Stage Fright - Alfred Hitchcock - Marlene Dietrich - Richard Todd - Charlotte Inwood - Jonathan Cooper

Stage Fright
1950, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Ten minutes into Stage Fright, Jonathan Cooper has second thoughts about destroying Charlotte Inwood’s blood-stained dress. A quick montage of mental images reminds him that he’s incriminated himself, and it builds to a shot of policemen looking him up in a London phone book. At the top of the targeted page is a small advertisement for the firm John Cooper & Son. It’s not illogical that this ad, with a name so close to his own, would be placed above his surname, but still it’s remarkable to see it in large letters separate from the line of fine print that the policeman’s finger points to. There’s good reason to think that Hitchcock put it there on purpose, and that the word “Son” at the end is what’s important.

Almost an hour later, when Cooper hides out in Eve’s house, there’s an all-around understanding that his identity should be kept from Eve’s straight-laced mother. When she asks his name, he and Eve rush to answer “Jones!” and “Brown!” in unison before Eve’s father takes charge of the confusion, supplying the alias “Robinson” which also contains the word “son”. This would be wholly unremarkable if we didn’t have Hitchcock’s later films to help us decode it. Robinson is the murderer’s alias in Frenzy, and John Ferguson, the disturbed protagonist of Vertigo, also has “son” in his name. Cooper is a killer like his counterpart in Frenzy, and like Ferguson he’s duped into the dirty work of a more cold-blooded character. Both Cooper and Ferguson are called “Johnny” at one point, vaguely infantilizing them, just as the word “son” does by reminding us that these grown men are still somehow in a child-parent relationship.

Stage Fright - Alfred Hitchcock - Jane Wyman - Eve Gill

All of this would be a stretch if it weren’t so consistent with other details in Stage Fright and in Hitchcock’s other films. In short, Jonathan Cooper is a rough draft for Hitchcock’s more famous oedipal villains. He’s a young man unable to control his emotions, having an affair with an older married woman, and he kills the woman’s husband to keep her close. The dynamic is not so different from the portrayals of Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train, who clings to his mother while hating his father, or of Norman Bates in Psycho, who murders his stepfather in order to possess his mother.

When Jonathan goes to fetch the incriminating dress, he passes a grandiose oil portrait of Charlotte Inwood. The painting is shown only fleetingly, but its style, scale, and composition are strikingly close to the portraits of Caroline de Winter in Rebecca and Carlotta Valdez in Vertigo. Charlotte, Caroline, and Carlotta are all variants of the same name, and the other two paintings both depict a character’s female ancestor, with the context carrying an indirect odor of incest. Of course, the fact that Jonathan desires an older woman does not by itself make him a mama’s boy. The age difference is symbolic. There may not be enough in Stage Fright to pin Jonathan as an oedipal case, even if the description fits him, but the signs we’ve noted point also in a more definitive direction, at something that Hitchcock always linked to incest.

Stage Fright - Alfred Hitchcock - Alastair Sim - Michael Wilding - Commodore Gill - Wilfred Ordinary Smith

Jones and Brown, the rejected aliases for Jonathan, are conspicuously ordinary, and in that sense they rhyme with Smith, the name of the detective Eve falls for. Not only is Smith’s surname the most common in England, but Eve sticks him with the nickname “Ordinary Smith” which he eagerly embraces, preferring it to his real name Wilfred. Ordinary Smith becomes more and more preferable to Jonathan Cooper, whose faults and bad manners are gradually exposed as Smith replaces him in Eve’s heart. The contrast is between someone who wants to be ordinary and someone who wants the world for himself. Cooper is from an average social class, but his desire for Charlotte represents a desire to move up. Her Trafalgar Square mansion is so ostentatiously ornate that when Cooper enters it he looks incongruous, casting suspicion on his motives.

Charlotte is not an ordinary human being to Jonathan, but a glamorous star, an exalted object. Her image is idealized the way a boy idealizes his mother at a very young age. His desire for her is like a boy’s desire to possess the parent who makes him feel special. It’s no accident that Commodore Gill confronts Charlotte with a doll, enlisting a young boy to hold it up to her with a bloodstained dress. The doll is a surrogate for her because that’s the image she cultivates, and it’s the image that draws Jonathan to her. In his eyes she’s a precious toy to own and control. Her big musical number “The Laziest Gal in Town” presents a passive sexual image, flopping from one bed to another.

