Stage Fright (1950)

The opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s thriller Stage Fright begin with a theatrical “safety curtain” lifting to reveal the city of London instead of a stage. This is not only a winking foreshadowing of that safety curtain’s central role in the film’s conclusion, but also immediately opens the film to a Shakespearean “All the world’s a stage” mindset, deliberately so. Stage Fright gleefully traffics in the meta commentary inherent to all movies & plays about stage actors, setting its murder mystery thriller plot in the posh world London theatre. Instead of bringing real world conflict to the artificial environments of a playhouse, however, Hitchcock brings character study stage acting to real life city streets, teasing out information on a first act murder through a series of false identities & well-formed lies. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that most of the action is confined to an actual theatre and by then that interior space just feels like an extension of the larger city that houses it. It’s a brilliant inversion of what was already well-established trope over half a century ago.

Jane Wyman (of All That Heaven Allows fame) stars as a young character actor in training who’s stuck on a puppy love crush with a boy who’s in big trouble over his actual lover, a famous actress of high society prestige played by Marlene Dietrich. Through an early flashback, we see the young fugitive fleeing a murder charge for the death of Dietrich’s wealthy husband, clutching a bloody dress that would link his lover to the crime. Wyman’s aspiring young actor stashes the fugitive away at her low level smuggler’s home and decides to clear his name herself while the police hunt him down. Her smartass father (a scene-stealing Alastair Sim, who resembles a hybrid between Alec Guinness & John Lithgow) worries that using her stage acting skills to create false identities as a means to gather information is “transmuting melodrama into real life.” He jokes that she’s gathered up a plot, an “interesting” cast, and even a costume (the bloody dress), but is forgetting the real world dangers her “performance” is flirting with. He’s, of course, exactly correct. The actor’s web of lies only lead her further into danger, lust, and mystery as her real world stage play spirals out of her control and one of the great Hitchcock twists entirely disrupts the narrative she had been constructing to absolve her beloved.

Besides the film’s genuinely surprising twist, there are plenty of Hitchcock charms that help distinguish Stage Fright as a notable title among the director’s lesser works. The meta settings of an acting class and a cramped props closet leave plenty of room for Hitchcock’s usual sly, winking-at-the-audience humor. An umbrella-obscured sequence set at a rained-out garden party allows for the director’s mechanically precise craft of set piece staging to come to the forefront. He finds room to play with his usual visual trickery elsewhere as well: a character’s POV fuzzing with prescription glasses, imagined bloodstains on various dresses, a faked split diopter shot (that honestly resembles bad Photoshop in a modern context), etc. These are all minor Hitchcock pleasures, however. For all of Stage Fright‘s small scale successes in meta theatricality & Jane Wyman sleuthing, its biggest draw is the gleeful way Hitchcock shoots & highlights Marlene Dietrich. She doesn’t get nearly as much screentime as Wyman, as she must remain a mysterious figure for the film’s “All the world’s a stage” plot to work, but she still commands the film’s spotlight. Shots of Dietrich smoking under a veil or singing a lengthy Cole Porter number about how she’s too lazy to fuck are what elevates Stage Fright above meta-theatrical murder mystery to something slightly more distinct. Hitchcock did an excellent job of exploring her presence without overplaying her schtick and I’d much more readily recommend the film for someone looking for Top Shelf Dietrich instead of the director’s best. In the end, Dietrich is the star attraction her pompous character believes herself to be and the movie’s meta stage play theatrics are more or less lagniappe.

-Brandon Ledet

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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German filmmaker Douglas Sirk has dozens of titles to his name as a director, but the influence of his career is often condensed down to his handful of Technicolor melodramas produced by Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s. I had never seen a Sirk film in my life until recently, but the cultural impact of those Technicolor pictures was so significant that I could easily recognize their echoes in works as disparate as Far from Heaven, The Fly (1958), Polyester, and Gods & Monsters. Perhaps the most iconic title among Sirk’s most well-known American works is the Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Dismissively categorized at its time of release as a “woman’s picture,” All That Heaven Allows may not have been fully appreciated in its initial run the way Sirk’s Imitation of Life eventually was just a few years later, but its reputation as an intricately constructed art piece has only grown in the decades since. I can only report that even after having seen its visual aesthetic assimilated & absorbed in a countless number of films throughout my life, All That Heaven Allows still makes for an intense, powerful first-time watch as a modern viewer. I’m in awe of its craft & its efficiency and still a little tipsy as I’m writing this from drinking in its lush, color-soaked artistry. I think I’m an instant Sirk fan, an immediate convert.

The story told here isn’t necessarily what’s important to the film’s appeal. Despite being 38 years old at the time of production, Jane Wyman plays a middle aged widow worried that her life is heading towards a lonely end. Her social circle of sycophantic elbow-rubbers & town gossips can only offer her calculated cocktail parties & polite company. Her bratty children, a Freudian scholar daughter & a brutish meathead son, selfishly plot for her to live a life alone in front of the television, described in-film as “the last refuge of a lonely woman.” Everyone seems to have concrete ideas about what the widow should do with the rest of her life and they circle around her, ready to pounce on any misstep she makes in choosing her path. Imagine their shock, then, when the woman allows herself to be seduced across class lines by her much younger gardener, played by the movie star handsome (and famously closeted) Rock Hudson. Will she leave behind her life of stuffy cocktails in the parlor for the raucous lobster boils her young beau shares with his equally money-ambivalent friends? She wants to value romance over social status, but the town’s prying eyes & her selfish kids’ disapproval make the decision difficult. The hot young landscaper offers her a more natural, fulfilling life than the self-conscious one she leads and the film’s central conflict lies in whether she’ll have the courage to accept the offer before it’s too late.

Keeping the story a thinly structured narrative frame is a smart choice, as it allows plenty of room to focus on the film’s real draw: a nonstop visual feast. Sirk lights his interiors with only the harshest, deep cold blues clashed against the most breathtaking yellow warmth. It’s like watching giallo, except with romance instead of murder driving its central mystery. Just watching a character transition from a candlelit parlor to ice cold moonlight, the lighting swapping roles between those spaces to match their movements, is enough to make you gasp. Sirk’s eye for exterior settings & Nature is just as hyper-real. Studio lot suburbia (sets that were later reused for episodes of Leave It to Beaver) looks like impressionistic paintings. Rock Hudson serves as our gateway to this Natural dreamworld, hand-feeding deer in his own backyard and drawing the audience’s attention to the trees that populate his impossible, artificial landscape. I haven’t seen colors this breathtakingly deep and sets this cinematically dreamlike since I first witnessed the Criterion restoration of The Red Shoes. It’s truly a marvel and Sirk’s camera knows how to frame & capture its most savory pleasures. By the time All That Heaven Allows was over, I felt as if I were drunk. Not too bad for “a woman’s picture,” huh?

It’s so easy to get swept up in this film’s beautiful homes, costuming, and interior lighting that time begins to take on a different pace altogether. All That Heaven Allows flew by for me. It worked like a quickly-paced seduction montage set to a sweeping orchestral score, as if Rock Hard Hudson were sweeping the entire audience off its feet, not just the hot to trot widow he takes a fancy to. It’s tempting to attribute a lot of the film’s entertainment value to its production design & its intense Technicolor dreaminess, but Sirk shows a masterful hand in matching that cinematic artifice to a concisely told, rapidly paced, delicately tragic seduction story. All That Heaven Allows is a perfect object, the ideal version of what it sets out to achieve. I doubt that’s the last time I’ll say that about a Douglas Sirk film, but it’s still an inarguable fact.

-Brandon Ledet