Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Collection Project: You Don't Know What Fear Is

Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright was not anywhere near as stage-bound -- or backstage bound -- as I expected it to be. The film is about a woman named Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) who, with the help of her worldly father (Alastair Sim) tries to prove the innocence of a man named Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), who is an actor, and who Eve is in love with, and who, in turn, is trying to protect the person who he says is the true killer, famous stage actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), who is also the victim's wife. So that's two actors, and Eve herself is an acting student. Furthermore, much is made of Charlotte's willingness to go back on stage so soon after the brutal killing of her husband, and Eve uses her theater skills to aid her in her amateur sleuthing, which forms the core of the film's action.
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But what I expected from the film -- based on nothing but speculation, and a sort of hope that such a film from Hitchcock would be good fun -- was some sort of murder mystery, perhaps of the And Then There Were None variety, set in the wings and dressing rooms of a London theater. Most of Stage Fright's plot exists away from such a setting, except for a few scattered scenes here and there, and the climax (which in not-atypical Hitchcock fashion calls back to what you'd think would be a throwaway gag in the opening credits). Outside of that, mousy little Eve Gill is bouncing back and forth between her home, her father's home, Charlotte's home, and various pubs and caf├ęs in which she meets a police detective named Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding, to whom Alan Cumming bears a striking resemblance). I'll admit to being slightly disappointed by this fact, as I wanted to see the movie I'd made up in my head and then assumed Hitchcock had made, rather than the one that has existed independent of my ignorance of its true contents for sixty years.
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Of course, the film itself is quite good -- a blatant lark on Hitchcock's part, but Hitchcock's larks are quite a different thing from the larks of other filmmakers, who tend to only make such films when they feel like slumming. I've gathered that Hitchcock was a bit down on Stage Fright in later years, because he had misgivings about the "false flashback" device that sets Eve on her ill-advised path. Not to give too much away -- well, okay, this is going to give away quite a bit -- but in Stage Fright Hitchcock upends both his often-expressed fear of the police (which never got much of a full-blown expression in his films anyway, and existed most completely in answers to interview questions), and his empathy for the Wrong Man. It's this latter bit that is central to the false flashback, which Hitchock apparently deeply regretted because it was basically a lie. Some version of the "false flashback" -- in which the audience is led to believe one particular thing to be true about how the characters have reach the point at which we meet them at the beginning of the film, only to have that proved entirely false in the last minutes -- survives, and even thrives, to this day, and nobody who now uses it seems to be too bothered about it. And frankly, Hitchcock is one of the few people who can really make it work, possibly because Stage Fright is less an exercise in suspense (though there's some especially nice stuff in that regard at the end) and more of a series of fun, funny character moments, played well by a strong ensemble cast, all of which is anchored by a not-particularly-tricky thriller plot. Alastair Sim, Jane Wyman and Michael Wilding are all very good, and a pleasure to hang out with, and they're what lift the film.
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But the weak link? Marlene Dietrich. She's simply not that good in this film, and no, I didn't like "The Laziest Gal in Town", either, at least not the way she sings it.
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It's interesting, then, that some version of what I expected Hitchcock's film to be can be found in Michele Soavi's lunatic Italian slasher film Stagefright. Which is not to say that I expected to see a slasher film from the Alfred Hitchcock who made movies in the 1950s, but I fully expected, had he lived well into the 1970s, that he would have gotten there (just look at his plans for the never-filmed Kaleidoscope Frenzy). Besides, Italian thriller and horror directors often owe sizable and acknowledged debts to Hitchcock, with their often out-sized suspense set-pieces.
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This Italian take on the genre -- giallo films, as if I needed to tell you -- is not something I've historically gotten along with, outside of isolated moments, a scattering of Mario Bava films, and pretty much the entirety of Dario Argento's Tenebrae. The problem for me is often based on a sloppiness of storytelling, and an inability to believe that what I'm watching on-screen is ever happening to actual people. The genre's advocates, who are legion, would probably tell me that I'm missing the point, that the films are all about style, but I don't much like the idea of having to ignore half of the reasons I go to movies in the first place. Up to this point, one of the greatest offenders in all of Italian genre filmmaking was Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man, a highly-regarded film that, to me, was simply loaded with bad jokes and spookhouse lighting, and a tone that reminded me of Peter Jackson's early splatstick films, which I also don't like.
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So you can imagine both my dismay and delight to discover how much I enjoyed Soavi's Stagefright. Not that it's such a tightly plotted piece of work, but it is a sparely plotted piece of work. It's quite simple: a down-at-the-heels theater company is putting on an absolutely bugnuts-looking musical based loosely on a local serial killer. That serial killer escapes from the mental institution, finds his way into the theater, and begins killing everybody. That's it, so Soavi is much more free to let his film live on its truly bizarre and endlessly striking imagery, as the killer -- wearing the dark suit and owl-mask used for his character in the musical -- hacks his way coldly through our cast, without having to worry about ignoring another aspect of his film, because there isn't one.
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Soavi is not exactly Hitchcock, but one moment in the film made me think of one of Hitchcock's most icily humane moments. In Soavi's Stagefright, the killer makes his presence in the theater (the cast and crew are locked up under police supervision while they rehearse) by joining in on a scene being prepared on stage that involves the killer in the show murdering a woman in her bed. The actress playing the victim, Corinne (Lori Parell) believes she's playing the part with Brett (John Morghen), but of course she's not, and after the killer has stabbed her repeatedly and let her drop to the stage, Soavi shows her lying there, gushing blood and struggling to breathe, her eyes glassy and confused, as, in the background, the other actors and crew come rushing to her aid. This is a bleakly human moment in what is not a particularly human film, and it put me in mind of Marion Crane as she collapsed in the shower, her life swirling away from her, never quite sure what had just happened.
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But it's that owl-faced killer that really sells Soavi's film, as there is not a moment he's on-screen where the image of a man in an owl mask attacking people with knives and chainsaws that isn't also supremely effective. It's a genuinely bizarre choice, that owl mask. As it exists in the musical the company is trying to stage, it's just kind of stupid (the only explanation for it is that the musical is called The Night Owl), but once it's being worn by an actual murderer, it takes on a nightmare quality that you don't come across every day. The moment when a character shines his flashlight through a hole in the floor and illuminates that owl man carving a woman up with a chainsaw, or later, when he seats himself among his grisly trophies in one of the most grotesquely creepy scenes I've ever encountered, I knew I was watching truly unique horror imagery, the kind that many try to manufacture, or buy, or steal, but which Soavi just lets be.
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8 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

