Stage Fright may not enjoy the lofty reputation of many other, more famous Alfred Hitchcock films, but that doesn't mean this theatrical themed murder mystery is a second-rate thriller. Au contraire. Deftly mixing suspense, humor, and an array of tangled webs, Stage Fright remains an intoxicating Hitchcock cocktail that contains terrific performances from a standout cast that includes Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, and Alastair Sim. Warner Archive delivers another stellar transfer that revitalizes this underrated movie and might help it gain the respect it has long deserved. Recommended.
After the financial failures of Rope and Under Capricorn, Alfred Hitchcock shuttered his independent production company and signed a lucrative deal with Warner Bros that afforded the acclaimed director a tremendous amount of artistic freedom. The quartet of pictures produced under the contract include the classics Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder, the fascinating yet imperfect I, Confess, and Stage Fright, Hitchcock's first Warner flick and the often forgotten stepchild of this fruitful collaboration.
Hitch returned to England for this cleverly titled and criminally underrated throwback thriller that recalls the best movies from his pre-Hollywood period. Much like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Young and Innocent (which it most strongly resembles), Stage Fright deftly blends comedy with suspense, but also employs some striking film noir accents and a glittering cast of top-flight British and American actors. The movie may lack urgency, thanks to a methodical script and languorous pacing, but it's packed with atmosphere, colorful characters, plenty of wit, and enough Hitchcock style to satisfy the director's most discriminating fans.
As Stage Fright opens, impressionable Royal Academy of Dramatic Art student Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) speeds down the highway with her agitated boyfriend Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), who fears the police might be in hot pursuit. Jonathan confesses to romancing older stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) behind Eve's back and helping the distraught actress when she appeared at his door earlier in the day with a huge blood stain on her dress. Charlotte admits to killing her violently jealous husband in self-defense, but needs Jonathan to rush back to her flat to retrieve a clean gown so she can go to the theater that evening without attracting suspicion. Jonathan does as he's told, but while he's rummaging around and doctoring the crime scene to make it look like a home invasion, he's spotted by Charlotte's maid, Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh), who alerts the authorities.
Eve agrees to hide Jonathan, who worries Charlotte might have framed him for the crime, at her father's remote seaside cabin, but Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim) disapproves of his daughter's involvement with a suspected murderer. He believes the stagestruck Eve relishes playing a juicy part in this real-life melodrama, but is oblivious to the situation's severity and danger. Undaunted, Eve forges ahead, determined to get the goods on Charlotte and clear Jonathan's name. She bribes Nellie to feign illness, then masquerades as Nellie's cousin and becomes Charlotte's temporary maid. Eve uses her stage training to adopt a frumpy appearance, Cockney accent, and demure demeanor, but her plan to uncover incriminating evidence might backfire due to her burgeoning relationship with Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding), the chief detective on the case who knows nothing of Eve's alter ego and involvement with Jonathan. Juggling two identities, two romances, and a demanding diva all while trying to shelter a fugitive, outsmart the police, and solve a murder would be a tall order for any actress, but can someone as inexperienced and naïve as Eve pull off the performance without getting killed off in the end?
The man-on-the-run theme that dominates countless Hitchcock films plays a big role in Stage Fright, and though the Master of Suspense would more fully develop the amateur sleuth angle in Rear Window four years later, he lends it loads of whimsy and charm here. The script's wry, subtle humor (which I found more effective and droll upon a second viewing) often dilutes the story's tension, leading some to classify Stage Fright as more of a comedy than a thriller, but a terrific climax and Eve's constant struggles to evade exposure provide delicious moments of unease.
Hitchcock also embraces the story's theatricality, conveying Shakespeare's view that all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. And what a fabulous group of devious "players" these characters are! Almost everyone seeks to manipulate, deceive, or protect someone else, all while presenting a calculated persona, keeping their cards close to their vests, and trying to save their own skins. The "acting" is so good, it's tough to get a read on anyone's actual psyche, and for most of the film Hitchcock challenges us to determine what is real and what is artifice, who is lying and who is telling the truth.
