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Stage Fright - the Film

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The stage is set for Warner Bros' most exciting hit yet!
- Tag-line for the 1950 theatrical release of Stage Fright.

By 1950, Alfred Hitchcock was fast becoming the most famous filmmaker in the world, having scored success in the UK with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, and achieved similar success on moving to the USA with the Oscar-winning Rebecca1, Notorious and Spellbound. For his first film of the 1950s, Hitch chose to adapt Man Running and Outrun the Constable, two 'Eve Gill' stories by British author Selwyn Jepson that contained many of the themes that had already become synonymous with the 'Master of Suspense'.

The Plot

Jonathan Cooper confesses to his friend Eve Gill that his lover, the famous stage actress Charlotte Inwood, has murdered her husband in self-defence. Blind with love for Charlotte, Jonathan had agreed to help Charlotte by picking up some clean clothes for her and making the murder look like the result of a break-in. While at Charlotte's home, however, Jonathan was disturbed by her maid and is now the prime suspect for the murder. Eve can empathise with the situation, although her love for Jonathan remains unrequited. She agrees to help him evade the police and drives him to her father's home by the sea.

Explaining the situation to her father the Commodore, Eve reveals that she has managed to acquire Charlotte's blood-stained dress. The Commodore deduces that the blood was in fact smeared onto the garment and not spoiled during the alleged attack. Could Charlotte have planned to frame Jonathan for the murder all along? The question soon becomes academic, for when Jonathan discovers they still have the blood-stained dress, he panics and throws it onto an open fire, destroying their vital evidence.

Despite her father's warnings, Eve decides to investigate the case herself. First posing as a reporter, she interviews Charlotte's maid and persuades the woman (with a hefty bribe) to let her pose as her sister 'Doris' and stand in for her as Charlotte's maid. She also encounters a Detective Inspector called Wilfred Smith who is working on the murder case and agrees to meet him at a later date. While working for Charlotte she builds an uneasy rapport with the actress and overhears Charlotte tell Detective Inspector Smith that she believed Jonathan Cooper to be obsessed with her.

When her father informs her that Jonathan has fled his home, Eve decides to warn Charlotte that her life might be at risk. Charlotte dismisses Eve's concerns but is clearly unnerved when she sees Jonathan in the audience for her first performance on stage since her husband's murder. Eve later overhears Jonathan and Charlotte arguing, but when the police arrive to speak to Ms Inwood, Jonathan has once again absconded.

With Charlotte booked to make a personal appearance at a local fête, Eve decides to use the situation to expose her as the murderer. Inspector Smith escorts her to the event but as Eve tries to plant the seeds of suspicion in his mind, he in turn reveals that the police wish to interview Charlotte's maid, 'Doris'! The news is worrying, but Eve is distracted as she slowly realises that she is falling in love with the dashing detective, and he seems to feel the same way about her. At the fête, Eve is accosted by Charlotte's real maid, who blackmails her by threatening to reveal all to Charlotte unless Eve gives her more money. Eve's father arrives to help her out - and reveals he has a plan to panic Charlotte. He wins a doll from a stall, cuts his hand and daubs the doll's dress in his own blood. Then he gives the doll to a cub scout and directs him to sit on the front row of the performance tent in full view of Charlotte and Inspector Smith. Though the gruesome doll has the desired effect in unnerving the devious actress, when her manager calls out to Eve with the name 'Doris', Inspector Smith learns of Eve's deception. Luckily, her father has one last idea.

At the theatre, Eve speaks to Charlotte alone in her dressing room. She tells her that she has come into possession of a bloodied dress that she knows to belong to Ms Inwood. Though the actress initially feigns ignorance, she eventually confesses that although she was present in the room at the time of the murder, it was Jonathan who actually committed the crime. She nevertheless tries to buy Eve's silence and it is this that is her final undoing; the room has been fitted with a hidden microphone and the police hear her every word.

The police have also arrested Jonathan, but he escapes and stalks Eve through the empty theatre. It seems that he has been accused of murder once before, but escaped punishment by pleading self defence. This time, he shall plead insanity, and to strengthen his case he intends to kill Eve. As the police swarm the theatre, the safety curtain is dropped to cut off Jonathan's escape route, but it instead falls directly onto him and kills him instantly. Inspector Smith steps onto the stage and offers to take Eve home ...

