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Stage Fright

If the career of Alfred Hitchcock can be summed up with several masterpieces and a few notable misfires, there is the third category of Hitch picture that goes virtually unnoticed — the adequate and entertaining, but ultimately disappointing movie. Such is Stage Fright (1950), a conventional English thriller Hitchcock undertook for both personal and commercial interests. Jane Wyman stars as Eve Gill, a young London theater student who is close friends with professional actor Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). However, one night Jonathan shows up at Eve's home with a shock — a bloodstained dress, which belongs to musical-theater celebrity Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). According to Jonathan, Charlotte killed her husband and then asked him to help her conceal the crime. Devoted to Jonathan to the point of infatuation, Eve drives him to her father's (Alistair Sim) secluded home on the English coast, but upon returning to London she discovers that the police consider the young man to be their top suspect. Hoping to trap Charlotte for framing Jonathan, Eve then bribes the actress's dresser (Kay Walsh) to claim she's sick, allowing Eve to pose as her temporary replacement. However, Eve's daring scheme is further complicated when she begins seeing Wilfred Smith, who turns out to be a Detective Inspector assigned to the Inwood murder case. While many flaws can be assigned to Stage Fright, it's best remembered for just one: Going against the conventional rules of cinema, Hitchcock plays it loose with some early flashback material, which not only makes the film into something of a "twist" whodunit (a genre The Master avoided), but also breaks confidence with the audience, who may accept that a character is lying, but is less willing to accept that the filmmaker is in on the plot (which, it should be noted, is the chief complaint lodged by the few vocal detractors of The Usual Suspects). In later years, Hitch admitted that he considered the flashback to be a mistake, along with the fact that the criminals come across less as predators and more as prey — to be certain, there are very few frights in a film that would seem to promise many. But there are several pleasures to be found in the small details. Stage Fright was Hitchcock's only project to be shot entirely in London during the period spanning his departure in 1939 for America and his final wrong-man thriller, 1972's Frenzy. And alongside American star Jane Wyman and Teutonic siren Marlene Dietrich, the cast is filled out with such British notables as debonair Michael Wilding, a frantic Richard Todd, and Alistair Sim and Sybil Thorndike as Eve's parents — both provide comic relief, with Sim turning in a particularly wry performance, while Thorndike takes her place in the Hitchcockian canon in a long series of dotty, disapproving mothers. Marlene Dietrich looks as good as she ever did in a von Sternberg film, in part because Hitchcock allowed her complete control over her wardrobe and lighting (which was unusual, to say the least). And despite only being on screen for a few minutes, English comedienne Joyce Grenfell practically steals the entire movie as a barmy carnival barker ("We're shooting lovely ducks! Would you like to shoot some lovely ducks today?") Coming after the long-take experiments of Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn and directly before the darkly masterful Strangers on a Train (1951), Stage Fright was meant to please Warner Brothers with a star cast, while also allowing the Hitchcocks to visit their daughter Patricia (who has a small part here) during her studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. And if it didn't succeed on all levels, then at least Hitchcock aficionados can enjoy some of the droll British comedy that was the hallmark of his studio output during the 1930s. Warner's DVD release of Stage Fright offers a solid transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a black-and-white source-print that is watchable at best — most of the film looks quite good, although the early reels have a rough quality and the closing credits are marred by a horrible scratch, while the DD 1.0 audio is perfectly adequate. Supplements include the featurette "Hitchcock and Stage Fright" with comments from Peter Bogdanovich and Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell (19 min.) and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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