxed and pleasant detective ‘Wilfrid Smith’ (Michael Wilding). She’s certain the imperious Charlotte has something up her Dior and poses as a maid to get the proof.

Engaging characterizations, sleek camera movement, droll dialogue and well-executed near-escapes make for a fun watch, not least because the actors are playing actors and they’re all playing one another. Wyman’s just okay: get past that Dutch bob hairdo, about as flattering as a bowl of oats, and it’s a stretch to accept her as Sim’s daughter. At 32 she barely registers against 49-year-old Dietrich, who gets better lines, swank costuming and a chance to sing “The Laziest Gal in Town” and “La Vie en Rose.” Sim’s line readings are delightful, Todd is intense, and there are great bits from Kay Walsh as the conniving maid Eve subs for, and Joyce Grenfell as a doggedly cheerful shooting gallery attendant. Wilding is charming (he and Marlene had a backstage act going on, go figure).

Conceived out of Selwyn Jepson’s novel “Man Running/Outrun the Constable”, the adaptation was worked up by the director with his wife Alma Reville, then Whitfield Cook put it in script form, with assists from James Bridie and Ranald MacDougall. Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto noted “every word of dialogue was annotated with a corresponding camera movement and the dimensions of each shot.” After procuring all technical apparatus he’d need for his play set, Hitchcock drew more than 300 sketches for cinematographer Wilkie Cooper to address. Production cost came in at $1,437,000.

Reviews were good, mostly lauding Dietrich, and revenue in the States brought $2,900,000, 107th position in 1950, a year with a surfeit with suspensers. With Sybil Thorndke, Miles Malleson, Andre Morell and Hitchcock’s 12-year-old daughter Pat, debuting as ‘Chubby’. Moving at a brisk trot from start to finish at 110 minutes.

* Hitch: “I ran into great difficulties with Jane. In her disguise as a lady’s maid, she should have been rather unglamorous; after all, she was supposed to be impersonating an unattractive maid. But every time she saw the rushes and how she looked alongside Marlene Dietrich, she would burst into tears. She couldn’t accept the idea of her face being in character, while Dietrich looked so great.”

As to her sexy vex, he offered “Marlene was a professional star—she was also a professional cameraman, art director, editor, costume designer, hairdresser, makeup woman, composer, producer and director.” His faith in her hard-earned ability made her the only actress to ever employ substantial creative freedom on the set of one of his pictures. Co-star Todd gave her more credit for directing the actors than Hitchcock, who basically left them to own presumed skill-sets after meticulously setting up the fright stage for them to play in.

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