Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, & Richard Todd

Commodore Gill: The best thing you can do, my girl, is go back to the Academy; practice your soul-shaking antics in surroundings where they can’t do any harm.

Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) is wanted for questioning by the police who suspect him of killing the husband of a famous theater actress. His friend Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), offers to help him hide; she’s infatuated w/ Jonathan. He says that his lover, actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich- fabulous at age 49), is the real murderer. He even carries a dress smeared w/ blood! Eve’s father, Commodore Gill (Alistair Sim- famed as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol), reluctantly decides to let Jonathan stay in his seaside cottage. Eve wants to investigate the murder herself! She follows one of the cops in charge of the case, Detective Inspector Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding- who later became one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands), to a pub. To get close to Charlotte, Eve becomes a substitute for her maid/dresser, Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh). Eve’s unsuspecting mother, Mrs. Gill (Sybil Thorndyke), thinks that her daughter is busy w/ classes at R.A.D.A.

D.I. Smith: Perhaps you’re allergic to bars. Look, would you feel less uneasy if I sat with you? Or, more uneasy? Perhaps you’re allergic to strange men too.

Eve Gill: No, I love strange men! I mean, I’m very fond of them.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s 21 y.o. daughter, Patricia, was studying at R.A.D.A. (one of the settings for the movie) at this time. He wanted to spend some time w/ her (after being based in Hollywood for several years); Pat has a small part in the movie. Hitch also had Pat double for Wyman in the early scenes that required “dangerous driving” in the opening. Pat is given the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister,” which was a term of endearment according to Hitch (b/c she was “a girl you could always lean on”).

Charlotte Inwood [to Eve]: Oh, darling, don’t confide in me. Pour some tea will you?

The novel upon which this movie was based, Man Running by Selwyn Jepson, appeared in serial form in Collier’s Magazine (August 9, 1947 to September 13, 1947). Hitch thought of Stage Fright as “more than a murder mystery, it is a critical examination of the acting craft” (a subject that long fascinated him). Eve wears costumes, puts on an accent, and creates a role for herself. This movie is significant b/c it broke a (long-established) cinematic convention that flashbacks were always a true account of earlier events. In Stage Fright, the opening flashback turns out to be a lie, which confused then angered viewers of that day (as they felt cheated)!

Ladies must be well fed. -Hitch commented, having steaks and roasts flown in from the U.S. for his two leading ladies (while food was being rationed in London)

Wyman (who had achieved success the previous year at the box office) worked for weeks in to perfect her Cockney accent; Walsh coached her each day after filming was completed. Wyman was required to appear frumpy/dowdy when acting as the maid, but she was reluctant (when Dietrich appeared so glamorous). Hitch said that Wyman would cry when she’d see Dietrich looking glamorous on-set when she had to wear her maid’s disguise. Much to Hitch’s bemusement, Wyman secretly wore make-up or tried other tricks to improve her appearance (so failing to maintain character).

Eve Gill [in disguise]: My Dad says that man on the run might turn up here. Might even get into the dressing room. Might even murder me, madame.

Charlotte Inwood: The scene of the crime, the murderer returns to – not the theater.

In a rare move, Hitch allowed Dietrich creative control, esp. in how her scenes were lit. Dietrich learned re: cinematography from directors Josef von Sternberg (also one of her exes) and Günther Rittau; so Hitch let her to work w/ the film’s cinematographer, Wilkie Cooper, to light and set her scenes the way that she wished. Dietrich’s costumes were designed by Christian Dior. One of the songs that Dietrich sings is Édith Piaf’s signature song, La Vie en Rose. Dietrich and Piaf were close friends; Piaf granted her permission to use the song. Dietrich’s The Laziest Girl in Town (written by Cole Porter) is spoofed in Blazing Saddles (1974). According to Dietrich’s autobiography, she began her love affair w/ Wilding while making this movie.

I heard she’d only wanted to do it if she were billed above me, and she got her wish. Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn’t play a woman of mystery, that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve. -Dietrich on working w/ Wyman

[1] It is the masterful presence of the great Alastair Sim, however, that makes Stage Fright one of Hitchock’s most enjoyable to watch. He is equally at home playing comic relief as he is to serving as the plot glue that makes Eve’s capers possible.

[2] Great use of silent sequences, close ups, slow motion, black humor, and mood lighting… this murder mystery offers all kinds of plot twists and sly humor even though you know the outcome long before it unspools.