The Cast

  • Marlene Dietrich (Charlotte Inwood)
  • Jane Wyman (Eve Gill)
  • Richard Todd (Jonathan Cooper)
  • Michael Wilding (Inspector Wilfred Smith)
  • Alastair Sim (Commodore Gill)
  • Sybil Thorndike (Mrs Gill)
  • Kay Walsh (Nellie Goode)
  • Miles Malleson (Bibulous gent)
  • Hector MacGregor (Freddie)
  • Joyce Grenfell ('Lovely Ducks' Shooting Gallery Attendant)
  • André Morell (Inspector Byard)
  • Patricia Hitchcock (Chubby Banister)
  • Ballard Berkeley (Sergeant Mellish)

Marleine Dietrich was surely one of the greatest icons of the Silver Screen. Born in Berlin in 1901, Marie Magdelene Dietrich von Losch shot to fame in Josef Von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel (aka The Blue Angel, 1930). Coming to Hollywood in 1930, she became an 'overnight' sensation with her androgynous performances that helped create the figure that became legend. Dietrich became one of the most powerful women in the film industry; she was one of only a very few amount of people Hitchcock ever allowed to contribute to his on-set direction (mainly because, as an ageing star, she knew which lights and camera angles would flatter her most).

Jane Wyman had just won an Oscar and divorced Ronald Reagan when she accepted the role of Eve Gill. Years later she would star in the glamorous American soap opera Falcon Crest. Michael Wilding had previously worked with Hitchcock, playing Charles Adare in Under Capricorn (1949). Richard Todd's most famous film probably remains The Dam Busters, while Alastair Sim gave what is considered definitive portrayals of two great theatrical characters, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1951) and the eponymous policeman in An Inspector Calls (1954). Sim would also surprise audiences as the headmistress of the rowdy girls' school St Trinian's in the series of comedy films in the 1950s; the films also featured great British eccentric Joyce Grenfell, who guest-starred here as the haughty shooting gallery attendant during the fête scene.

Smith's colleague, Sergeant Mellish, was played by Ballard Berkeley, an actor who would achieve worldwide fame late on in life as the befuddled Major in the sitcom Fawlty Towers. The film also features a young actress by the name of Patricia Hitchcock, making the first of three appearances in her father's films.

Though it didn't happen in every release, there was one other performer who appeared in the majority of Hitchcock's films - himself! Here he can be seen as Eve first approaches Charlotte's apartment to pose as her maid - Hitch walks past, turns, looks at her rehearsing her part and then walks away puzzled in possibly his most scene-stealing cameo ever.


Though the story came from the writings of Selwyn Jepson, Hitchcock also took inspiration from the famous Thompson-Bywaters murder case, which took place in England in 1922. Edith Thompson had married an older man for security, but had fallen in love with Edward Francis Bywaters (known as Frederick), a 20-year old sailor. Thompson had written some playful letters to Bywaters, joking about how she might rid herself of her husband by killing him. One night, as Thompson and her husband Percy walked home, Bywaters appeared and picked a fight, during which Percy Thompson was stabbed. During the trial, Mrs Thompson's love-letters were brought as evidence of her immorality and she was hanged along with her lover. Dietrich's character is almost certainly based on Edith Thompson, with Richard Todd as an ultimately less sympathetic version of the manipulated Bywaters.


From the very beginning of the film, when the opening titles begin with the image of a safety curtain rising to reveal a view of London, Stage Fright is as much about the art of theatricality as it is about actresses using their skills in 'real' life. Charlotte Inwood is a performer at the height of her career, while Eve is merely a student (at RADA, where Hitch's daughter, Pat, had just enrolled as a student). All of the characters are called upon to play a part, a role that is not who they really are. Charlotte's on-stage performance of the deeply ironic song 'The Laziest Girl in Town' has her protesting 'It's not 'cos I shouldn't / It's not 'cos I wouldn't' even though we, the audience are convinced that she would and in fact she did. There's also a scene where Charlotte tries on mourning-clothes which can be viewed as just another costume change for her.

Eve plays at being an actress, though her doting father seems less blinded by the footlights than she, noting:

Everything seems a fine acting role when you're stage struck...

When Eve (Jane Wyman) introduces herself as 'Doris Tinsdale', she receives the reprimand, 'Not so loud, dear', as if she were back at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, rehearsing. But Charlotte soon finds her a part, telling her to be ready to introduce the doctor when Charlotte gives her a cue by coughing. During this scene, Charlotte keeps forgetting her new maid's name, despite some prompting from Eve herself (who, for reasons of the film's plot, is playing at being the maid). And when, as she is bidden, Eve goes into the next room to await the doctor's arrival, the ensuing action is filmed as if from the wings of a theatre. There, Eve hovers as if she were suffering from the titular stage fright, for she's afraid of being recognised by Detective Smith (Michael Wilding) who is interviewing Charlotte after having earlier met the real Eve in a nearby pub. Eve also plays the part of a detective, a role she shares with her father. The actual Detective, Smith, appears to be playing the part of a stern authority figure when we know he's quite sweet when he courts Eve.