Hitchcock himself even enters the game, not just with his customary cameo (pictured above), but with a controversial plot point that at one time sullied the film's reputation. A flashback that's later revealed to be a lie is a ruse Hitchcock came to bitterly regret, because it purportedly violated one of cinema's steadfast rules. Contemporary critics raked him over the coals for it, yet it's difficult to understand why. Unreliable narrators are a staple of literary novels, adding depth and complexity. Who outlawed them in film? Today, the device is unquestionably Stage Fright 's greatest asset, an audacious stroke of brilliance that makes the movie unique.
As I watched Stage Fright, I was struck by its eerie yet coincidental parallels to another, more famous theatrical movie made the very same year that features the very same lead character name. Though Stage Fright might not be all about Eve Gill in the same way All About Eve is about Eve Harrington, both films revolve around a young woman who connives to get close to a major stage actress for ulterior purposes by adopting a mousy appearance, deferential attitude, and quiet, breathy voice. Both Eves successfully finagle their way into the star's trusted inner circle and proceed to hoodwink her, but the big difference is Wyman's Eve dupes Dietrich's Charlotte in the hope of saving someone else, while Anne Baxter's more cunning and ruthless Eve sidles up to Bette Davis' Margo Channing for her own personal gain.
Stage Fright is far from flashy, but Hitchcock's patented elegance and arresting technique continuously spice up the film. An impressive lengthy take that follows Jonathan from the sidewalk into Charlotte's townhouse and up the stairs to her bedroom is a marvel of ingenuity, and a subjective camera shot of Jonathan walking down a narrow stairway to open the front door of his modest flat would be memorably recreated a decade later when Vera Miles descends the steps to the fateful Bates family fruit cellar in Psycho. Hitchcock even pays homage to one of his earlier movies, with the sea of umbrellas at a rainy garden party recalling an iconic set piece from Foreign Correspondent.
Wyman handles her myriad thespian chores with aplomb, crafting an understated, natural performance that seamlessly shifts between comedy and drama. Though her English accent ebbs and flows, her facial expressions and non-verbal reactions are beautifully on point...not at all surprising considering Wyman had just won a Best Actress Oscar for portraying a sexually abused deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda (a magnificent film that deserves a Blu-ray release). She shares equally good chemistry with Wilding and Todd, both of whom file excellent portrayals. Wilding, who made a splash in Hitchcock's Under Capricorn the previous year, exudes an easygoing air as the smitten yet professional detective, but it's Todd, fresh from a Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Hasty Heart and Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer, who really rivets attention as the desperate fugitive who's hopelessly ensnared in Charlotte's web. Todd's combination of virility and vulnerability makes him a fascinating presence, and without his fine work Stage Fright would be a far less effective film.
As the de rigueur Hitchcock Blonde, Dietrich dazzles as a femme fatale masquerading as a damsel in distress. The role doesn't just suit Dietrich, she created it back in the 1930s in a series of opulent melodramas directed by Josef von Sternberg. Twenty years later, she still steals every scene in which she appears, commanding the screen with her cool allure, air of mystery, steely will, and breathtaking beauty. (Shortly before shooting began, the press dubbed the 48-year-old actress "the world's most glamorous grandmother.") She also commanded Hitchcock. In a rare acquiescence to a star, Hitch allowed Dietrich to collaborate with cinematographer Wilkie Cooper on her lighting and camera angles and engage Dior to supply her wardrobe. While Hitchcock respected Dietrich's cinematic acumen, he was less tolerant of her torrid on-set affair with Wilding, which reportedly disrupted production on several occasions.