[3] The performances here are all excellent, especially Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte Inwood, perhaps the laziest girl in town, but also the most flamboyant. The secondary characters are also in fine form and make memorable impressions that adds to the enjoyment factor of this film.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Blue Gardenia” (1953) starring Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, & Raymond Burr

In LA, on her birthday, telephone operator Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), dresses up and makes a nice dinner at home. She sits w/ the picture of her fiance (a soldier in the Korean War) and starts to read his most recent letter. It turns out that he’s in love w/ an Army nurse who helped him recover and plans to marry her! Norah, though very upset/vulnerable, accepts a blind date from a man that calls up her place (wanting to reach one of her roommates). This man is an artist and noted “wolf” w/ women- Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). He and Norah chat, eat Chinese food, and drink at the Blue Gardenia Club. Norah has some strong cocktails w/ rum (Polynesian Pearl Divers) and gets drunk. Harry takes her to his place and forces himself on her; Norah hits him w/ a poker on the head. The next morning, she wakes up at her own apt, but can’t remember what happened the previous night! In the newspaper, Norah reads that Harry is dead; also the police have her handkerchief, black pumps, and the blue gardenia she wore. Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), a star columnist, takes an interest in the murder case. Norah starts suffering from anxiety, thinking that she killed Harry.

The iconic musician, Nat “King” Cole, is seen at the piano singing the theme song- “The Blue Gardenia”- in the club. The police captain who has a friendly rivalry w/ Casey is played by George Reeves (who gained fame as TV’s Superman). Norah’s divorced/wise roommate, Crystal (Ann Sothern), notices her friend’s change in mood/behavior. Their quirky younger roommate, Sally (Jeff Donnell), prefers bloody thrillers by Mickey Mallet to a night out. This is an obvious spoof on Mickey Spillane, known for his Mike Hammer novels. There is another Hammer connection which noir-istas might notice; the photo of Norah’s fiance is that of actor Ralph Meeker (who played Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly).

This is considered a lesser noir from a master of the genre, director Fritz Lang; it was shot in only 20 days. Lang and cinematographer (Nicholas Musuraca) developed a revolutionary dolly for the camera that allowed for sustained tracking shots and intimate close-ups. Lang liked tracking into a close-up shot of an actor over cutting to a close-up later in editing. I liked the interplay between the roommates, the chemistry between Baxter and Conte, the music, and the mood. The ending is wrapped up too neatly and feels rushed. The story was by Vera Caspary, who also wrote Scandal Sheet, Laura, and A Letter to Three Wives. I saw it (for free) on YouTube.

[1] Fritz Lang made a specialty in harassed and harried protagonists getting themselves into some real jackpots… These are people who in fact were guilty. For the first time however Lang’s harried protagonist is a woman and Anne gives a great performance.

[2] One thing this film has going for itself is atmosphere. Making it all seem relevant is the featured song, more than just a theme, an integral part of the movie, sung by the enchanting man with the melodious voice, Nat “King” Cole, who makes a much too brief appearance…

Besides the hypnotic melody, the interplay among the three room mates, Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern), and Sally Ellis (Jeff Donnell), represents the apex of this enjoyable Fritz Lang outing… If “The Blue Gardenia” is to be classified at all, it would possibly be labeled lighter Noir.

[3] I am surprised that so many people who review it here seem not to grasp it. They complain about lack of suspense… It’s about Anne Baxter, the world through her point of view. Her life is a beautiful dream of hopes of love and happiness for the future, which turns into a horrible nightmare that spirals downward with sickening realism and pathos.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Murder by Contract” (1958)

Claude (Vince Edwards) is a young man who recently held a regular job and has no history of trouble w/ the law. He also has the arrogance, intelligence, and emotional detachment to become a hit man, as he proves to Mr. Moon (a go-between to a crime boss). A string of successful hits on the East Coast gets Claude sent to LA for his latest job. He is accompanied by two minders (George and Marc): one is often nervous (Herschel Bernardi) and the other comes to admire Claude for his cool demeanor (Phillip Pine). Though self-assured in his previous kills, Claude becomes unglued learning that the target is a woman. She’s a witness set to testify against Clause’s boss, so under police protection 24/7. Claude is worried b/c women are unpredictable- they don’t do what you expect!

Claude: The only type killing that’s safe is when a stranger kills a stranger. No motive. Nothing to link the victim to the executioner. Now why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody’s willing to pay. It’s business. Same as any other business.

I’m sure that the writer was thinking of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) when he came up w/ the above lines! You have to be in a certain mood to enjoy this type of movie; it has a lot of style, though not much dialogue. Edwards looks a bit dangerous, yet also handsome, and is comfortable in his role. He is tall (6’2″), athletic (a former swimmer), w/ thick dark hair and dark eyes. The film has some comic moments when Claude unsettles the two men sent to accompany him. Scorcese and Tarantino consider this to be one of their favorite B-movies.

[1] Is he worried about killing her because he has more moral fiber than he would like to admit or is it genuinely harder to kill a woman? Whatever the case, this is a fascinating look into a dangerous mind.

[2] Stylish direction and some interesting camera work compliment a thoughtful script. Be watching for one particularly unsettling scene which unfolds in a barber shop.

[3] Vince Edwards’ character… was also fun to enjoy. His dialogue, and just the way he carried himself through this film, was fascinating.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Christina: You have only one real lasting love.

Mike: Now who could that be?

Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.

