Stage Fright

Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich

When the conversation turns to Alfred Hitchcock films, Stage Fright doesn’t often come up. Notorious, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Vertigo and even The Birds all regularly make an appearance. Stage Fright not so much.

And yet it’s a fascinating film, not least because in it Hitchcock tries to do something different with his formula. All the usual elements are here – the innocent man, mistaken identity, flat-footed cops, the mystery blonde – but everything has been given a distorting twist, inside a movie which itself is set in a world with a distorted relationship to reality, as if all the characters in it have somehow become aware they are actors playing roles.

Relationships between the characters are all skewed too. Jane Wyman plays Eve, the student actress trying to shield Jonathan (Richard Todd), the man she loves, from the long arm of the law, after he’s been caught, apparently red-handed, trying to help the woman he loves, a famous actress, escape a murder rap.

In a notorious “lying” flashback, Hitchcock presents the “truth” of what happened at the scene of the crime and then spends the rest of the film taunting the audience for having taken this flashback at face value. This infuriated audiences and critics in 1950 but now looks like a masterstroke of plotting by Hitch (and his screenwriter wife, Alma Reville), who are making this film at the same time as Rashomon, the film that supposedly rewrites the book on truth and lies.

A murder-mystery, thriller-chase, suspense movie in the Hitchcock mould is what we get, but Hitch does it all as if through a fairground mirror, as a farce, and has brilliant comedic actors like Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike (every second on screen majestic) as Eve’s father and mother – a couple who live in semi-estrangement (another skewed relationship). There’s even a brief cameo for British comedy legend Joyce Grenfell, squeezing her scant screen time for laughs, none of which are in the script.

Sybil Thorndike and Alastair Sim
The brilliant Sybil Thorndike and Alastair Sim

Talking of distortion, playing the famous actress Charlotte Inwood is Marlene Dietrich, dressed in Dior and at maximum vamp. She directed the lighting of her own scenes herself and never looks less a million dollars (a fact that put Wyman’s nose way out of joint, apparently, since she has top billing). As Hitchcock later waspishly commented: “Marlene was a professional star. She was also a professional cameraman, art director, editor, costume designer, hairdresser, makeup woman, composer, producer and director.”

He lets her have her head. He even gives her a couple of very Dietrich-esque musical numbers. In any other film it would bend things right out of shape but in Stage Fright things being bent out of shape is kind of the point. Truth and lies, acting and reality, backstage and front of house, all are up for grabs. There’s even a scene where Eve beckons her father outside so she can have a private word with him away from solid Jonathan. “At last,” he says theatrically, “we are alone and unobserved.” Who says something like that? Alastair Sim might as well have winked at the camera.

Wyman in her early 30s looks older than Dietrich in her late 40s, but is fine if a touch overwrought as the naive but plucky Eve. Todd does dependable and vulnerable rather well, until he’s required to volte-face in a hurry. And Michael Wilding brings his own brand of dashing, very British leading man good looks to the role of the detective who doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to crack the case.

The entire film is a meta joke. Hitchcock is playing with his own tropes and iconography, and seems to be enjoying himself, perhaps because he’s back in England, where he hadn’t made a film for ten years. Meta at more than one level, too. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia was studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the time – where Eve is also meant to be a student – and turns up in a cameo as a RADA student called Chubby Bannister. A girl you can lean on, quipped dad.

Hugely enjoyable though it is, it’s better as a meta joke than it is as a movie. The audiences and critics of the time do have a point. And the crunching of gears as it changes out of farce and into thriller towards the end is deafening. Still, there’s lots to like, and how often do you see a woman as the hero of a Hitchcock film? Maybe the notoriously misogynist Hitchcock thought that was too funny an idea to pass up.

Stage Fright – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Bob consoles wife Jill

Here’s the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the thriller Alfred Hitchcock would remake in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day in the lead roles. He later said this first version was “the work of a talented amateur, and the second was made by a professional.” However, ever a master of misdirection, it’s actually the first one that Hitchcock preferred. He found the second too polished.

Unlike the second, this is a very British affair, with Leslie Banks and Edna Best as the married couple whose holiday in St Moritz is interrupted when a friend is shot and killed in front of them (in one of the most elegant death scenes in cinema). Amazingly, before dying the man reveals that he’s actually a spy and that there’s some valuable information in his room. By getting involved, Bob (Banks) unwittingly triggers a series of events that end with the couple’s daughter Betty (child star Nova Pilbeam) being kidnapped, with sharp instruction from the kidnappers not to say anything to the police. The couple comply, though that doesn’t stop them from trying to get their daughter back, and once back in London they set out on an amateur investigation of their own, with the police constantly on their backs.

