Saturday, February 24, 2007

STAGE FRIGHT (Warner Bros. 1950) Warner Home Video

Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) is a convoluted English charmer that seeks to recapture something of the flavor of Britain's music hall glory with a murder thrown in for kicks. Rarely has Hitchcock’s attention to comedy and suspense been more seamlessly blended than in this minor - if narrative flawed - effort.

Selwyn Jepson's novel 'Man Running' is the inspiration for the film, scripted by Whitfield Cook, Ranald MacDougall, Alma Reville and James Birdie. I've always enjoyed Stage Fright as a slightly 'inferior' masterwork from Hitchcock's Warner Bros. period. Today, the films Hitch' made at W.B. are not as well regarded as those he made either at Selznick International in the early 40s, or those over at Paramount in the mid-1950s. Yet, Stage Fright is a clever enough suspense with finely wrought performances throughout. The film also brings Hitchcock back to his roots and gives audiences an opportunity to see a post-war Britain in all its reconstruction glory. 

Our story opens with a problematic flashback. Stage diva, Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) arrives at the London flat of her lover, Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) after just having murdered her husband. But the flashback is a MacGuffin – a deliberate lie told by Jonathan to throw the audience off the identity of the real murderer until much later.

Enter Jane Wyman as Jonathan's loyal friend, Eve Gill. A student of drama who is desperately in love with Jonathan, Eve is determined to get to the bottom of the crime. She enlists the help of her estranged father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Simms) and together they play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Charlotte, testing Jonathan’s theory of the crime. 

Against her father's strenuous objections Eve masquerades as Nellie Good, a common house frump who becomes Charlotte's new housemaid, only to discover that the actress is currently having an affair with her agent, Freddie (Hector McGregor). 

Meanwhile police inspector, Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding) has grown quite fond of Eve. Moreover, he believes her trusting nature is shielding the real killer. As Eve and Wilfred's relationship grows more sincere, he tries to convince her that Jonathan's story does not add up. But Eve will have none of Wilfred's theories - at least, none that he can't prove.

One of only two films Hitchcock made in England after becoming an American director (Frenzy being the other), Stage Fright has been rather dismissively misrepresented by the critics as a footnote in the director’s illustrious career. Yet, Stage Fright is a far more intricate and satisfying movie than most give it credit. Hitchcock stages some brilliant sequences, including the moment when Commodore Gill bribes a Boy Scout to carry a doll with a blood stained dress up to the stage while Charlotte is performing, simply to gauge her reaction. 

Hitchcock is equally blessed with a marvelous cast. Richard Todd makes for a very spooky suitor. Marlene Dietrich is devilish as the music hall singer who may have murder in her heart. Michael Wilding and Alastair Simms give superb support and add that invaluable flair for a decidedly very British feeling film. But the standout is arguably Jane Wyman - though perhaps not as captivating as she ought to be. Reportedly Dietrich did not care for Wyman. By all accounts, the feeling was mutual. 

Nevertheless, Stage Fright is a good solid film with plenty of Hitchcock's cinematic touches that help to generate a lot of suspense. Why it remains in a vacuum apart from the director's other masterworks is a curiosity. True enough, Stage Fright is not as great a movie as Rebecca, Psycho or The Birds (to name only a few). But it is very solid second tier Hitchcock - which pretty much means it's A-list everyone else! 

Warner Home Video’s DVD is just average. While the gray scale is nicely balanced, the overall characteristic is rather grainy and, at times dull. Blacks are more tonal variations of deep gray than pure black. Whites are sometimes clean, sometime a dingy gray. Dirt, scratches and other age related artifacts are present. Ditto for edge enhancement and pixelization. The audio is mono but very nicely cleaned up. A brief featurette is the only extra feature.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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