Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Stage Fright


There’s an amusing anecdote on the DVD extras. The movie opens with a huge stage curtain rising to reveal St. Paul’s Cathedral and the recent bomb damage around it. Cut to a car speeding directly at the camera. As the grill fills the screen, we cut away. This scene called for someone to drive right at the camera. I don’t know how they got it out of the way, but they did. Now, that was supposed to be Jane Wyman and Richard Todd in the front seat, Wyman driving. But in those days stars were never in moving cars. Never. Mostly it was because you couldn’t get cameras in there, so people sat on obviously phony seats with obviously phony rear projection of moving scenes. Audiences accepted it because they’d never seen anything better. However, one small element of the reason stars were never in moving cars was that there was an element, however small, of danger involved. So when it came time to film the scene Hitchcock, knowing the faces would not be distinguishable for the brief screen time, called in a stunt driver … his daughter, little Pat Hitchcock.

Just think about that, because it perfectly illustrates Rule #1 of Directing, a rule that any director will understand. That rule is: Protect the star at all costs! “Say, Hitch, the next scene calls for Marlene Dietrich to hang over a tank of ravenous sharks, with a rope that is fraying and about to break. What should we do?” “Hmmm … Pat, my dear, would you come over here for a moment?”

Okay, that was fun, and now to the movie, which is also fun. Wyman is an aspiring actress who is gaga about handsome Todd, who in turn is gaga about sultry Marlene. Marlene kills her husband and asks Todd to protect her, and he in turn goes to Wyman to hide and protect him. And here I must issue a SPOILER WARNING, in case you don’t know how this situation famously turned out. Right after the opening scene (“Drive carefully, my dear!”) Todd spins a yarn of how it all went down. We fade to a flashback and see it all happen. But in the last ten minutes we learn that he was lying. He killed the husband, the dirty dog. (I’m a bit proud of myself, because I figured this out about halfway through, and frankly, I’m awful at figuring out whodunits. I guess it was because he was such a whiny, needy, obvious phony.) It was a “false flashback,” and it angered a lot of people. Hitch himself repented, saying it was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. I disagree. I think it was brilliant, and perfectly legitimate. This was the scene going through her head as he spun his lie. And anyway, the very same year the great Akira Kurosawa was making Rashomon, one of his greatest films, and it had at least three false flashbacks. I guess I don’t mind being fooled in a movie.

The film as a whole is a light amusement, until the very end when Richard Todd seriously creeps us out with a terrifying and underplayed depiction of madness. Marlene is as funny and glamorous as always, dominating every scene she is in. Todd is good, Michael Wilding as the detective Wyman inevitably falls in love with is amiable and likeable. Mousy little Jane Wyman plays it all very well. They are surrounded by some of the best character actors in England at the time, including Sybil Thorndike. Alastair Sim, and Joyce Grenfell.