Enter a German heavy (Frank Vosper) and his boss Abbott (Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role) and a classic Hitchcock set-up – innocent person caught up in a situation beyond their understanding. It’s not pure Hitchcock though. The formula isn’t quite complete. That would come two years later with The 39 Steps. For example, here, back in London, Bob teams up with Hugh Wakefield’s Clive, the pair of them forming a Holmes and Watson-style amateur sleuthing outfit attempting to stay one step ahead of the police. There is banter and some humour. Later, classic Hitch generally teams the innocent man up with a woman, preferably blonde, for banter plus humour plus sexual frisson.

Leslie Banks, Peter Lorre and Frank Vosper
Banks, Lorre and Vosper: the good, the bad and the ugly

Then again there are snatches of classic Hitchcock – a scene in a dentist’s chair where Bob is menaced with sharp instruments, or the dramatic climax at the Albert Hall, where Hitchcock pulls off one of those big set pieces as the hero races to prevent a political assassination while an orchestra is at full roar. He then disappointingly tacks on a final gun battle that seems to have been pulled from a Western B movie – villains holed up in the ranch, much bang bang bang – perhaps hoping to get that golden ticket to Hollywood. It works better as a come-on than as a rousing finish.

Lorre is interesting. A white streak of hair making him look like a malevolent badger, he barely knew English at the times and speaks his lines phonetically. It doesn’t harm his performance. In fact the icy detachment helps, as does Hitchcock’s decision to shoot Lorre in a style reminiscent of the much admired Fritz Lang, who’d made Lorre’s name as the child murderer in his groundbreaking thriller, M.

In fact Hitch’s camera is very fluid for the time, and his shots are beautifully composed – this is a director who loved to storyboard it all out in advance. The real problem with the film is its key characters. They’re a bit wan, and the too, too cut-glass accents of Banks and Best add an alien quality that distances them from the modern viewer. Unlike, say, William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, who did “high tone detective” a lot better in 1934.

It’s best seen, alongside The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929), as an “on the road to classic Hitchcock” movie, in spite of Hitchcock’s protestations that he preferred it over the remake. If we can put aside the notion that Hitchcock essentially kept making the same film over and over, this is the only one he actually went back to and had another crack at. And he’d been intending to remake it as early as 1941, when he’d not been long in the USA. So clearly he knew all was not right.

The Man Who Knew Too Much – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Rear Window

James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



8 January



François Grimaldi takes Monaco, 1297

On this day in 1297, dressed as a monk, François Grimaldi (more properly Francesco, since he was Italian) was admitted to the castle at Monaco. Known as Il Malizia, “the cunning”, Grimaldi’s plan was simple – get inside, open the gates and then let his men rush the guards. This he did, and once his men, including his cousin, Rainier, were in he took control. For four years he ruled over Monaco, until he was chased out by the Genoese. He was the first of the Grimaldi clan to try and establish a claim over the territory. On his death, his cousin (and stepson) Rainer became his successor and established the Chateau Grimaldi at nearby Cagnes. The present-day Grimaldis trace their lineage back to Rainier I, though he never held the fortress known as “the Rock”. That honour went to his son, Charles I, who regained control of it in 1331.




Rear Window (1954, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

The second of three films that Grace Kelly (later Princess of Monaco) would make with Alfred Hitchcock, and the second that would appear in 1954, Rear Window is the go-to film when any discussion of Hitchcock’s voyeurism is on the cards, which it often is. The story of a photographer laid up with a broken leg, who whiles away his time by staring at the apartments opposite through a telephoto lens, it is also becomes a classic tale of Hitchcockian impotence when James Stewart’s Jeff witnesses what he believes was a murder. Whether it was or not forms the crux of the movie, but there’s another focus too – the teasing relationship between Jeff and Lisa (Kelly). She is sweet on him but his behaviour towards her is rather offhand; he’s keeping her at arm’s length, the cool, passive character compared to her hot, active one. While Jeff stares out the rear window over at the apartment of Thorvald (Raymond Burr) who may or may not have killed his wife, the camera stares at Kelly, in a series of swish outfits, pouting, coquettish, and the question forms in our heads – what is wrong with this guy? Why is he so obsessed with what he can see through binoculars, but not with what he could touch right in front of him? And later, combining theme A with theme B about as neatly as it can possibly be done, Hitchcock sends Kelly over to the facing block and inserts her into Jeff’s scopophilic fantasy. Now he’s interested, oh yes. Like a lot of the best movies, Rear Window has a simple, brilliant premise. In terms of cast and sets it’s simplicity itself. And as a metaphor for the theory that cinema is essentially a voyeuristic experience it’s near perfect too.



