(SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.
Of course, others have used the unreliable narrator, both before and since, sometimes overtly so (Rashomon, released the same year). On occasions, it’s a key reveal (Fight Club, Shutter Island). Rarely, the narrative is entirely unspooled, the viewer left without any idea if what they have just seen is accurate or complete invention (The Usual Suspects, The Life of Pi). In theory, those should be the greater sins (their trickery is to make them an emblem of pride rather than shame). In comparison, Hitchcock’s cheat is small potatoes.
Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) tells besotted actress pal Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) that his lover, stage dame Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) has killed her husband and he’s copping the blame for it. Eve, being a good-hearted sap (and besotted) agrees to help him, which entails enlisting father Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim) and investigating the case herself. Wyman gets to don various guises and ends up falling for Michael Wilding’s Detective Inspector Smith. Which is just as well, as Cooper was lying; he killed hubby, albeit at Charlotte’s instigation.
This revelation comes late in the proceedings, Cooper admitting his deed while he and Eve are hiding out from the police in the theatre, a confession having been extracted from Charlotte. Cooper proceeds to moot murdering Eve, believing it could help his case for an insanity plea; Todd’s compellingly ruthless here, the strongest showing he makes in a picture where he’s off screen for swathes. That’s generally a weakness, though; the plot revolves around Eve’s investigation, and Wyman is fine in a spirited-but-mousey fashion, but it means the characters providing the plot motor, Cooper and Inwood, are little more than silhouettes (and in Dietrich’s case, meticulously lit silhouettes).
Of course, Dietrich doesn’t need much to make an impression, and she proceeds to do so in abundance, but it only ever feels as if she’s doing a star cameo. That sort-of works in a meta sense, as a theatre star in the piece, but like the plot generally, it isn’t the most elegant of constructions (the screenplay, credited to Whitfield Cook from Alma’s adaptation, with additional work from James Bridie and Randall MacDougall, comes from Selwyn Jepson’s 1948 novel Man Running). What that means is that the local colour, the idiosyncrasies of Hitch back doing a quirky English contemporary production (as opposed to the po-faced The Paradine Case), one that has more in common tonally with something like The Lady Vanishes, is able to shine through.
Indeed, while I can readily appreciate Dietrich’s star wattage, she’s the least of the attractions in Stage Fright. Rather it’s the amount of fun to be had with the eccentricities on display. It’s perhaps a shame someone as “straight” as Wyman (whom Hitch found a bit of a pain due to her feeling of being over shadowed by glamorous Marlene) is in the lead, but it does mean everyone else gets uninterrupted limelight. Aside from the indiscretion of the lie, Truffaut convinced Hitch to give Stage Fright unfairly short shrift, scraping together his admittance that he “had lots of fun with the theatre-benefit garden party”. Sycophantic Truffaut agrees it was “funny” but then, being a rather choleric gallic, professes “I didn’t care for Alastair Sim… I objected to the actor as well as the character”. Hitch, going with the flow, admits he’s a problem (the trouble of shooting a film in England; “They all tell you, ‘He’s one of our best actors; you’ve got to have him in your picture’. It’s that old local and national feeling. That insular mentality again”).
This is merd, to put it mildly. Perhaps what Truffaut is getting at in part is that Sim doesn’t blend into a Hitch film. He is ever Alastair Sim. Which means he is an absolute delight throughout the picture, informing its humour and zest. He gives Stage Fright buoyancy it would otherwise lack, and one very much feels Hitch has been led by his interviewer in this case.
If anything, there isn’t enough of Sim, and he’d have been best used actively investigating the case (since, as has been noted, there’s little sense of danger in the proceedings, owing to Eve’s performances being more deceits than imperilling her life, it would have done no harm to have Sim becoming embroiled to more comedic effect). In the immediate moment, he also seems to be putting on his Inspector Hornleigh hat (“I don’t know how this bloodstain got into this dress, but I do know someone smeared it on deliberately”), but he ultimately has no idea that Cooper is the culprit.
Generally, though, his cavalier manner is a breath of fresh air. When Smith reprimands him for letting his daughter endanger herself with a “What sort of father do you think you are?” he responds “Unique”. Which is a uniquely Sim response (apparently, James Bridie suggested Sim to Hitch, so it’s a fair bet his dialogue was written especially). Having allowed Cooper to stay the night, Gill suggests, as the former retires, “If you want anything to read in bed, you’ll find some quite good murder mysteries”. His rapport with his wife (they do not live together and she disapproves of him, to his mild amusement) played by the almost two-decades-older Sybil Thorndike is very funny (“Forgiveness, Mr Smith. The seat of a happy married life. That and good long stretches of the absence that makes the heart grow fonder”).
It isn’t often that a movie finds a place for a crazy dad, less still that he manages to steal the show. Later, Sim brings pay-off money to Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh providing a suitably conniving turn) and cannot disguise his distaste (“You’re a blackmailer, aren’t you?”) His finest moment comes with an inspired scene shared with the wonderfully loony Joyce Grenfell at the fair Hitch so enjoyed designing. Gill has the idea of laying a trap but needs to win a doll to do so (so as to smear blood on her dress and then confront Charlotte with it). This requires hitting bullseyes at Grenfell’s stall (“Oh, would you like to shoot a duck?” – it’s all in her delivery). And some subterfuge in order to lay claim to the prize.
Wilding, reuniting with Hitch following Under Capricorn, is a bit more Alan Cumming than David Tennant this time. His easy charm is a good fit for a detective role that needs a sense of humour to avoid becoming part of the wallpaper (his frustration at Eve getting shot of him, then having to make nice with her friends, one of them being Patricia Hitchcock’s Chubby Bannister, is good evidence of his comic timing). Also to be seen are Andre Morell, Miles Malleson (the “helpful” man in the pub who keeps bothering Eve), Alfie Bass, and Irene Handl, most of whose business ended up on the cutting room floor.
I’m definitely on the side of Stage Fright being underrated. It is a fairly inconspicuous affair at this point in the director’s career, untypical of the star-led fare that would embody his most prolific decade and without showy set pieces or dramatic fireworks. But it’s hugely likeable, even if that’s mostly at the behest of a supporting player Hitch found easy to dismiss.