Stage Fright - Alfred Hitchcock - Marlene Dietrich - Charlotte Inwood - Laziest Gal in Town

In reality Charlotte is a strong-willed woman who uses Jonathan, goading him to kill her husband, clearing the way for her lover Freddie Williams. Eve calls her “cold and calculating”. It’s typical of Hitchcock however that the movie is less concerned with her motives. From his early British spy movies until his late films, the focus is less on the controlling villain and more on the psychologically vulnerable people who do their bidding. Stage Fright makes much of Charlotte’s cold-bloodedness, particularly her inability to mourn her husband, but sociopathic people like her will always be with us, whereas there’s hope of making headway with weak people like Jonathan. Hitchcock does not look with sympathy on such people’s vulnerability. Their weakness predisposes them to violence, and it’s in such persons that fascism takes root. Jonathan kills in order to possess Charlotte, and in a parallel sense, when the normally affable Commodore Gill wishes to possess a doll at the shooting gallery, he’s degraded into bullying a smaller man. It’s against his nature, but the doll is like a miniature Charlotte, and his determined quest to win it is a miniature of Jonathan Cooper’s obsession with the star actress.

Stage Fright - Alfred Hitchcock - Alastair Sim - Commodore Gill - boy scout - doll - bloodstained dress

When Eve first asks her father for help, the commodore describes Jonathan as a “ruin”. “Ruined, and by a woman, hmm? Now you want me to take the ruins for a little cruise.” The film had opened to a picture of ruins, the safety curtain rising to reveal the bomb-ravaged city blocks around St. Paul’s Cathedral. The aftereffects of fascism were still plainly visible in 1950 London, and the word “ruin” conjured an image that people immediately connected to the Nazi assault on their country. In a sense Hitchcock’s concerns haven’t changed that much since the 1930s when his spy thrillers warned the British against the threat of fascism – only now the threat is more internal.

Jonathan Cooper ends as a literal ruin, gruesomely cut in half by the safety curtain that the opening shot had given so much prominence to. In fact the words “Safety Curtain” are displayed in such a way that audiences could easily mistake them for the film’s title. The words are the first in a series of word pairs given unusually strong focus, like “Safety Glass”, “Rehearsal Theatre”, “Emergency Exit”, and the double pair on the double doors, “Please Close Doors Quietly”. The title Stage Fright is another word pair, and so for that matter are all the personal names like Ordinary Smith and Nellie Goode that get so much attention. The broader pattern is one of dualities. Smith speaks of his cousin Jim who would always present a comical face while suffering an ulcer, and we’re constantly reminded that actors must be two persons at once. Eve has a second identity as Charlotte’s temporary maid “Doris Tynsdale”. Jonathan Cooper is split even more than the two actresses in his life. He’s simultaneously a boy and a man, ordinary and special, Cooper and Robinson, victim and killer, belonging to Eve and to Charlotte. His final punishment, being cut in two, therefore comes off as a poetic justice.

Stage Fright - Alfred Hitchcock - Alastair Sim - Commodore Gill - telephone

It’s fitting that Cooper forfeits his surname in favor of “Robinson”, while Smith rejects his first name in favor of “Ordinary”. A typical name has two parts, one that belongs to oneself and one that belongs to the father. By adopting the alias, Cooper symbolically rejects his father, whereas Smith, while diminishing himself, embraces his father’s name, as common as it may be. In the Freudian schema that Hitchcock adhered to, respect for the father is synonymous with maturity. It means that a man has grown up, having left behind his childish rivalry with the father and outgrown his demands on the mother. In Hitchcock’s calculus, there is no distinction whatsoever between sexual maturity and the wish to be an ordinary citizen on a level with everyone else. Likewise, there is no distinction between oedipal immaturity and the wish to be special. To put oneself above society is to behave like a child, and it’s incompatible with a working democracy.

Most criticism of Stage Fright focuses on its particular balance of cinematic or narrative virtues and flaws, how it has its moments and its strong performances while lacking Hitchcock’s usual level of suspense. We can admit its shortcomings, both as a movie and as an argument, while recognizing the importance of what it strives to put across. Its play with word pairs and names is certainly less effective than the plays on the ring and staircase in Shadow of a Doubt, for example, and the characterization of Jonathan Cooper is a long way from that of Hitchcock’s villains across the next decade. Keeping score of the film’s pluses and minuses is surely less valuable, if not less interesting, than understanding its place in Hitchcock’s evolving social analysis. In retrospect, Stage Fright is a key step on the way to an original insight about why democratic societies don’t function as well as they could.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Flashback with an unreliable narrator pinning a murder on someone else

The Lady Vanishes – Psychologically relevant surname ending in “son”

Rebecca – Large portrait of a woman; indirect connotation of incest; social inequality in England

All About Eve – Aspiring actress named Eve in a rivalry with a famous older actress

Vertigo – Large portrait of a woman; oedipal male protagonist; intimate late scene in a dark room with a carriage; nickname “Johnny” and surname with “son” suffix

Frenzy – Alias of “Robinson” used to connote a murderer’s oedipal mindset