Why Watch?


  • Better than Rope or Lifeboat, this is Hitchcock’s best “one set” film
  • The restoration is a marvel, having brought a near-perished film back to life
  • Voyeurism in all its thrilling seediness
  • Better than the not-bad Christopher Reeve remake, or the Shia LaBeouf knock-off, Disturbia


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Rear Window – at Amazon





North by Northwest

Cary Grant pursued by a plane in North by Northwest


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



31 October



Mount Rushmore completed, 1941

On this day in 1941, the sculpture of four US presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – was finished on a granite face near Keystone, South Dakota. Sculpted from a mountain known to the Lakota Sioux as the Six Grandfathers, the depiction of the four presidents was masterminded by Gutzon Borglum and carved (after dynamiting to remove the big stuff) by up to 400 workers, each head measuring around 60 feet (18 metres). The gigantic frieze was conceived and created for reasons of promoting tourism, rather than overarching patriotism, and the Rushmore site was chosen because of its good supply of stable granite and its south-easterly orientation, which meant it got a full belt of sunshine. The cost of the project was borne by the federal government, after a campaign spearheaded by Senator Peter Norbeck, of South Dakota, was endorsed by presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D Roosevelt. Gutzon Borglum started carving in 1927 and on his death in March 1941 his son took over. The original plan, for head-to-waist sculptures, was never completed due to a diversion of funds into the war effort after the United States entered the Second World War.



North by Northwest (1959, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular films, both at the time and ever since, North by Northwest is also one of the most famous films to star Cary Grant. It is very similar in storyline to Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps – innocent man on the run from a shadowy spy organisation, forced into the company of an attractive woman who at first does not believe he is what he says he is (an advertising executive in this case). Of the films many achievements, not least of which is the way Hitchcock endows Grant with iconic blue hair and clashing orange skin, is its succession of standout set pieces, also iconic – the United Nations, the cropdusting sequence, Grand Central Station in New York to Mount Rushmore for the finale. Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to film there, and it’s obvious that this big finish is all being concocted back in the studio. Which is a great pity because it throws a wet blanket over what should be a great film’s showstopper. It is said that the original idea for North by Northwest arose from a conversation Hitchcock had with writer Ernest Lehman – who had proposed to him “the ultimate Hitchcock film”, which drew out of Hitchcock the response that he’d always fancied a finale on Mount Rushmore. And here it is.



Why Watch?


  • Saul Bass’s opening titles – first use of kinetic graphics
  • Bernard Herrmann’s pulsing score
  • Was it ever really going to be called “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose”?
  • A smooth James Mason and a villainous Martin Landau


© Steve Morrissey 2013



North by Northwest – at Amazon





The Lodger

Ivor Novello in The Lodger


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



30 September



Jack the Ripper Kills Twice, 1888

On this day in 1888, the London serial killer known as Jack the Ripper killed two women, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. Stride had had her throat cut; Eddowes had also had her throat cut, part of her nose was missing, her right earlobe was hanging off and she had had her abdomen cut open and one kidney had been removed. They were victims number three and four of a five-kill run that had started on 31 August and run its course by 9 November of the same year. The Ripper’s identity was never revealed, which ruins the “he wants to be caught” theorising of any number of films and TV shows about serial killers. The novelist Patricia Cornwell has come to the conclusion in her Portrait of a Killer that the killer was the artist Walter Sickert, based on DNA evidence and Sickert’s interest in depicting naked women, in particular in his lurid painting The Camden Town Murder. However the field remains open, with a variety of names in the frame, in particular surgeons, on account of the Ripper’s accurate way with a knife, especially considering he was killing and eviscerating women mostly outdoors, on the hoof, at speed. Nor are we entirely sure that Stride was a victim, and there might have been an earlier victim not included in the canonical tally. However we look at it, it was a short reign of fear and, for a serial killer, a not particularly prolific one. In truth the reputation of the Ripper rests on something else – the development of a vibrant press, selling to a population that was increasingly literate (particularly since the 1870 Education Act). In fact one theory now asserts that the first letter claiming to have been written by Jack the Ripper was in fact penned by a journalist.



