Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stage Fright

Wannabe actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) is carrying a torch for the dashing Jonathon Cooper (Richard Todd). Only problem is, Cooper’s the current boy-toy of middle-aged but still glamorous showbiz star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). When Charlotte’s husband suffers a nasty case of death, it’s Cooper that Charlotte prevails upon to help cover the whole thing up.

And when the cover up goes awry and Cooper finds himself on the run (yup, we’re definitely in Hitchcock territory), it’s Eve that he prevails upon to help prove his innocence and shelter him from the cops.

Eve obligingly stashes Cooper at her eccentric but resourceful father (Alistair Sim)’s seaside pad, adopts an alias and takes a job as Charlotte’s dresser in order to get close to the one person who knows the truth. To this end, she enlists the help of Nellie Woods (Kay Walsh), the woman who found the body. Only Nellie’s banking on the controversy surrounding Charlotte as her meal ticket, selling her exclusive story to the gutter press; and when it seems like Eve might be digging up a more profitable bit of dirt, Nellie turns blackmailer.

To compound Eve’s problems, Detective Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding) is on the case and wanting some answers, her father is playing amateur sleuth rather too enthusiastically, and Cooper has turned up back in London and in harm’s way …

On paper, ‘Stage Fright’ should be the perfect Hitchcock film: a man on the run; a plucky heroine putting herself in danger to save him; hidden identities; dark secrets; shadowy corridors and duplicitous shenanigans backstage. Throw in a couple of chase scenes, a couple of suspense scenes and a soupçon of humour, and you’re set for 105 minutes of rollicking entertainment, right?

Ummmm. No. Actually you’re not. ‘Stage Fright’ is perhaps the creakiest, wheeziest entry in Hitch’s canon. Wyman, best known for the melodramas ‘Magnificent Obsession’ and ‘All That Heaven Allows’, is a simperingly unengaging heroine, Todd mistakes sulky frowning for smouldering intensity, and Wilding shows his profile a lot.

Marlene Dietrich does her usual smoky, husky, seductive routine (but, hey, when it works that well, why step outside the comfort zone?). Unfortunately her big musical number was so effectively parodied by Madeleine Kahn in ‘Blazing Saddles’, that I kept thinking about that film during the last half of ‘Stage Fright’. By the end, I was willing Cleavon Little to run on stage and go “Hey, where’s the white women at?”

A typically British supporting cast – including Sybil Thorndike and Joyce Grenfell – are wasted in some excruciatingly unfunny comedic scenes; and things only really pep up when Alistair Sim is on screen.

The set-pieces seem curiously perfunctory and there’s only a grimly ironic finale, which takes the phrase ‘final curtain’ somewhat literally, to indicate that Hitchcock even showed up during the shoot. Maybe his mind was on his next project: ‘Strangers on a Train’.

No comments: