Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees has two words for those who dismiss this lesser-known Hitchcock gem: lovely ducks!
"The only murderer here is the orchestra leader!"—Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich)
Stage Fright is often overlooked in discussions of Hitchcock's great works, but it stands out for a number of reasons. After making a number of films in Hollywood with American settings or characters, Hitchcock returns to his British roots for this film, which is set in England and peopled largely with British actors. Upon its release, Stage Fright garnered a troubled reception for its problematic use of flashback, and it was quickly overshadowed by its successor, the outstanding Strangers on a Train. At that point, Stage Fright evidently became something of a redheaded stepchild among Hitchcock's oeuvre. Fortunately, a new DVD release finally makes widely available a film that deserves better. Stage Fright may not be first-tier Hitchcock, but it is a well-crafted and highly enjoyable mystery and displays many of the Master's elegant signature touches.
Facts of the Case
Drama student Eve Gill (Jane Wyman, Night and Day) is plunged into a drama as tense and urgent as anything that ever unfolded onstage when her close friend Johnny Cooper (Richard Todd) asks her to shield him from the police: He's being pursued for murder. The dead man is the husband of stage diva Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich, Touch of Evil), who was actually the one wielding the fatal poker. Johnny has long been infatuated with the star, so when she appeals to Johnny for help, he immediately chooses to shield her by hiding evidence of the crime. Unfortunately, a witness spots him in incriminating circumstances, so now he himself is on the run. With Eve's help, he hopes to elude the police while shielding the lady he adores.
Eve, however, has another plan: Prove that the killing was no accident, as Charlotte claims, but premeditated murder. Although her father (Alastair Sim) warns her against becoming involved in such a dangerous scheme, Eve draws on her acting talent and takes on a new identity as Inwood's new maid, Doris, hoping to unearth proof of the star's guilt. Her mission is complicated when she becomes friends with the investigating detective, Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding, The World of Suzie Wong), from whom she must keep her sleuthing a secret. Will Eve and her father be able to clear Johnny's name, or will Eve's dangerous impersonation place her directly in the path of a killer?
Stage Fright is considered by some to be Hitchcock Lite, since it's a bit more playful and less foreboding in tone than many of his other films. There's definitely a more overtly comedic quality to the film than, for example, its successor, Strangers on a Train, which may lead some to dismiss it; others, like myself, who enjoy seeing Hitch's mischievous side, will relish the mingling of comedy with suspense. Likewise, the suspense is more of the cerebral, rather than gut-level, variety: Stage Fright is definitely a mystery rather than a thriller, and most of the dramatic tension comes from our concern over Eve as she tries to maintain her double life without exposure. However, when the final confrontation between Eve and the killer takes place, it's a genuinely tense, nail-biting sequence, all the more effective because the tone heretofore has been on the lighter side.
Hitchcock also has a great deal of fun with the theatrical motif that runs throughout the film, which he heightens with the opening image of a stage curtain rising to reveal a London vista. It's as if all the world's a stage, which sets us up for the many roles that the characters play. Eve, of course, is the most obvious example of a character playing a part, as she impersonates the meek cockney Doris, but her fellow actors, Charlotte Inwood and Johnny, may also be playing roles in their offstage lives; Charlotte in particular creates such a larger-than-life persona that she almost never seems not to be acting. Even Eve's father takes part in deception and role-playing as well. Although he informs her early on that it's a mistake to view a murder investigation as a stage melodrama, which he taxes her with doing, his character is one of the most theatrical in the film: His dryly humorous commentary on the intrigue, his inimitable way of deeply intoning everything he says, and his obvious enjoyment at involving himself in Eve's undercover investigation show that Eve came naturally by her acting proclivity. Indeed, the ploy he engineers to induce a confession is the direct descendant of Hamlet's "Mousetrap." The layers of role-playing and deception add richness and interest to the characters' interactions and complicate the mystery enjoyably.
