A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, March 6, 2017

Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)

The first stage of Marlene Dietrich's Hollywood career, when she was under the tutelage of Josef von Sternberg, ended with her being labeled "poison at the box office" by a disgruntled exhibitor in 1938, a label that helped push many of her contemporaries -- Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer -- into early retirement. Dietrich was made of sterner stuff, and after a celebrated turn entertaining American troops during World War II, she carved out a second film career by taking on character roles in films by major directors like Billy Wilder in A Foreign Affair (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Fritz Lang in Rancho Notorious (1952), Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958), and Alfred Hitchcock in Stage Fright. Of these, the Hitchcock film is surprisingly the least memorable. It may be that Dietrich, who had learned everything she could about lighting and camera angles from Sternberg and cinematographers like Lee Garmes, was too much the diva for Hitchcock, who liked to be in control on his sets. But the fact remains that she is probably the most interesting thing about Stage Fright, a somewhat overcomplicated and sometimes scattered mystery in which we pretty much know whodunit from the beginning. Her appearances often come as a welcome relief from the rather tepid romantic triangle involving the characters played by Jane Wyman, Richard Todd, and Michael Wilding. Dietrich sings -- if that's the right word for what she does, being more diseuse than singer -- a few songs, including "La Vie en Rose" and Cole Porter's "The Laziest Gal in Town," and wears some Christian Dior gowns as Charlotte Inwood, the star of a musical revue in London, who bumps off her husband with the help of her lover, Jonathan Cooper (Todd), who is also the lover of a young student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Eve Gill (Wyman). But Eve also gets caught up in the murder plot when she falls for the detective investigating the case, Wilfred Smith (Wilding). Also providing relief from the romantic plot are Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike as Eve's separated and slightly eccentric parents, and some funny cameos by Miles Malleson and Joyce Grenfell. The screenplay is by Whitfield Cook from an adaptation by Alma Reville of a novel by Selwyn Jepson. There are some clever Hitchcockian moments, including a flashback that turns out to be a complete misdirection and some skillful tracking shots by cinematographer Wilkie Cooper. But Wyman, the only American-born member of  the cast, feels out of her element, and Wilding turns his character into a moonstruck milksop. (Whatever did Elizabeth Taylor see in him?)