Not considered by certain Alfred Hitchcock scholars as among his best work, Stage Fright is worthy of some reconsideration with a top cast of stars and a more-than-gripping story of murder and its subsequent investigation.
The Production: 4/5
After enduring the disastrous critical and commercial failure of Under Capricorn, director Alfred Hitchcock signed a multi-picture deal with Warner Bros. who had distributed his last two films which were independently financed. His first venture for them Stage Fright returned him to more familiar territory in a suspense thriller where a man accused of murder is on the run from the police. Hitchcock and his collaborators have a few tricks up their sleeves that make Stage Fright a bit different from previous Hitchcock films with this same basic plot. A first-rate cast aids mightily in helping to restore the Master of Suspense to his throne, but it wouldn’t be until his next film Strangers on a Train before the crown would be fully returned to its rightful owner.
Desperately fleeing chorus boy Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) calls on drama student Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) to help hide him from the police since he’s sure they’re going to be searching for him in connection with the murder of the husband of West End stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). Jonathan insists that Charlotte killed her abusive husband and begged Jonathan who loves her to help her hide the crime. Because Eve is in love with Jonathan, she agrees to stash him with her father Commodore Gill (Alistair Sim), estranged from his wife (Sybil Thorndike) and living on the coast. Eve, meanwhile, wants to see Charlotte pay for her crime, so she bargains with Charlotte’s maid Nellie (Kay Walsh) to take over for her for a few days so she can get evidence against Charlotte or at least find of way of getting her to confess to her crime. But Eve doesn’t count on meeting the inspector investigating the case, Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding), or that she’d find his company much more appealing than that of the weak and desperate Jonathan.
Based on the novel by Selwyn Jepson, the screenplay by Whitfield Cook as adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville is a somewhat haphazardly collated but nevertheless compelling crime narrative and adroitly written so that dialogue throughout never gives the game’s big twist away. With Eve playing a British version of Nancy Drew dashing hither and yon to collect evidence and donning disguises and accents as she juggles two boy friends (which include the main murder suspect and the man trailing him), her parents (one in the know and the other completely at sea), an alluring stage star and her blackmailing maid, and other friends and associates, the narrative is fairly constantly on the move but lacking a little bit in Hitchcock’s usual slickness and effortless pacing which had so distinguished his masterful Hollywood productions like Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, and Notorious. In Stage Fright the pacing is much more stop and go though the camerawork by Wilkie Cooper is unimpeachably good. There are some marvelous moments to savor: Jonathan’s breathless retelling of the murder and its aftermath, a rainy garden party where a blood-soaked doll causes quite a commotion, and the heart-stopping denouement where the mystery is untangled but innocent lives are still in the balance. One thing is clear: Hitchcock lets Marlene Dietrich have her way with the story and the film. Her on-stage moments crackle with real star presence (even when we only see tiny bits of them) as she holds court in magnificent Christian Dior gowns, warbling “La Vie en Rose” and “The Laziest Gal in Town” (a Cole Porter tune written especially for her for this film and a song she would keep in her repertoire for the next two decades) while he also famously allowed her to light her scenes herself and set the camera for optimum coverage of her performance.
Up against the formidable La Dietrich (who had just stolen A Foreign Affair from another American ingénue Jean Arthur), Jane Wyman didn’t have much of a chance to shine. She was forced on Hitchcock by Warner Bros. and is about the least convincing Brit you’ll ever encounter (even having her relate that she did her schooling in America doesn’t alter the fact that she bears no resemblance whatsoever to Alistair Sim or Sybil Thorndike). Still, she’s game for all the subterfuge she attempts in the story and always had nice things to say about her experience shooting this in England. Michael Wilding makes a most agreeable police inspector while Richard Todd’s darker, moodier Jonathan Cooper offers a brooding poor soul for Eve to befriend. As usual, Alistair Sim steals all of his scenes as the doting father, and Sybil Thorndike as her airheaded mother is quaintly amusing. In smaller parts, Kay Walsh is coyly calculating as the maid Nellie, and Hector MacGregor has a fine moment or two as Charlotte’s devoted producer. If you look fast you’ll see Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia making her screen debut as Eve’s school chum Chubby Bannister. You’ll also be momentarily but monumentally delighted by Joyce Grenfell’s shooting gallery barker calling for one and all to shoot the “lovely ducks.”
3D Rating: NA
The theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully delivered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The contrast between this gorgeous new Blu-ray transfer and the ancient DVD image we’ve been stuck with for decades couldn’t be starker. Sharpness and detail are exceptional (except in glamor close-ups of the stars, of course), and the grayscale offers deep black levels (very important in the shadowy scenes of the denouement in the theater) and crisp, clean whites. All of the previous debris and scratches are gone now. The movie has been divided into 33 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix is solid and consistent in fidelity. Dialogue has been carefully and expertly recorded (and there is a fair amount of post dubbing which has been edited in effortlessly and with no change in fidelity). Leighton Lucas’ background score and the multiple sound effects have also been combined with professional surety. There are no problems at all with age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops.
Special Features: 2/5
Hitchcock and Stage Fright (19:22, SD): a vintage making-of featurette featuring film historians Robert Osborne, Richard Schickel, Peter Bogdanovich, and Richard Franklin along with Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell and Jane Wyman offering opinions on the film and the people involved in its making.
Theatrical Trailer (2:52, HD)
Not considered by certain Alfred Hitchcock scholars as among his best work, Stage Fright is worthy of some reconsideration with a top cast of stars, a more-than-gripping story of murder and investigation, and the master himself regaining his footing that would launch him into his greatest decade of masterful filmmaking. Recommended!
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