Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock’s Theatrical Thriller, Starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd

Hitchcock directed Stage Fright, a middling British noir thriller, starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding and Richard Todd.

The story was adapted for the screen by Whitfield Cook, Ranald MacDougall and Alma Reville (the director’s wife), with additional dialogue by James Bridie, based on the 1947 novel Man Running by Selwyn Jepson.

Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) is an aspiring actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. She is interrupted in rehearsal by her friend (and crush), actor Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), the secret lover of flamboyant stage actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

Via flashback, he says Charlotte visited him after killing her husband, wearing a bloodstained dress. Jonathan claims he went back to her house for another dress but was seen by Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh), Charlotte’s cockney maid-dresser. He escaped the police and now needs help.

Eve takes him to her father’s house on the coast to hide. Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), notices that the blood on Charlotte’s dress has been smeared on deliberately; he and Eve think that Charlotte framed Jonathan. Jonathan angrily destroys the dress and, thus, the most useful piece of evidence.

Eve hears Charlotte’s dresser Nellie Goode boasting about her newfound notoriety in a bar. While she is there, Eve meets Detective Inspector Wilfred O. Smith (Michael Wilding), and they become friendly. Eve then poses as a reporter; she bribes Nellie to tell Charlotte she is ill and introduce her cousin “Doris Tinsdale” as a replacement. Using her acting skills, Eve becomes “Doris” and starts working for Charlotte. Eve discovers Charlotte is having an affair with her manager Freddie Williams (Hector MacGregor).

Eve and “Ordinary” Smith become more friendly. When Smith visits Charlotte, Eve has to disguise the fact that she is also “Doris,” the maid. Smith makes a courtship visit to Eve and her mother at home, where the Commodore drops subtle hints that Jonathan has left the seaside house.

Despite her widowed status, Charlotte continues to perform her West End musical show. Jonathan comes to her dressing room, asking her to accompany him abroad. She casually tells him no, but he says he still has the bloodstained dress.

The police search for Jonathan and Eve again helps him escape, and hide at the Gills’ London residence. He is grateful to Eve, but she is starting to fall in love with Detective Smith.

Smith and Eve kiss in a taxi on the way to the RADA garden party, where Nellie Goode confronts Eve, demanding more blackmail money. Eve’s father comes to give Nellie more cash.

Freddie Williams spots Eve (thinking she is “Doris”) and orders her to help Charlotte, who is to sing. During the performance, Commodore Gill gets a small boy to carry a doll wearing a bloodstained dress onto the stage as Charlotte sings “La Vie en Rose.” Shocked, Charlotte collapses.

Smith confronts Eve and the Commodore, but Eve proclaims her true affection for Smith as well as Jonathan’s innocence. They persuade Smith to set Charlotte up. Once the theatre has closed, they use a hidden microphone, and “Doris” tells Charlotte she has the bloodstained dress. Smith and his men listen using the theatre loudspeakers. Charlotte admits planning her husband’s death but says that Jonathan actually committed the murder. Charlotte offers Eve 10,000 pounds to keep quiet.

Jonathan has been brought to the theatre by the police, but he escapes. Charlotte realizes her conversation with Eve was broadcast to the detectives and that she will be charged as an accessory to murder. Detective Smith tells the Commodore that Jonathan really did kill Mr. Inwood and that Jonathan killed before, though he got off on a plea of self-defense.

Hiding below the stage, Jonathan confesses to Eve that Charlotte goaded him into killing her husband. His flashback story was all lies, and he was the one to smear more blood onto the dress. He alludes to killing Eve to justify plea for insanity in court.

Eve pretends to help Jonathan escape but locks him onto the stage, before alerting the police about his presence.

In the end, as Jonathan is pursued from all directions and cornered, he is killed by the stage’s falling safety curtain.

The movie was made in London. The only members of the cast who are not British are the two top-billed stars: Wyman and Dietrich.

Dietrich’s costumes were designed by Christian Dior.