The always animated Sim, a year before his career-defining portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the best version of A Christmas Carol, delights as Eve's loving yet mischievous father and accomplice. His expressive face, acerbic line readings, and impeccable timing continually perk up the proceedings, as does his priceless repartee with stage legend Sybil Thorndike, who's a hoot as Eve's scatterbrained mother. The lovely Kay Walsh plays against type as the dowdy, bespectacled, oh-so-shrewd Nellie and nails the role; Joyce Grenfell milks her brief yet hilarious scene for all it's worth; and Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, who also enlivened Strangers on a Train and Psycho, makes her film debut in a bit part as one of Eve's drama school friends.
Like fine wine, Stage Fright just gets better with age. It may not merit inclusion in the canon of bona fide Hitchcock classics, but its absorbing story, comic accents, superior performances, and undercurrent of slow-burn suspense make it a rich smorgasbord that's worth returning to again and again. If you haven't yet seen this underrated and under-appreciated thriller, it's high time you did.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Stage Fright arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand-new master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative yields a terrific 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's a big step up from the 2004 DVD. Excellent clarity and contrast combine with beautifully resolved grain to produce a vibrant, lush picture with a palpable film-like feel. Rich blacks, bright whites, and nicely varied grays enhance the image, while good shadow delineation helps ramp up suspense in key moments. Hitchcock employs far more close-ups than usual in Stage Fright, many of them extreme, and the sharpness is often stunning. Dietrich's smooth, creamy complexion, Wyman's large, dark eyes and tear-stained cheeks, Todd's sweat, scruff, and unkempt, greasy hair, Wilding's angular features, and Sim's basset hound expressions are all wonderfully crisp, and the lengthy dissolves that occur as Jonathan imagines the ensuing police investigation sport a high level of detail and definition as well.
Hitchcock's penchant for processed shots and rear projection work is well known, but the effects here look a little ragged. (One close-up image of Dietrich framed against the interior of Jonathan's apartment is especially jarring and seems unnecessary, almost as if it were added as an afterthought.) Though some scenes appear a little softer and a bit grainier than others, the transfer remains remarkably consistent throughout, with only a few marks and scratches dotting the print. Without question, Stage Fright has never looked better on home video, making this an essential upgrade for every Hitchcock fan.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that's free of any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle. Sonic accents like ringing telephones and screams make a statement, while atmospherics like footsteps and cooing seagulls subtly shade the action. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of the music score, as well as Dietrich's sultry vocals (she sings an original Cole Porter tune, "The Laziest Gal in Town," in the film), without any distortion, and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Sound doesn't play quite as big a role in Stage Fright as it does in other Hitchcock films, but this track nicely handles everything the Master of Suspense throws at it.
Both extras from the 2004 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Featurette: "Hitchcock and Stage Fright" (SD, 19 minutes) - This slick, insightful, and entertaining 2004 featurette includes interviews with Richard Franklin, director of Psycho II, director Peter Bogdanovich, and film historians Robert Osborne and Richard Schickel, as well as wonderful reminiscences from Patricia Hitchcock (who remembers Dietrich as the "nicest, nicest woman") and Jane Wyman (who fondly recalls how Dietrich "mothered me to death"). In addition to praising the cast and analyzing Hitchcock's artistry, the quartet of experts debates the merits of the film's controversial flashback sequence (which Hitchcock later termed the greatest mistake of his career) and examines the various mother roles in Hitchcock movies.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview begins with Wyman accepting Photoplay's Gold Medal award for her acclaimed, Oscar-winning performance in Johnny Belinda, then moves forward as a traditional trailer.
Don't be afraid of Stage Fright. This under-the-radar Hitchcock thriller might not be as sexy as Psycho and Vertigo, but it's far from their dowdy stepsister. An engrossing murder mystery with plenty of tension, atmosphere, and English charm, Stage Fright also features a gallery of colorful performances and enough Hitchcock style to please any fan of the Master of Suspense. Warner Archive's new 4K master struck from the film's original camera negative revitalizes this underrated film that deserves a fresh look and plenty of respect. Recommended.