The Lodger (1927, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

A mysterious man checks into a boarding house on a dark, foggy London night. Meanwhile, out on the streets someone called the Avenger is brutally killing blondes. Is it our mystery man? Does he have designs on the blonde daughter of the landlady? Within minutes Alfred Hitchcock, in the film that announced his breakthrough, has us hooked. The famous singer Ivor Novello plays the Lodger, a tall, dark and slightly effete man, Novello is ideal casting as the queer cove who might not be what he says he is. A notable film in many ways, not least because it’s Hitchcock’s first thriller, The Lodger is clearly the work of a director struggling against the constraints of the silent film, using everything to hand – newspapers, teleprinters, neon signs outside – to convey information in ways other than the dreaded intertitle. This “show don’t tell” approach would stand Hitchcock in good stead in his later career. But he’s also deploying a tactic he would use again and again – telling us just enough to get us onside as co-conspirators (we know stuff the film’s characters don’t) yet just withholding enough to keep us guessing. So is the lodger the killer? Is the lovely Daisy (June Tripp, billed simply as “June”) with the more straightforwardly masculine policeman boyfriend going to end up dead? This isn’t perfect Hitchcock, there is an awful lot of theatricality on display, but it is remarkable how quickly and efficiently Hitchcock gets his story going, and it’s also amazing how much of his mature work is already here, in embryo. There’s even a cameo by the man himself. Look out for him in the newspaper office.



Why Watch?


  • Hitchcock’s first real “Hitchcock” film
  • Some beautiful expressionist montage work, hot from Hitchcock’s visit to Germany
  • Its kick of dark sexual criminality
  • If you’re lucky, you’re watching the restored version by the Scorsese Foundation and the British Film Institute with original colour tinting


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Lodger – at Amazon





The 39 Steps

Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to Robert Donat in The 39 Steps



There are several filmed versions of John Buchan’s novel. The other two notables have Kenneth More and Robert Powell in the lead. But this one, in spite of its antiquity, is the best. It stars debonair, pencil-moustached Robert Donat as the innocent man forced into going on the run after accidentally getting caught up at the wrong end of someone else’s spying caper.

The “innocent” theme was something Alfred Hitchcock was already comfortable with in 1935 and one which he’d return to repeatedly, most notably in North by Northwest. If you’ve read John Buchan’s original book, you’ll know The 39 Steps is a taut thriller full of derring-do, a rattling good read even today. It was this astute choosing of good source material, often by his wife Alma, that marks out Hitchcock’s mature work. That period had really only kicked off with The Man Who Knew Too Much (also an “innocent man” film) the year before, even though all of Hitchcock’s bravura camera movements and other lessons learned from the German expressionists had been informing his work since 1927’s The Lodger. It’s a MacGuffin film too – the plot serving to do little more than keep the ball in play while Hitchcock delves into the psyches of his characters. It’s also a “blonde” film, with glamourpuss Madeleine Carroll playing the woman Donat is handcuffed to for large swathes of the chase action round the Scottish highlands, a woman who seems more sexually knowing than the plot strictly requires. And it’s a “set piece” film – kicking off with the Mr Memory music hall sequence which will also provide the film’s thrilling climax.

It’s all here, in other words, all the big Hitchcock tropes. And what really stands out on watching it again is the sheer pace of the thing; it belts along in a way which few films since have managed, and even takes a breather halfway through – in the stifling croft inhabited by John Laurie and Flora Robson, yoked together in unhappy domesticity – as if to give us a minute to stand back and marvel. Nearly 70 years later the same formula – innocent man, shady organisation, chase, blonde – would be served up again as the Bourne films. Here we have Hitchcock perfecting it.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The 39 Steps – at Amazon





Strangers on a Train

930 strangers on a train blu



Remakes are always being mooted – one far-fetched internet rumour had Ricky Gervais starring in one of them – but whatever eventually pops out, it’s unlikely to eclipse this warped 1951 original, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Patricia Highsmith, surely one of cinema’s most misanthropic couplings. Hitchcock, as book after book delights in telling us, loved torturing blondes. The lesbian Highsmith, on the other hand, loved to torture homosexuals – see The Talented Mr Ripley, for example. And it’s Highsmith who comes out on top in this thriller about two men agreeing to swap murders. Robert Walker plays Bruno Anthony, the psychotic ball of mother-love who wants his horrible father dead. Farley Granger is Guy Haines, a clean-limbed tennis pro with a wife restricting his extra-mural canoodlings. The trouble starts when psycho Bruno kills Guy’s wife and expects Guy to fulfil his end of the deal, a “deal” which Guy had thought was merely the what-if ramblings of strangers passing time on a long train journey. Spicing up this stew is the regularly suggested but never openly stated homo-erotic subtext, with mad Bruno constantly making cow eyes at rangey Guy. And there you have it, the basic steps – sex, death and guilt – for life’s never-ending tango. Irresistible.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Strangers on a Train – at Amazon