There is a recurring plot in crime dramas: an innocent man is suspected of committing a murder, and he tries to evade the police long enough to prove his own innocence. Alfred Hitchcock often used it, as in The 39 Steps. This plot requires us to suspend disbelief, because no one has ever proved his innocence in real life by avoiding the police long enough to find out who really did it and getting evidence to prove it. Stage Fright, also directed by Hitchcock, is a slight variation on this plot. In this case, the suspect’s friend tries to hide him from the police long enough to prove the murder was committed by someone else. Once again, no one in real life has ever managed to do that.
In a really good movie, like The 39 Steps, suspending disbelief is easy, and we are well rewarded for doing so. But in a mediocre film like Stage Fright, we are only partially engaged in the movie, and thus find ourselves comparing what happens with reality, and being a little put off by the difference. Instead of suspending disbelief, we find ourselves simply disbelieving.
Maybe it is just me, but if I were suspected of a crime I did not commit, I would get myself a lawyer and turn myself in to the police. The movie begins with Jonathan (Richard Todd) telling Eve (Jane Wyman) that Charlotte (Marlene Dietrich) came over to his apartment with blood on her dress, saying she killed her husband in self-defense during an argument. He says he agreed to help her establish an alibi, and he goes back to her place to get another dress, and while he is there, tries to make it look like a burglary. However, Charlotte’s maid shows up, sees him, and is able to identify him to the police. Now, we later find out that this story is a lie, but while I was watching it, taking this story seriously, I thought to myself that I would have simply advised Charlotte to get a lawyer and turn herself in to the police. And if she refused, I would have notified the police anyway.
Furthermore, when Jonathan shows up at the theater where Eve, an actress, is in rehearsal, he tells her that the police want him for something he didn’t do, and she agrees to help him escape. She should have told Jonathan to get a lawyer and turn himself in to the police. If he refused to do so, she should have notified the police herself.
She takes Jonathan to her father’s place, where the father agrees to help Eve hide Jonathan. By this time, it will come as no surprise when I say that if I had been Eve’s father, I would have told Jonathan to get a lawyer and turn himself in to the police. If Jonathan and Eve refused to go along with this idea, I would have notified the police anyway.
Later, we find out that it was Jonathan who killed Charlotte’s husband. But that only allows for one more iteration of my general advice. In that case, Charlotte should have gotten a lawyer and gone to the police. Even if she did instigate the murder, as Jonathan claims, she could have denied involvement, and Jonathan would have been the one to go to prison.
Now, it might be argued that if any one of these characters had gone to the police, as I say they should have, there would have been no movie. But any movie that is lackluster enough to allow for disbelief, rather than inspire the willing suspension thereof, is a movie we would have been better off without.