Disclaimer: This essay discusses spoilers for Stage Fright as well as The Usual Suspects. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movies first!
Based solely on the name of the film, Stage Fright (1950) should be a much better movie. The title conjures up visions of a delicious backstage melodrama or perhaps a theatrical murder mystery. And that’s sort of what we get…sort of. Stage Fright uses a few pedestrian ideas about acting and theater to build a worn-out framework around what is otherwise a pretty good conceit for a mystery.
Jane Wyman, fresh off an Oscar win for Johnny Belinda, plays Eve, a young theatrical student who harbors a crush on Jonathan, her theater-school colleague who comes to her with a remarkable story: leading theatrical diva Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) comes to him with blood on her dress. She’s killed her no-good husband after he attacked her, and now wants her part-time lover Jonathan to help her out of the jam. Jonathan helps her out but is seen in the process and is now on the lam. Eve hides Jonathan with her wonderfully droll father (Alastair Sim) on the English coast and attempts to prove his innocence by pretending to be Dietrich’s new maid. In the process, Eve falls in love with a handsome police detective (Michael Wilding) and there are lots of costumes & accents, a few good Hitchcockian touches (a garden party fundraiser thrown in pouring rain) and Shakespearean reveals until, well, let’s save the ending for now.
At this point in his career Hitchcock was a well-known name in Hollywood, but he was also desperate for a hit. His last success was 1946’s spectacular Notorious; since then he’d formed his own production company, Transatlantic pictures, but his films (1947’s The Paradine Case and 1948’s Rope) had been financial failures. Under Capricorn, where Hitch continued the long, unbroken camera movement experiments of Rope, had been a contentious shoot and everyone knew the film wouldn’t be a hit.
Stage Fright was a run-for-cover project for Hitchcock; Warner Bros was enthusiastic about the film and it seemed like a no-brainer. Plus Hitchcock had the added incentive of returning to shoot a feature film in his native England for the first time since leaving for Hollywood ten years earlier. His wife Alma was co-writing the screenplay, as she did for many of his greatest triumphs. His daughter Patricia was studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and this would give Hitch and his wife Alma a chance to visit her; they even went so far as to cast Pat in the film (as the unfortunately named “Chubby Bannister” which says volumes about Hitchcock’s own self-deprecating view of himself).
So what went wrong?
Stage Fright is not a bad film. It’s breathtakingly shot by Wilkie Cooper (with an assist from Marlene Dietrich, who learned about lighting from Josef von Sternberg and insisted on having lights placed according to her exacting specifications). Most of the performances, by a crack squadron of British scene-stealers, are excellent (big ups to comedienne and British national treasure Joyce Grenfell for crushing her brief scene as a woman selling tickets to a shooting game at a carnival). Jane Wyman tries her hand at a British accent, but the movie hedges its bets by claiming that her character was “educated in America.”
First and foremost, the film suffers from being a large studio production. If this had been one of Hitchcock’s smaller 1930s British productions, it’s easy to see how it could have skated by on quirk & charm. But blown up to Hollywood standards, where the film has two marquee stars, several songs from Marlene Dietrich (including “The Laziest Gal in Town,” which as its title indicates, is a snooze), and expansive set design. It’s all a bit overblown.
Strangely, despite having a daughter in the theater and spending his life in and around the entertainment industry, Hitchcock seems to have little to no feeling for the theatrical backstage drama. Much is made of Jane Wyman (who at 33 is playing a student at the Royal Academy) having to be a good actress to convince Dietrich that she’s actually a cockney maid instead of a well-to-do young woman, but nothing comes of this. We can see the results for ourselves and Wyman’s not particularly convincing. Plus, Marlene Dietrich is playing her role, as always, with fire and evil eye brimstone and you can practically see Wyman wilt under her gaze.
With half a century’s perspective, it’s also obvious that Stage Fright is living in the shadow of two films that came out in 1950. The first is also a backstage drama starring a scene-stealing diva and a woman named Eve…Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. Where Hitchcock’s film is full of fussy British humor, Mankiewicz’s masterpiece brims with some of the best dialogue ever written as well as a cutting insider’s view of New York theater. To be fair, Mankiewicz never approaches Hitchcock’s level of filmmaking craft; All About Eve is competent but unexceptional filmmaking unlike the brilliant gothic noir and extended long shots in Stage Fright (a shot that starts outside a building and carries through the door and up a stairway is particularly thrilling). Yet All About Eve is one of the most entertaining films ever made, with Bette Davis tearing her way Mankiewicz’s dialogue. How could Stage Fright possibly compare?