A scared young woman in a raincoat is running barefoot on the highway, trying to flag down a car. After some cars pass her by, the woman sees a fancy sports car approaching and stands directly in its path! PI Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is behind the wheel, and after almost hitting the woman, he tells her to get in. The woman’s name is Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman in her first movie role); she’s on the run from a mental institution (“laughing house”). Whoever was after her eventually catches up w/ them! Christina dies while being questioned under some sort of torture. The killers fake an accident by pushing Hammer’s car off the road; he survives and wakes up in hospital. Mike starts to investigate Christina’s death, even after told by the police (and FBI) to stay out of it.

In the hands of the director Robert Aldrich, the film becomes a starting point for a delirious expression of 1950s anxiety and paranoia, starting with opening credits that run backwards…

Noir b&w has never been photographed (Earnest Laszlo) more effectively than some of those night scenes… plus the long, dark hallways and staircases that suggest an enclosed world without redemption.

Right from the electric opening scene and the audacious opening credit sequence, the audience is drawn into Hammer’s seedy world, where morality is suspended, and the credo of the end justifying the means dominates Hammer’s actions.

 The “great whatsit” which Hammer searches for is one of the great movie gimmicks…

-Excerpts from IMDB movies

Based on Mickey Spillane’s novel and adapted by Al Bezzerides, the movie has an unique style and it’s recommended for fans of film noir. The story is transported from NYC to LA; the suitcase filled w/ drugs (too controversial) becomes something more dangerous.This is one of the first instances where a car in traffic looks realistic. Aldrich strapped a camera to the back of Hammer’s car. Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino were influenced by this B movie.

Velda: Do me a favor, will you? Keep away from the windows. Somebody might… blow you a kiss.

It’s implied the characters have a sex life. Some of the camera angles are modern and unusual. The supporting characters are diverse; we see Greek and Italian immigrants, a black boxing coach (Juano Hernandez from The Breaking Point), and a nightclub singer and bartender (who are also black). The acting is a mixed bag, but Meeker does a fine job as the tough, unflinching protagonist; he was a theater actor. We hear a song by Nat King Cole in the opening (“I’d Rather Have the Blues”). You can watch the movie on YouTube (for free)!

“A Double Life” (1947) starring Ronald Colman, Signe Hasso, Edmond O’Brien, & Shelley Winters

[1] Electrifying suspense, laced with crackling dialogue and melodrama. Winters, in one of her earliest roles, is divine… This film gives new meaning to the phrase “disappearing into a character.”

[2] Milton Krasner’s dark cinematography and Miklos Rozsa’s dissonant score supports George Cukor’s pessimistic direction.

[3] …can an actor get that wrapped up in a role? I heard different things about this. Some actors have admitted taking a role home with them from the theater or movie set. Others have found a role they have to be stimulating, influencing them on a new cause of action regarding their lives or some aspect of life.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Anthony John (Ronald Colman in an Oscar winning role) is a successful/middle-aged/British actor whose life is influenced by the characters he plays. When he’s acting in a comedy, he’s light-hearted and fun to be around. When he’s acting in a tragedy, he becomes brooding and very difficult to handle. That’s the reason why his Swedish ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), divorced him 2 years ago. They still love each other, respectfully work together, but can’t live together. One night, Anthony ends up at a restaurant in Little Italy; he meets a young waitress, Pat (Shelley Winters). He accepts the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello and devotes himself entirely to the challenging part. Anthony begins to suspect that Brita is involved w/ a press agent, Bill (Edmond O’Brien), and grows jealous!

Anthony: You want to know my name- Martin.

Pat: Thank you!

Anthony: Also Ernest and Paul, and Hamlet and Jo and, maybe, Othello. I’m French and Russian and English and Norwegian.

Pat: I got mixed blood too!

The role of Anthony John was written for Laurence Olivier, but he was unavailable when the film went into production. In real life, actor Paul Robeson (the first black actor to star in Othello on Broadway) had just completed the longest run of the play. In the movie, Anthony and Brita act in more than 300 performances of the tragedy; I assumed this was highly unlikely. I learned that most Shakespeare productions on Broadway are lucky to run several months; Richard Burton had a 4 month stint in a 1964 production of Hamlet. Director George Cukor (best-known as a “women’s director”) does a fine job w/ darker subject matter than he usually handles. The script was written by the husband-and-wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. This talented duo also wrote Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), which became films starring two iconic actors (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy).

Anthony [narrating]: The part begins to seep into your life, and the battle begins. Reality against imagination.

When an actor has to play an actor, I’m sure it’s a challenge. Colman shows the character’s tortured double personality, using costumes, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. He reveals what Anthony is going through as himself and as Othello. I esp. liked the witty banter between Anthony and Brita; they seem like a real former couple who turned into close friends. Winters looks sweet, vulnerable, yet also has a bit of toughness; this was her breakout role (after small roles in 20 movies). I learned that she was roommates w/ Marilyn Monroe when they were new to Hollywood. Though they went to a lot of parties, Winters commented that Marilyn always gravitated toward the intellectuals. If you like Shakespeare and film noir (like me), check this unique movie out!