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STAGE FRIGHT

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Audio: English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features:  Making-of documentary, trailer
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"I had a dog once.  He hated me.  At last he bit me, and I had him shot."

Film ***

Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) is one of the director's most underrated films.  Appearing in the same year as the masterful Strangers on a Train, the light and jovial Stage Fright was simply over-powered and over-shadowed in its initial release and generally dismissed by casual fans ever since.  Perhaps its release onto DVD will remedy this situation, because Stage Fright is actually a lot of fun.

The film stars Jane Wyman as Eve Gill, a young and aspiring drama student.  Eve is amorous of Jonathan (Richard Todd), but his affections are divided between Eve, who he considers just a dear friend, and stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), who he absolutely adores.

Love, as the saying goes, is blind, and in this case, Jonathan is oblivious to the fact that Charlotte is a deceitful, lying femme fatale.  As the film starts, Charlotte has just murdered her husband at home before showing up at Jonathan's apartment in a bloody dress.  Furthermore, she sends Jonathan to her home on an errand to retrieve a clean dress for her, knowing fully well that the maid will be there.  It's an obvious frame-up, and Jonathan is spotted before he runs out with the dress.  Chalk it up as another twist on the familiar Hitchcock theme of the mistaken identity.  Charlotte's maid, having stumbled across Mr. Inwood's body and seeing Jonathan running away, naturally believes him to be the murderer.  While Jonathan hasn't killed anyone, he is at least an accessory to the crime.

There's a word to describe Jonathan's gullibility, and that word is...sucker!  Yes, it's that old femme fatale trick - bat a few long eyelashes, strike a demure pose, and the guys fall for it every time.  To his credit, Jonathan is not a total sucker, just a partial one.  He retains enough common sense to save the bloodied dress, just in case Charlotte decides to turn him in herself to save her own skin.  Then again, he is so smitten with her that he soon tosses the dress into a fireplace regardless.  So I'll again revise my statement; Jonathan is a total sucker, love-struck by the charms of a deadly femme fatale.

The police are soon hot on Jonathan's trail, and he runs to his reliable friend Eve, who secretly shelters him in her father's home.  Upon hearing his tale of woe, the ever-faithful Eve decides to masquerade about in a Nancy Drew-ish fashion to bring the true murderer, Charlotte Inwood, to justice.  Eve pretends to be a reporter and then later a maid, replacing Charlotte's own maid (after a small bribe, of course).  For Eve, it's almost like a game of play-acting, as her father even points out: "Everything seems a fine acting role when you're stage-struck, doesn't it, my dear?"  This theatricality of Eve's entire world is further suggested by Stage Fright's opening shot, of a theater curtain raising to reveal London behind it.  All the world's a stage, after all.

Between her clandestine games, Eve somehow finds time to fall for a handsome suitor, Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding).  As fate would have it, Wilfred is also the detective working the Inwood murder case!  So, not only is Eve pretending to be Charlotte's new maid, but she must hide her dual identity from Wilfred whenever he calls upon the Inwood residence to question the widow Charlotte.  As if matters weren't complicated enough, our lovelorn Jonathan soon sneaks out of hiding, so determined is he to see Charlotte despite the obvious risk of capture by detective Smith.

Ah, the plot thickens, and this tangled web of intrigue becomes ever more tangled.  Stage Fright's humorous situations are almost screwball in nature, making the film more of a madcap whodunit than an icy suspense-thriller.

As Eve, our cute little wide-eyed pixie, Jane Wyman is very amusing.  Although Wyman was better known as a dramatic actress, winning the Best Actress Oscar a few years previously for Johnny Belinda (1948), she proves in Stage Fright that she is a very capable comic actress as well.  Marlene Dietrich is even better, stealing all her scenes as Charlotte, that prima donna of a femme fatale (one nearly expects Dietrich's dominating Charlotte to walk all over poor little Eve).  Clearly, Dietrich had a lot of fun with this role, which also introduced the naughty Cole Porter tune "Laziest Gal in Town" that would become a classic signature song for her for years to come.

Now, I'm going to make a small confession - my partial plot synopsis isn't entirely true.  It's full of little half-truths and white lies, and while I cannot reveal anymore, I can say that Hitchcock throws a few unexpected twists into Stage Fright, and not everything is as it seems.

Stage Fright, released in the same year as Hitchcock's superior Strangers on a Train, has always been unfairly dismissed as light and inconsequential.  While Stage Fright is not high art, it is at least equal to such popular Hitchcockian fare as To Catch a Thief or The Trouble with Harry.  Stage Fright is certainly still enjoyable, providing laughs, chills, and thrills aplenty.

Video **

Stage Fright is presented in its original full-screen format.  The image quality is slightly grainy and occasionally contrasty but generally clear.  There are some age marks and scratches on the print but nothing too unusual for a relatively old film like this.

Audio **

Stage Fright's original English monaural soundtrack has been cleaned of the background hiss or pops common to these older films.  The audio quality is quite presentable, even though it will certainly not wow anyone.

Features *

The featurette Hitchcock and Stage Fright (19 min.) reveals some key plot elements, so I wouldn't recommend watching it before seeing the film first.  The featurette discusses some of the narrative devices used in the film, such as an unreliable narrator, and some of Hitchcock's more impressive tracking shots, including one involving a large breakaway set.  Fans of Marlene Dietrich will also get a brief overview of the glamorous movie star's career.

The only other bonus is a vintage trailer which opens on an award ceremony for Jane Wyman before showing clips from the film itself.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Hitchcock's own daughter, Pat, appears in this film as Chubby Bannister.  Michael Wilding was later to become one among Elizabeth Taylor's many husbands.

Summary:

Though considered a lesser effort by Hitchcock, Stage Fright is still very entertaining fare.  Watch it for Marlene Dietrich's cool and calculating femme fatale.  Watch it for Jane Wyman's sweet and innocent Eve.  But most of all, watch it for a fun, good-old-fashioned whodunit.

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