Jump to: navigation, search

Senses of Cinema (2007) - Hitchcock and Hume Revisited: Fear, Confusion and Stage Fright




Hitchcock and Hume Revisited: Fear, Confusion and Stage Fright

by John Orr

This essay is a return to the scene of the crime. In my recent book, Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema, I made an outrageously general argument for the affinity between Alfred Hitchcock’s narratives and David Hume’s reasoning about human nature. For something so speculative, you expect cracks to appear pretty soon. But my impulse since the book’s appearance has not been to feel I exaggerated – which I’m sure I did – but to sense that I did not go far enough. There was more to be said about this oblique, long-distance liaison down the centuries and I now feel it best said through a film which I had not discussed at all, partly because I shared the general feeling that this was not one of Hitchcock’s most auspicious films. The acting was uneven, the tone whimsical, the plot often cluttered and it suffered, or so I thought, from that general uncertainty of touch that sometimes characterised Hitchcock’s return to England. But then again his short wartime film, Bon Voyage (1944), has been underestimated as, in different ways, Under Capricorn (1949), the remade The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Frenzy (1972). As Michael Walker has pointed out, Stage Fright (1950) has a structural complexity, a narrative coherence and a textual density missing from his 1930s films like Young and Innocent (1937). In other words, it brings back to 1950s London the innovating aspects of Hitchcock’s Hollywood aesthetic of the 1940s.

Acting-wise, the failings of Michael Wilding and Jane Wyman, who were clearly not Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and of Richard Todd, who was clearly not Joseph Cotton, diminish on a second viewing when nuances of plot and motive deepen, the stage becomes more clearly an organic metaphor for the drama of the film and the power of symbolic objects gathers strength. And this is also a film where Hitchcock, with his familiar dose of sly and calculated humour, had pushed his structural theme of lost identities in new and unexpected ways. He branches out and develops a bold move often dismissed as sleight-of-hand or gimmicky plot-twist: the deceitful flashback.

On the face of it, the narrative starts out as yet another fugitive, ‘wrong man’ film to follow in the footsteps of The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent and Saboteur (1942). Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), a man on the run falsely accused of murder, is determined to prove his innocence by enlisting the aid of close friend Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), a student actress. Only very late on do we discover that Cooper has been lying to her and that he is a killer after all. But let’s start at the beginning.

As his car speeds away through a bomb scarred East End with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background, Copper tells Eve he is suspected of killing the husband of singer Charlotte Inward (Marlene Dietrich), his much older lover, when in fact Charlotte is the real culprit. He graphically narrates this ‘injustice’ by telling Eve of his discovery of the c...

John Orr is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, the author of Contemporary Cinema (Edinburgh UP, 1998), Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema (Wallflower Press, 2005), and co-editor with Elzbieta Ostrowska of The Cinema of Roman Polanski (Wallflower Press, 2006).

(c) John Orr, Senses of Cinema