Hitchcock can take comfort in the fact that Mankiewicz made this one masterpiece (All About Eve), several good-to great films, and a lot of missed opportunities. But that doesn’t change the fact that Stage Fright is a bit of a bore. Much of the film seems like a step backwards, worlds away from the finesse of Notorious or Rebecca. Instead of recharging his batteries, returning to Britain seems to have stirred up some of Hitch’s lazier impulses, resulting in overly complicated situations and his insistence on trying to shoehorn in this examination of Wyman “acting” in her role as spy.
The other film from 1950 requires some explanation. This is a movie that toys with memory, audience perception, unreliable narrators, and almost single-handedly created a new genre in film: the same story told from multiple points of view. Of course I mean Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. In Kurosawa’s stunning film a tale of a samurai, his wife, a bandit, and a woodcutter is told four times, each from a different character’s point of view. Each one casts themselves as the hero of the story, thereby throwing doubt on everyone’s motives and humanity in general.
Kurosawa’s genius is to stage the same scene four different ways yet never gives the audience a definitive view of happens (the woodcutter’s story is the closest, yet even his retelling is called into question). It’s a brilliant, philosophical way to look at a murder mystery, and its influence is felt in countless films and books. It’s undeniably one of the most influential movies ever made.
In Stage Fright, Hitchcock attempts a trick that’s both similar and also completely different. Remember at the beginning of this article, when I was describing the plot? It turns out that Jonathan was lying about Dietrich coming to him with blood on her dress; the ending of Stage Fright reveals that he was lying the whole time and that he’s the murderer who was goaded by Dietrich into killing her husband.
Hitchcock shows us Jonathan’s version of the story, as the film begins with him in Eve’s car, telling her what happened. This isn’t set up like Rashomon, where we know we’re going to be seeing different versions of the story; this is a trick played by Hitchcock, where he takes the common, unspoken language of filmmaking (in this case, the agreement that anything the filmmaker shows us onscreen and during a flashback is true), and subverts it.
Part of this is Hitchcock the innovator at work. His wife Alma and co-writer Winfield Cook both hated this idea, claiming that the audience would feel cheated (And they did; critics and the public both disliked the film). But who would know for sure if the idea would work if someone didn’t try it? Later Hitchcock experiments in subversion would prove more successful. Hitchcock was able, for instance, to kill off his leading lady forty minutes into the story in Psycho (which I’ll talk more about later).
But in Stage Fright the trick comes across as mean and spiteful. The unreliable narrator technique had been used in films before such as the silent German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and part of the 1947 Joan Crawford vehicle Possessed. And it’s been used since multiple times since, perhaps most notably in The Usual Suspects (1995).
The key is that in all of these other films, the unreliable narrator is the lead character. The person we identify with, the person leading us through this saga, is also the one who turns out to be untrustworthy. None of the other characters in the films are duplicitous in The Usual Suspects, for instance, (Spoilers, obviously), everything that happens outside of the Keyser Söze flashbacks has actually happened, and is verifiable by other parts of the narrative. Whereas in Stage Fright, it isn’t Eve, the lead, who misleads us. It’s another character, Jonathan, who corrupts the point of view in the film with his own tale that turns out to be a lie. When you watchThe Usual Suspects for a second time, knowing what will happen, it still works because all the pieces fit together and we’re delighted by the trick. Whereas Stage Fright feels like someone pulling the rug on the audience just because they can; the twist comes out of nowhere. Hitchcock doesn’t dispute Jonathan’s claim until the very end of the film, while The Usual Suspects is entirely about the identity of Keyser Söze. By making the entire film into a rug-pulling-game, it earns its final reveal.
Hitchcock is often imitated, mainly when people make a thriller or suspense film. Yet very few people ever succeed in imitation, because what looks so effortless is actually astonishingly difficult. Hitchcock’s formidable command of camera and editing meant that you couldn’t just watch Rear Window and do what he did without serious chops to back it up.
