Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Whitfield Cook
It’s a great joy to see talented directors work with a variety of talented actors over the span of their careers. For instance, sometimes you have the likes of Martin Scorsese, an all-time great director, who has time and again worked with Robert De Niro and more recently Leonardo DiCaprio. But to see someone as great as Alfred Hitchcock get to work with the likes of legends like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, Grace Kelly and on and on is a true delight. So with Stage Fright, he gets to add another name to that list in Marlene Dietrich, whose screen presence is undeniable. She may not be as lasting and notable a name as the rest, but for her time, and even now, Dietrich is a massive talent and brings something new and different to the table, which clearly colors a movie such as this.
Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) comes to his friend, young actress Eve (Jane Wyman), who is secretly in love with him, with a wild story about fellow performer Charlotte (Marlene Dietrich), who came to him with a blood stained dress, telling him that she had killed her husband. When Cooper returned to the scene of the crime to procure a new, clean dress for Charlotte in an attempt to help her cover up the crime, he is seen by Charlotte’s maid, making him the prime suspect in the murder. Believing in his innocence, Eve helps hide and protect Cooper with the help of her supporting parents (Alastair Sim & Sybil Thorndike). Soon, Eve bumps into Detective Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding), complicating matters even further.
For starters, there are a few elements in this film that make it stand apart in ways that a few recent entries in this Hitchcock marathon have not. While those films have been good, and great examples of Hitch’s talents, Stage Fright features a couple signature sequences. The opening of the film jumps right into the intrigue with the scene of the murder and Cooper’s involvement with Charlotte and initial setup for the whole film. There is incredible tension built throughout this extended opening sequence that left me wondering how thrilling the whole movie might be. It certainly was a let down after that, as the film did not keep up the tension throughout, and it slowed considerably in the middle as we were presented with the nuances of the characters. But this is more a comment towards the highs of the opening than the lows of the rest.
The second notable element is the ending, which I don’t want to truly spoil, but given it’s a 70 year old movie, I will discuss a little bit. I’m not sure I could name any other film off the top of my head that utilizes the “unreliable narrator” tactic, as this one does. Being bought totally into the story being told and show to us, only to have the rug torn out from underneath us in the end is somewhat of a cheap gimmick, but of course Hitchcock is able to use it without making it feel cheap at all. I’m not sure if this is a pioneering example of the tactic, but I was genuinely thrilled and surprised by it. I wonder, for that reason, whether a rewatch would be as effective. That being said, the flashbang opening and classic twist ending make this a film well worth watching and talking about.
Stage Fright is an fascinating Hitchcock artifact. A great sequence, a very notable plot twist, and the inclusion of Marlene Dietrich. Interestingly enough, it’s Jane Wyman who is truly the lead in the film as Eve, as Dietrich is the mysterious support. But anytime we see either on screen, it’s quite obvious how much natural charisma and screen presence Dietrich has. Wyman welts in her presence, which should be no dig at Wyman, who is quite good here herself, but more a comment on the prowess of Dietrich. I’m truly fascinated by this film, having not really heard much about it before this viewing. It’s not a smash hit, as I mentioned the much slower mid-section, but has so much going for it that sets it apart from the rest that I’m very intrigued to revisit it at some point in the future. Maybe not top flight Hitchcock, but I’d be comfortable categorizing this one as overlooked.