Deception, in fact, is a prominent factor in the very structure of the film. Like many of Hitchcock's great films (Rebecca, Psycho), Stage Fright contains a startling revelation that completely changes our view of the preceding action. It's a sign of how well these films are crafted that this twist doesn't spoil successive viewings but actually enhances them, since we can admire and enjoy the way each film paves the way for the surprise that is to come, and our advance knowledge of the denouement allows us to view the action and characters with greater understanding and insight. Stage Fright, however, has been accused of manipulating the audience unfairly due to a controversial flashback sequence. It's difficult to discuss this sequence, and the backlash it caused upon the film's initial release, without embarking into spoiler territory, but I'll try to stay on the fringes. The flashback presents events as if they actually happened, but it is in fact the narrative construction of a particular character, not an omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, in these pre-Rashomon days the audience was used to accepting as truth whatever the camera showed them, and the idea that the camera itself (as well as the character) might be lying ruffled a lot of feathers. For some, including myself, the unreliable flashback is one of the most brilliant and outstanding features of Stage Fright. For others—including, according to the behind-the-scenes featurette, Hitchcock himself—it was a disastrous miscalculation.
The featurette discusses the flashback controversy at length. Film historian Robert Osborne says that Hitchcock rewrote the plot during filming and only belatedly realized that the flashback was, shall we say, inaccurate; according to Osborne, Hitchcock wanted to change the flashback but was unable to due to the advanced stage of production. I find this to be a highly suspect story, since such a significant chunk of the film could hardly have slipped out of the Master's consciousness. I prefer to think that Hitchcock spread this "oops" story to cover himself after his experiment failed with the critics, and that the reason he later said the flashback was one of his greatest mistakes (again, according to the featurette) was not because it was accidental but because the public wasn't yet ready for it.
Whatever one's individual feelings about the story structure of the film, it would be hard to deny that Hitchcock evokes wonderful performances from his talented cast. Wyman is an endearing heroine, with all the perky intrepidity of Nancy Drew, and presents an engaging contrast to the two other major female characters: the great Sybil Thorndike, as Eve's magisterial but slightly dense mother, and Marlene Dietrich, who perfectly embodies the narcissistic theatricality of Charlotte Inwood while hinting at surprising complexities. Richard Todd is at first a trifle bland as Johnny, so the glints of anger that sometimes surface in his performance are all the more effective and prepare us for some masterful acting in later scenes. Michael Wilding finds the humor and charm in his character as the detective with the dull name, and although he's a quiet, even unassuming presence on film, he radiates a surprisingly strong charisma. Nevertheless, the outstanding male performance is definitely that of Alastair Sim. Sim will forever be linked with his indelible portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, and he brings the same plummy delivery and playful relish to his role as the rascally Commodore Gill. He and Wyman make a most pleasing father-daughter team. Hitchcock also gives us the usual bonus of colorful supporting characters, from the sinister, seedy Nellie the maid to the gloriously English "Lovely Ducks" lady at the charity fair.
Although it's wonderful to see this often-overlooked Hitchcock title on DVD, video quality is disappointing. Stage Fright is presented in full frame in accordance with its original aspect ratio, and the black-and-white tones are rich and vivid, with handsome depth and contrast. Nevertheless, the source print looks to have been in mediocre condition: There is so much dirt, scratching, speckling, and flicker that it looks as though no restoration whatever has been done. The picture improves a bit after the first reel, but I really expected better than this. Fortunately, audio is stronger; the mono track comes through clearly, with no hiss or buzz, and doesn't suffer from the flat, tinny quality that bedevils some mono soundtracks.
The featurette that forms the main extra here is a bit flimsy; its 19-minute running time is padded with lots of clips, and the comments of the film historians often seem to be simply random reactions to various parts of the film they find memorable. However, the discussion of the flashback fracas is definitely illuminating, and it's wonderful to see Jane Wyman and Patricia Hitchcock (who played a small role as a drama student) share their memories of the making of the film. Both in particular offer some surprising insight into the experience of working with Marlene Dietrich. The trailer includes footage of Wyman accepting an acting award, which is an enjoyable bonus, and is intriguing in that it presents the film as if it will unfold from Smith's point of view, rather than Eve's.
Minor Hitchcock? Perhaps. But Stage Fright is a skillfully crafted, well-acted, enjoyable film, and for my money it's more entertaining than some higher-profile Hitchcock works. Mystery fans should definitely add this to their collection, despite the disappointing transfer and ho-hum extras. And Dietrich fans will revel in her performance of "The Laziest Gal in Town."
Guilt is always tricky to determine when all the parties involved are such duplicitous creatures. However, the court feels it is safe to declare Stage Fright not guilty.
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