To put it another way, Hitchcock is so good, even failures can be instrumental, in the way they show what can and can’t be achieved in cinema. Just as Rope (1948) shows the strengths and limitations of shooting in long takes, and Lifeboat (1944) demonstrates what’s possible in confining a film to one setting, Stage Fright shows what it takes for audiences to accept unreliable narrators. Hitchcock himself pushed for this twist ending and has only himself to blame. He was wrong, but in that failure he crystalized the use of the formula itself.
Earlier this week I was discussing one of my failures with my therapist. I tried this big event for April Fool’s Day, where I made a fake website, PittsburghZombieResponse.com, that was a resource for Pittsburgh about what to do in case of a living dead outbreak. I tried to make it look like a federal or city website, something that people might see and get a laugh from and share with friends. Initially the City of Pittsburgh was interested in posting it on their website as part of the gag, but that fell apart. So I tried it on my own. I also set up an online store where, for 24 hours only, I’d sell t-shirts and prints for this phony service, with a portion of the sales going to a local charity.
It was, by any measure, a failure. I spent hours putting all this together, tons and tons of work since January, and it just disappeared into the wind. For whatever reason, 2016 turned out to be the year that people stopped sharing funny April Fool’s posts and started posting about how they’re sick of funny April Fool’s posts. Oops.
I sold a few shirts, barely enough to make any money (t-shirts, like everything else in the world, get cheaper the more of them you produce), and very few people reacted at all. The mayor of Pittsburgh, maybe because his people felt bad about not going through with the project after weeks of back and forth, even retweeted one of my tweets about the project, which was nice but didn’t really do much. The whole thing was a disaster.
I was pretty depressed about it for most of the weekend. I’d wasted all this time and energy on a twenty-four hour project, created this logo and background and text and graphics and website, all to have it disappear into the ether. I was angry. Angry at every blog post that talks about the importance of flash sales and hashtags and special promotions to drive traffic to your store. Angry at people who say they love my work but then when I’m asking for help to promote something, can’t be bothered. And of course, I’m angry at myself. Angry that I decided to do this April Fools one day idea, angry that maybe I didn’t do a good enough job, angry that I failed again.
I was telling all this to my therapist. She’s heard a lot of this stuff before. But she made a point that stuck with me: She asked if I knew anyone who had ever tried anything like this? I said no, I didn’t. So, she continued, even if it didn’t succeed, you should feel good that at least you’re trying new things. Because you can’t learn anything if you don’t try new ideas.
Oh yeah. Duh.
I feel like I can take comfort that Hitchcock was the same way. For all of his triumphs, he had his share of failures. Yet in all of his best work and many of his failures, there was that desire I’ve spoken of before, the dream to do something that no one had ever done. As much as Hitchcock comes across as the dry, darkly humorous, supremely British figure in cinema, there’s actually a lot in his story to be inspired by. More and more I’m finding him to be a relatable figure as an unsatisfied artist, someone striving for excellence and new ideas, always unwilling to be defined. His wife Alma took each film personally; the lackluster response to this quartet of films (The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Stage Fright) led to her semi-retiring and taking more of a backseat in future productions. But for Hitchcock, once a film was shot he was on to the next project.
That’s an admirable quality in artists, but it’s not always the norm. Look at my beloved John Ford, who had an incomprehensible gift for filming landscapes and a mythic grasp of character. Yet he’d be happy to make the same story over and over, and essentially did for much of his career. Ford found a sense of community in making his films that he never found at home, and was never truly happy except on a film set. Whereas Hitchcock could take or leave the process of shooting the film; to him the excitement was in discussing ideas, writing himself into a corner and thinking of a way out. Trying to give the audience something they’d never seen before.
So he tried a new idea on Stage Fright, over the objections of his co-writers, and it didn’t work. He was already on to the next picture, which would turn out to be his first masterpiece of the 1950s, the brilliant Strangers on a Train. And he was just a few years away from starting one of the greatest runs of motion picture filmmaking in history, a ten year period starting with Dial M for Murder and ending with The Birds.
As for me, I placed an order for those damn shirts and complained about it for a few days. Now I’m moving on. I’ve got a book idea kicking around as well as a crazy art project about an imaginary b-movie sci-fi director. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t. But as long as I can pick myself up and keep trying new ideas, I feel like I’m in good company.