So, after Hitchcock’s independent venture, Transatlantic Pictures, went into receivership after the belly-up box-office demise of UNDER CAPRICORN, he ran for cover with a British crime story for Warner Bros. STAGE FRIGHT is generally rated as lightly likable or less, with a disproportionate amount of attention wasted on the non-issue of whether a dishonest flashback is permissible. I think THE USUAL SUSPECTS has taken care of that question.
The movie has more than that going for it — there’s a surprising shift from whimsical Miss Marple investigation to dark psychosis and horrible death at the end, for one thing. The other most interesting element (apart from Frau Dietrich, of course) is the Britishness. The movie sees Hitchcock working with a lovely array of Brit actors of the era, giving us a little alternate-reality glimpse of what Hitchcock might have been doing if he hadn’t left for America. Given the film’s minor nature, we might feel particularly grateful that he did go to Hollywood, but then the lack of ambition is partly due to Hitch treading water in order to gain confidence (both personal and industry) after UNDER CAPRICORN’s poor reception.
Alistair Sim had been in UK films since the ’30s, supporting Jessie Matthews with comedy relief, and co-starring with Hitchcock regular Gordon Harker in a series of rather jolly crime comedies about Inspector Hornleigh, so he could easily have acted for Hitchcock a decade and a half earlier, but he didn’t. His 1948 turn as Inspector Cockrill in Launder and Gilliat’s stylish GREEN FOR DANGER (dissed by Truffaut, but don’t listen to him) showed the actor on Hitchcockian terrain (in fact, the slick murder scene halfway through feels almost giallo-like). In fact, James Bridie suggested Sim for this movie, having worked with him extensively in the theatre (there’s a disappointing TV version of Bridie’s The Anatomist starring Sim as Burke and Hare’s paymaster, Dr Knox, produced by the late Harry Allan Towers).
The cast also features grande dame Sybil Thorndyke, David Lean favourite Kay Walsh (quite brilliant), Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson, Joyce Grenfell (a celebrated English comedienne and co-star with Sim in the ST TRINIANS films), Andre Morell, a Hammer horror stalwart, and comedy turns Irene Handl, Lionel Jeffries and Alfie Bass. So the supporting cast neatly ties Hitchcock in to Ealing, Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Hammer, Launder & Gilliat. The only thing missing is a Carry On films star — although Hitch had used Charles Hawtrey in SABOTAGE and would make memorably against-type use of Bernard Cribbins in FRENZY.
From the opening titles, in which a safety curtain (ironically named, as it turns out) rises to reveal the London skyline, it’s clear that this film will explore the conjunction of real life with theatrical artifice, a favourite Hitchcock theme. Like MURDER, the film is based on a novel but deal with theatre (lots of sources suggest that MURDER was originally a play, but it wasn’t — it just feels like one). If there’s a study left to be written on Hitchcock’s oeuvre it might be on this theme.
Jane Wyman plays a drama student in London — where Patricia Hitchcock was actually studying. Pat turns up as a friend, with the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister.” So it’s tempting to see Hitchcock family biography at work, but our heroine’s parents don’t seem a match for Hitch and Alma, and have more to do with the source novel and with the plot’s requirements. That plot has interesting connections with the thriller Hitch had planned for Nova Pilbeam to star in after YOUNG AND INNOCENT, since it deals with a respectable young girl with a slightly crooked dad, and it also calls to mind the father-daughter dynamic of NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE, another unmade movie which got put on the back burner because Audrey Hepburn didn’t wish to do a rape scene for Hitch. Looking at FRENZY, I can’t say I blame her.
The movie begins in media res with Jane Wyman and Richard Todd (an up-and-coming British — in fact Irish — star of the day, still working now, best known for DAMBUSTERS, which Peter Jackson now plans to remake) fleeing, and then we go into the flashback, which is uncomfortable not because we later learn it’s inaccurate, but because it comes so soon in the story it feels broadly expository. We’re being told a lot of stuff before we have reason to care. But this headlong dive into plot is part of a strategy to put one over on us, so the discomfort is probably necessary, and anyhow things will soon settle down.
The key to the plot’s success in this movie (apart from that flashback deceiving us) is that what seems to be happening — Todd covers up a killing for Marlene and gets implicated, turning to lovestruck Jane Wyman for help — is an effective romantic triangle, enlisting lots of sympathy for poor Jane, wrapped up in a thriller plot (with echoes of Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing”) — which is pretty effective as drama long before we realise that it’s not what’s happening at all.
