Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Fear in All the World

A guy answers his door to Marlene Dietrich who opens her coat to reveal a blood stained white dress before she says, "Johnny, you love me. Say that you love me. You do love me, don't you?" So begins 1950's Stage Fright, as far as I'm concerned one of the greatest movies of all time. It has several elements that alone would have made for a good movie--starring Jane Wyman a couple years after her breathtaking performance in Johnny Belinda, co-starring the magnetic, demoniacally funny Alastair Sim, featuring gorgeous musical numbers for Marlene Dietrich, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock at the top of his game. All these elements are used to tell a story about human treachery and trust that's provokingly murky in an excellent way.

Shot in England, Wyman's the only performer with an American accent, though she plays a Brit, her accent explained by a remark about how she was educated in the U.S., something I was slightly thrilled with since movies before 1960 or so often don't take the trouble to make sure everyone has the right accent. She plays Eve Gill, an aspiring stage actress whose childhood friend and object of her unrequited affections, Johnny, comes to her and tells her the story of Dietrich appearing at his door. He begs Eve to hide him from the police.

Dietrich plays Charlotte Inwood, a successful performer of great renown for whom Johnny has a desperate and great affection. It's for this reason Eve thinks Charlotte is manipulating Johnny into incriminating himself for the murder of Charlotte's husband. To prove this, Eve bribes Charlotte's maid, Nellie, to feign illness so Eve can fill in temporarily as "Doris", Nellie's cousin.

Eve also manages to befriend the Detective Inspector, Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding) in charge of investigating the murder of Charlotte's husband. The two kiss for the first time during a dialogue they exchange about the trustworthiness of people and Eve absently remarks how one can never know what's in a woman's mind.

The movie shows men can be deceptive, too--her own father--Alastair Sim--is a cool hand at it after years spent smuggling brandy. He playfully drops hints in the detective's presence about the lady's maid scheme he's helping his daughter with.

With all this, one might think the humorous scene of Sim at a garden party shooting plastic birds to win a doll is a bit of a tangent except the way in which Sim finds he can't win the doll by shooting the birds--one has to con the proprietor out of it--reemphasises the main theme of the movie. Everything about Sim's gleeful and grim manner serves the precise comedic reflection of the tragedy that makes up the last part of the story. And it's so characteristic of Hitchcock's comedy--Cary Grant's sadism in Suspicion, Grace Kelly's morbid lust in To Catch a Thief, the polite inconvenience of a human corpse in The Trouble with Harry--it's all a teasing reflection of the world's amorality, the same amorality that allows people to do truly terrible things.

Stage Fright, with its tautly suspenseful and funny plot at its surface about Eve navigating waters of artifice, makes an intricate statement about the fundamentally illusory nature of human morality and society.

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