Interesting start to your Collection Project. I was quite enthralled by what you say of each film, even though I've never seen either. But I guess it's because of the way I approach my own reviews which is usually to view one film within the greater context of other films that preceded or inspired it.

In this case, the way you segue from STAGE FRIGHT (1950) to STAGEFRIGHT (1987) is pretty deftly done despite their obvious differences.

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, Tony. I hadn't seen either film myself before yesterday (I've had the Hitchcock for a while, the Soavi is a more recent acquisition), and was quite pleased. I was sort of banking on their being something to connect the two, beyond their titles, so I'm pleased you think I achieved that.

Strangely, if I had to recommend one over the other, it would be the Soavi film. Good stylish and disturbing stuff.

Lee said...

Off to a good start with this series. Very interesting read. For the record, I don't like Cemetery Man much either. And now that you mention it, it does remind me of a weaker Peter Jackson effort.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Lee. Remember, though, all the posts won't be like this. Some will, but mainly this just seemed like a good way to kick things off.

It's nice to meet a fellow anti-CEMETERY MAN advocate. That movie really rubbed me the wrong way. Have you seen STAGEFRIGHT, though?

Greg said...

So I'm making the blog rounds again and here I am. It doesn't happen often but we do disagree here on Stage Fright (1950). I thought it was pretty dreadful for a Hitchcock film and for anybody's film in general from 1950. I think the main disagreement though is that Dietrich (and Sim) was the only person I felt was worth watching. Jane Wyman has to be the most lackluster famous Oscar-winning actress in history. Lordy she's a bore as an actress.

I found very little redeeming in this Hitchcock effort but at least Dietrich and Sim perked me up when they were on screen.

We do agree on the number, Laziest Gal in Town. It sucks. Pretty much outright.

bill r. said...

What did Dietrich bring to the role, though? She had a couple of moments, when she was being flippantly cold after her husband was dead, but for the most part I thought she was just a lump. Wyman, in comparison, I found charming. But Sim had, by far, the most life of anybody in the film. It's minor Hitchcock, but I did enjoy it.

Greg said...

I didn't think much of any of the roles so I suppose what Dietrich and Sim brought to their roles were themselves, which I like better than Wyman. Have you watched her in other movies? She's pretty lifeless most of the time.

By the way, I'm watching The Odessa File on Netflix instant as I type this. It's pretty average but not as bad as I have always heard. Jon Voight's accent's pretty good too, I think.

bill r. said...

I've never seen it, but I read the book years ago, at my dad's urging. We both had roughly the same reaction to the novel's ending, which I won't mention at this time. I don't know if the film ends the same, anyway.

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