(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/16.)
A long-lost London playhouse and Rada’s headquarters feature in this 1950 caper starring a showstopping Marlene Dietrich
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in his box at the theatre, and the killer’s bid to escape across the stage, is recreated in a whirlwind sequence in DW Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. The killing of Lincoln, by the actor John Wilkes Booth, is the most famous murder in a theatre but several other films have since built mysteries around deadly crimes committed before a captive audience. Paul Leni’s dazzling The Last Warning (1928) concerns a Broadway actor’s on-stage death. In the British movie Murder at the Windmill (1949), directed by former stage actor Val Guest, a punter is killed during a burlesque show; his body is discovered along with a pipe, an umbrella and a pair of kippers when the theatre is being cleaned.
Murder at the Windmill was filmed in and around the eponymous revue in Soho. It was soon followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s London thriller Stage Fright (1950), partly shot on the other side of Oxford Street, in a playhouse called the Scala and also known as the Prince of Wales theatre but now demolished and not to be confused with either of those existing venues.
For his often comic tale of murder, intrigue and showbiz, based on a novel by Selwyn Jepson, Hitchcock takes full advantage of the location, showing off the Scala’s ornate, marble-pillared auditorium and exploring a warren of backstage corridors and hiding places. At the start of the film there is a close-up of a safety curtain (that name will prove grimly ironic) which lifts to reveal not the stage but a street scene with London landmarks.
Richard Todd as Jonathan, evading the police at Rada, in Stage Fright. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Speeding along in a car are two actors, Jonathan and Eve, fleeing from a crime. The husband of leading lady Charlotte Inwood has been murdered. Jonathan is obsessed with Charlotte, Eve loves him, and Charlotte is having an affair with her manager but ultimately admires herself as much as the crowds adore her. These love triangles, which become more like Venn diagrams, involve plenty of role play: Eve assumes the persona of first a reporter and then a maid to protect Jonathan; Charlotte takes on the part of a grieving widow in black (though she says she’d prefer a plunging neckline and something a little more colourful). Eve’s father endeavours to bring some order to these shenanigans as if he is a stage manager.