This dodgy matte shot, an attempt at CITIZEN KANE faux deep focus, is a bit glaring, but it’s an interesting attempt at something. I once used that phrase to describe an odd moment in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, and a friend suggested they should put it on his tombstone.
“Here we have a plot, an interesting cast, even a costume,” suggests Sim, pointing up the theatrical nature of the story. And so Jane must use her acting skills (and a comical cock-er-nee accent) to wile her way into Marlene’s confidence and secure evidence to clear the man she loves. Complications, as they say, ensue.
“My great aunt died over a glass of brandy… but it was her fifteenth that day.”
The most appealing complication is Michael Wilding (“an English Jimmy Stewart,” decided Dietrich, inaccurately perhaps, but it does point towards his lightness and charm) as Wilfred O Smith, that “O” being the first of Hitch’s jokes at David O Selznick’s expense. Here we learn it stands for “Ordinary.” Ordinary is certainly the most lovable policemen in the cop-phobic Hitchcock’s oeuvre. For a director of crime films, he hardly ever featured policemen as heroes (James Stewart spectacularly loses his job in Scene 1. of VERTIGO; and then you have to go back to John Longden in BLACKMAIL I think…) Wilding’s easy appeal makes up for the fact that Todd isn’t that likable, which is unavoidable given the role he’s assigned.
“I love strange men. I mean… I’m very fond of them.”
Wyman is very sweet. It’s not at all clear where her American accent came from, what with her father being Scottish and her mother English… as welcome as Dame Sybil is, perhaps her role should have been taken by an American? But the stuffy mother and unconventional dad dynamic might have been harder to sustain that way: American women are always portrayed as free-spirited in British films. Which is a tiresome cliche, come to think of it.
Wyman apparently suffered the same affliction as Jean Arthur did, working opposite Dietrich in A FOREIGN AFFAIR: galloping jealousy. While Arthur’s insecurity manifested itself in paranoia, Wyman covertly tried to glam up her girl-next-door character to compete with Dietrich, a tendency Hitchcock had to gently suppress.
Sim always makes me want more Sim: but apart from the three HORNLEIGH films, he shunned sequelitis, doing only a cameo in the second ST TRINIAN’S film and refusing point blank to play Inspector Cockrill again. I’d welcome a whole series about Sim and Wyman, father-and-daughter crime solvers, even without Hitchcock directing.
Marlene of course is profoundly underrated as an actress, even if she’s not “real” — she can be funny (check out her cleaning woman impersonation in DISHONORED) as well as alluring, sad (TOUCH OF EVIL is a study in fatalist melancholy whenever she’s about) as well as vivacious. Her way with a dramatic scene is as unconventional and unique as her way with a song, and like her singing it foregrounds a lack of obvious “ability.” This is a pretty interesting role: in A FOREIGN AFFAIR she’s completely sympathetic despite being a Nazi, whereas here she’s totally unsympathetic, despite being only an accessory. Then Hitchcock complicates matters with the scene where she’s unexpectedly nice to Wyman, and then she has her chilling chat with the policeman at the end which is pretty much the opposite of her exit in the Wilder film: a heart of ice is revealed.
(STAGE FRIGHT makes a very nice double feature with Billy Wilder’s “Hitchcock film,” WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Marlene’s other London murder romp.)
That safety curtain returns, executing Todd in a rather French fashion, all the more grisly for being off-screen, and then Wilding leads Wyman away down a dimly lit backstage corridor that looks like the path from the execution cell: but the recurrence of the love theme, played earlier by Wilding on the piano, tells us what fate she’s heading for. A future as an actress seems a bit unlikely, but she’ll be a very happy Mrs Ordinary Smith.
It’s nice to have another musical through-line (Wilding, like Farley Granger in ROPE, plays an accomplished party entertainer with his ivory-tickling), since that’s a mainstay of the Hitchcock style, and it plays out again in Dietrich’s two songs, La Vie en Rose and The Laziest Gal in Town, which are not staged by Hitchcock as musical interludes but as intricate by-plays between onstage and offstage action, external performance and internal psychology.
Chubby Bannister, right.
It occurs to me that Pat Hitchcock is so good in this — her very funny sheer lust at the sight of Michael Wilding is a comic high point — and she does an English accent far better and more consistently than Wyman — that it’s rather a shame she didn’t get the leading role (as enjoyable as Wyman is)… But that would be taking a big risk, and Hitchcock wasn’t about to do that with this film. I think also the responsible father didn’t want to expose his daughter to criticism in such a way. Nevertheless, we can see this as a film for and about Pat.