The production featured an original Cole Porter song, “The Laziest Gal in Town,” performed by Dietrich in sultry fashion. Dietrich also begins singing Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”, but her character is unable to finish it after being startled by a Boy Scout bringing a blood-stained doll to her.

Dietrich was allowed unprecedented control of her shots by Hitchcock, who later said: “Everything is fine. Miss Dietrich has arranged the whole thing. She has told them exactly where to place the lights and how to photograph her.” Later, he said of Dietrich “Marlene was a professional star. She was also a professional cameraman, art director, editor, costume designer, hairdresser, makeup woman, composer, producer and director.”

Lying Flashback

Stage Fright garnered some adverse publicity upon initial release due to the “lying flashback” seen near the beginning. However, some film critics, including those of Cahiers du cinéma, see the flashback as simply being illustration of one person’s version of the events: the events as recounted by the character whose voice-over we hear. Hitchcock realized the scene might be misinterpreted after seeing the film edited together, but it was too late to change; he would later claim that it was one of his greatest mistakes.

The film boasts some extra-long takes, like those in Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), both films produced by Hitchcock for Transatlantic Pictures in partnership with Sidney Bernstein and released by Warner.

Howard Maxford, author of The A-Z of Hitchcock: The Ultimate Reference Guide, notes that some aspects of the Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters case have similarities to the plot of Stage Fright.

Although Stage Fright is based on Selwyn Jepson’s short story “Man Running” (aka “Outrun the Constable”), it differs from it; in the original story, Freddie Williams is the murderer.

Hitchcock’s Cameo

Hitchcock’s cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In Stage Fright, he is seen 39 minutes into the film as a man on the street turning to look at Eve as she rehearses her scripted introduction speech to Mrs. Inwood.

Hitchcock later stated: “In Stage Fright, I have been told that my performance is quite juicy. I have been told this with a certain air of tolerance, implying that I have now achieved the maximum limits of directorial ham in the movie sandwich. It isn’t true. There may have been a ‘MacGuffin’ in my film appearance, but not a ham.”

Critical Reaction

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that Hitchcock “and his writers have contrived to give a fine cast of actors some slick and entertaining things to do. But we must quietly advise you that these things, while amusing separately, build up very little sustained excitement or suspense. They are simply a wild accumulation of clever or colorful episodes, tending for the most part to the comic, without any real anxiety.”

John McCarten of The New Yorker agreed, writing that “the picture doesn’t lack for comic touches, but none of its episodes ties in very closely with the succeeding one, and the result is disappointing.” Variety printed a more positive review, reporting that Hitchcock “has a choice cast to put through its paces, and there’s not a bad performance anywhere. The dialog has purpose, either for a chuckle or a thrill, and the pace is good despite the 110 minutes of footage.” Harrison’s Reports called it “a rambling murder thriller that wavers constantly between comedy that is delightfully funny and melodrama that is rarely more than moderately exciting. The overall result is a spotty entertainment that is too dragged out to keep one’s interest constantly alive.”

Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post wrote that there were “so many beguiling people and moments” in the film “that it’s curious the picture as a whole isn’t better.”

The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: “Stage Fright is not without effective moments, reminding us how Hitchcock once excelled in the simple melodrama with ordinary, naturalistic backgrounds; but too much of it has the heavy, corpulent quality that made Rope and in particular Under Capricorn so lifeless and unreal.”

Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic described Stage Fright as “abominable.”

According to Warner accounts, the film earned $1,012,000 domestically and $896,000 foreign.

Jane Wyman as Eve Gill
Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte Inwood
Michael Wilding as Wilfred “Ordinary” Smith
Richard Todd as Jonathan Cooper
Alastair Sim as Commodore Gill
Sybil Thorndike as Mrs. Gill
Kay Walsh as Nellie Goode
Miles Malleson as Mr. Fortesque
Hector MacGregor as Freddie Williams
Joyce Grenfell as ‘Lovely Ducks’
André Morell as Inspector Byard
Patricia Hitchcock as Chubby Bannister
Ballard Berkeley as Sergeant Mellish
Gordon Bell as Chauffeur