Thursday, July 3, 2008

STAGE FRIGHT (Warner Bros. 1950) Warner Home Video

Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) marked a return of sorts to Hitchcock’s British period in films. The story of deception and murder was familiar to the master’s hand – though in crafting the piece he made one critical error that threatened to unravel the entire narrative. Hitchcock cast the sultry Marlene Dietrich as greedy chanteuse, Charlotte Inwood. In the flashback that opens the story, Charlotte arrives on her lover, Jonathan Cooper’s (Richard Todd) doorstep with her dress bloodied. She has presumably just shot her husband and is seeking asylum and an alibi.

To protect Charlotte from the crime, Jonathan returns to her home to get her a clean dress. However, in attempting to make the homicide look like an accidental killing after a burglary, Jonathan is discovered by the upstairs maid who alerts the police of her findings. Fleeing the scene, Jonathan relies on his good friendship with Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) to aid in his escape.

Eve harbors an unrequited puppy love for Jonathan and proves the measure of her affections by taking him to her father, Commodore Gill’s (Alistair Sim) remote seaside cabin to hide out for a few days. There’s just one problem: everything until this point in the narrative has been a lie. Told from Jonathan’s perspective, the flashback is a rouse that neither the audience nor Eve is aware of.

The rest of the story is rather benign and meandering as Eve masquerades as a maid to secure employment in Charlotte’s house with the hopes of discovering some evidence against her for the crime of murder. Meanwhile, congenial Scotland Yard Detective Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding) has begun to harbor affections for Eve. The nearer he draws to her side, the closer he suspects he is coming to the truth about Jonathan – although oddly enough ‘love’ rather than ‘sleuthing’ seems more on his mind.

Despite these problems in narrative construction, Hitchcock’s direction excels during two pivotal sequences. The first is an outdoor charity fundraiser where Charlotte is scheduled to sing. Doubting Jonathan’s theory about the crime, Eve’s father sends a girl scout up to the stage with a baby doll that he has soiled in a red stain to resemble the blood on Charlotte’s dress. The rouse works, interrupting Charlotte’s performance and drawing suspicion away from the real culprit. The scene is a brilliant bit of Hitchcock staging with hardly any dialogue. But it also tends to support the false premise that Charlotte – not Jonathan – has committed the murder.

The latter moment of artistic brilliance comes at the very end of the film. Concealing Jonathan deep within the bowels of the music hall, Eve confronts him with her suspicions about the crime. Before her very eyes Jonathan crumbles, confessing to Eve the obsessive love that drove him to murder Charlotte’s husband. Hitchcock captures this confession almost entirely in extreme close-up with Richard Todd and Jane Wyman’s eyes growing larger; his with rage, hers widening in fear. Visceral chills end with a chase through the music hall. Jonathan is accidentally cut in two by the steel safety stage curtain. But by the time Hitchcock exposes the truth about Jonathan even the audience finds it difficult to believe that they have been left out of the narrative loop.

Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits just slightly below average quality. The B&W image is often grainy, poorly contrasted and, at times, contains a slight green tinge. Contrast levels are weaker than expected. Though blacks are a very dark gray, whites are a dingy light gray. Fine details are lost during darker scenes. Age related artifacts are present throughout and, at times, distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a scant ‘making of’ featurette and theatrical trailer.

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



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