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Tag Archives: Alastair Sim

Stage Fright (Feb. 23, 1950)

Stage Fright
Stage Fright (1950)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros.

Most film lovers love to rank things. When talking about a director or star they love, a common question is, “Where do you place this film in their whole body of work? Top third? Middle third? Bottom third?”

Obsessively rating and ranking things comes pretty easily to me, but as I get older I try to avoid it. I enjoy putting together “best of the year” lists, but aside from that I don’t give films 1- to 5-star ratings or a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” I think it’s more interesting to talk about a film’s meaning and significance, what works and what doesn’t, and how it fits in with the director’s other films and personal obsessions.

So in that spirit, instead of rating Stage Fright from 1 to 10 or ranking it compared with Hitchcock’s other movies, let me just say that I think it is Hitchcock’s first purely enjoyable and crowd-pleasing piece of entertainment since Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946).

The Paradine Case (1947) was a chilly and somewhat dour courtroom drama. I absolutely love Rope (1948), but it’s a technical exercise that didn’t do very well at the box office and is usually loved more by film geeks than by moviegoers who just want to be entertained.

I didn’t love Stage Fright as much as I love some of Hitchcock’s films, but after the weird, overheated Technicolor melodrama of Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright felt like a return to form. It’s a tightly paced black and white melodrama full of intrigue and humor. There’s murder, romance, hidden identities, audience misdirection, and some of the arch, sexually suggestive humor that was Hitchcock’s bread and butter.

Wyman and Dietrich

Stage Fright stars wide-eyed Jane Wyman as Eve Gill, an aspiring actress who gets the role of a lifetime when she goes undercover as Marlene Dietrich’s maid to try to clear her friend of murder.

Eve Gill’s friend is another actor, Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), who tells her he’s been the victim of a terrible misunderstanding. His secret lover, the flamboyant stage siren Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), came to him after killing her husband and begged for his help. While attempting to help her cover up the crime, he was spotted in her house and pursued by police as the most likely culprit, and now he needs Eve to help him clear his name.

Eve has a pretty bad crush on Jonathan, and since his story obviously seems totally 100% on the up-and-up, Eve Gill hides him at her father’s coastal home and goes undercover. Incidentally, her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), was my favorite part of the film. Alastair Sim is good in every role I’ve ever seen him in, but he absolutely kills it in this movie. His line readings are subtle and hilarious, and he communicates more subtext with his eyebrows than most actors can with their whole faces.

I also loved Marlene Dietrich in this film. She plays a sort of “worst case scenario” tabloid version of her own persona — an absolute diva who refuses to learn any of her underlings’ names. If you like Dietrich’s singing (and I do), a highlight of Stage Fright is her extravagant stage performance of the Cole Porter song “The Laziest Gal in Town.”

Stage Fright probably won’t end up being a Hitchcock film that I keep coming back to the way I keep coming back to Notorious, North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), but it was an incredibly fun little movie that I enjoyed every minute of.

Hitchcock cameo

After I watched it I checked out people’s reviews online and was surprised to see how many people hated Stage Fright. Plenty of them just didn’t seem to like it, and there’s not much I can say about that, but many of them seemed to be angry about a piece of misdirection that Hitchcock uses in the film. Come on, people, that’s just Hitchcock messing with you by breaking cinematic rules you think are set in stone! If you don’t like to be screwed with, you probably shouldn’t go anywhere near Hitchcock, who was a master of mischief.

The fact that he still manages to screw with audiences more than 30 years after his death is just proof of his genius.

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Green for Danger (Dec. 5, 1946)

Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger, based on the novel by Christianna Brand, is a terrific whodunnit, replete with the cream of the crop of post-war British film thespians.

The story takes place over the course of one week in 1944 at Heron’s Park Emergency Hospital, a requisitioned and converted Elizabethan manor in the English countryside. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, as the doctors, nurses, and administrators tend to the sick and the wartime wounded while squabbling and engaging in petty jealousies as German bombers fly overhead.

Alastair Sim, who plays Inspector Cockrill, doesn’t show up until halfway through the film, but he narrates it from the beginning, introducing us to a group of doctors and nurses circled around a patient in the operating theater; surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), a stocky, dark-haired Lothario; anesthetist Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), who is engaged to the pretty blonde, Nurse Linley (Sally Gray); hysterical Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John); strait-laced Sister Bates (Judy Campbell); and portly Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins). Inspector Cockrill informs us that it is August 17, 1944, and that by August 22, 1944, two of these characters will be dead, and one of them will be revealed as a murderer.

I like a mystery that establishes its parameters early in the story, and Green for Danger does exactly that. The fact that we’re quickly introduced to the six main characters while their hair and faces are covered by surgical caps and masks means you’ll have to be paying especially close attention if you want to remember who everyone is at first glance, but if you aren’t, never fear. The characters in this film are sharply drawn, and the actors bring them to life wonderfully.

Trevor Howard as Dr. Barnes is the embodiment of the British middle class; his entire body is one big stiff upper lip. Leo Genn probably isn’t anyone’s current idea of a ladykiller, but his smoothness and charisma make him utterly convincing. Sally Gray is lovely to look at, although when she and Rosamund John were both wearing surgical caps I found them difficult to tell apart. I especially liked Judy Campbell, whose role could have been one-note, but who manages to instill the severe Sister Bates with a good deal of humanity.

The first murder — or was it murder? — takes place when a postman named Higgins (Moore Marriott), injured after a bomb attack, dies on the operating table. Recriminations fly, but his death is written off as an accident until one of the nurses screams during a party that she knows it was murder, and she can prove it. She rushes off into the night, stalked by a killer. This sequence is genuinely terrifying, and is reminiscent of an Italian giallo, with dark shadows, swinging doors, and shutters blowing open and closed in the wind to create dramatic lighting effects.

Inspector Cockrill’s appearance marks a shift in tone, as the film becomes more comic. Cockrill is the diametrical opposite of Dr. Barnes and Mr. Eden. While they are perfectly groomed, neatly coiffed, and sharply attired, he is bald, with shocks of gray hair above his ears, outfitted in an ill-fitting, rumpled suit with a drooping pocket square. He’s a collection of tics, constantly shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows.

He’s also the shrewdest man in the room. When Dr. Barnes disparagingly refers to flat-footed coppers, Cockrill responds, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches, Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.”

Alastair Sim is a fantastic actor, and he exudes authority as Inspector Cockrill, even when he’s doing a pratfall. Cockrill is a fantastic creation, and watching this film made me wish there were an entire series of films featuring the character. He keeps his suspects constantly off-kilter with inappropriate jokes and ironic comments, and he seems mildly amused by everything, including himself.

Green for Danger was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had lately. It’s genuinely good escapist entertainment.