Of course Jonathan Cooper's 'innocent man on the run' act is a common theme in Hitchcock's work, dating right back to his first film, The Lodger. The difference here of course is that Jonathan's guilty. One of the biggest twists in the film involves how Hitchcock (through Whitfield Cook's witty script) cheats the audience by providing Jonathan's back-story in a flashback that we later realise could never have happened. The 'fake flash-back' is a trick later put to jaw-dropping use in the film The Usual Suspects (1995). The film's finalé could be seen to be underlining the theatrical theme in having the climactic confrontation acted out on an actual stage, while the exposed villain literally dies onstage after giving the performance of his life.

The work of the actor is only one of several conceits operating in the film. Another concerns the notion of a grey, dull, post-war England where everyone is putting on a brave face (again, part of the theatrical motif). Hence the 'deep logic' of the theatrical garden party in the rain, which is being held to raise money for war orphans. The rain is a far cry from the bombs that had earlier rained on London (the opening shot of London depicts a blitz-devastated wasteland).

Hitchcock's films are noted for their rather dark tones. Even in something as high-camp as this, there's room for a view visceral moments, such as the scene where, in flashback, Jonathan is seen trying to get to a wardrobe that's blocked by the body of Charlotte's husband and so pulls on the door to force the corpse to roll over. But Hitchcock loved to mix his shocks with laughs. We might wince when we hear gossips discussing the murder:

I heard they clocked him so hard that his false teeth went right across the room.

However, the description is vaguely comical too, as is the reaction Sergeant Mellish gives to Charlotte's callous revelation that she once owned a dog, but when it bit her she had it shot.

Much is made of Hitchcock's Catholicism in reviews. Certainly there's religious imagery present in many of his films and so it is with Stage Fright. In once scene, Eve tells Smith that she once played the fourth Deadly Sin at the church Hall (significantly, the fourth Deadly Sin is 'Lust'), while there's surely some mileage in the fact that Eve tries to save Jonathan from damnation by going to a garden (party), only to discover she can't save him after all.

The garden party (which, depicting a typical English summer, is a downpour), also makes use of a familiar Hitchcockian visual motif, where Hitch shows us a sea of black umbrellas, then focuses on just one, that of the blackmailer, the maid, Nellie Goode. Look for similar scenes in both Rich and Strange (1931) and Foreign Correspondent (1941). As in Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn, Hitch experiments with a long take, with the flashback as told by Richard Todd showing him enter the house from outside, follow him up the stairs and enter the room in one long shot (a trick he'd pull off again in Frenzy (1972).

The ultimate Hitchcock element is the 'Ice Maiden', the frosty blonde that was Hitchcock's ideal woman. Madeleine Carroll, Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren were the most famous Hitchcock blondes, but Marleine Dietrich was playing the part in other people's films long before anyone else. Here though, draped in costumes by Milo Anderson and Christian Dior, and singing a Cole Porter-penned song that underlines her character far too efficiently, Dietrich parodies the part, allowing Hitchcock to make fun of the whole notion of acting (Hitchcock famously commented that actors should be 'treated like cattle').


Stage Fright was not well received on its release, with many feeling that the 'fake flashback' was a trick too far. The reviewer for the Times, however, seemed to appreciate the finer comic touches of the film claiming:

... (it) ceases to be a Hitchcock exercise in dramatic suspense and becomes instead a diverting comedy brilliantly served by its supporting cast... Mr Hitchcock stages a come-back with an ingenious end which suggests that he dealt the opening hand with an unfair ace up his sleeve. Mr. Hitchcock, in not making a 'typical' Hitchcock film, has made an exceedingly diverting one.

Perhaps because of the lukewarm response, Stage Fright has become one of the filmmaker's forgotten gems. Almost never shown in retrospectives of his career, it received its first home video release in the UK as part of a 2005 DVD box set that also contained some of his better-known works.

1Though Rebecca won 'Best Film' at the 1940 Academy Awards, the Oscar didn't go to Hitchcock. The 'Best Picture' award always goes to the film's producer, who in this case was David O Selznick.

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