Plot: What’s it about?
Based on Selwyn Jepson’s novel, “Stage Fright” is another enjoyable offering from the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, the master’s own high water mark precedes him in this film that, by his standards, falls a bit short. The story is as tangled a web as one would expect from Hitchcock and, as with so many others, it begins with a murder. The poor soul in question is the husband of one Charlotte Inwood, played to devious perfection by the great Marlene Dietrich. The apparent murderess right from the film’s opening scenes, Charlotte quickly enlists the unrequited love of her friend Jonathan (Richard Todd) as leverage to coerce him into taking the fall. But Jonathan’s got an admirer all his own in the young and slightly naive Eve (Jane Wyman in a role that seems tailor-made for her quirky sensibilities), the would-be girlfriend and actress who will do anything to clear his name. Doing anything naturally ends up entailing much more than Eve had bargained for, and all involved are sent spiraling down an increasingly unstable path of desperation, love, and betrayal. One quickly realizes that nothing is as it seems here, as even traditionally trusted storytelling techniques are utilized for misdirection.
It would seem that all the elements for a traditionally entertaining whodunit caper were in place. However, in this case, the film simply didn’t gel for me. I never quite felt the tension I’m sure was intended at certain points in the film. The mood of the piece fluctuates wildly throughout and, while that keeps one unbalanced, it also serves to distance us from the story. I’m all for sub-genre flourishes, but some of the tonal shifts throughout the picture seems forced and unnatural to me. I’m not exactly sure why, but I felt as though too many scenes took far longer than was necessary. Some are obviously included out of pure whimsy (such as an especially funny scene involving Eve’s father and the acquisition of a certain doll), but others are unfortunately repetitive and tedious, giving us far more information than is required for what could have been a concise thriller. Some films earn my praise for embellishing the characters’ qualities and giving us a bird’s eye view into their worlds. “Stage Fright”, however, seems to bask a bit too long in the limelight, mistaking relatively useless filler for character development. It’s a dangerous balance to achieve and, for my tastes, it just didn’t work here as well as it could or should have – especially not with someone like Hitchcock at the helm.
That being said, this is still a decent film, just a disappointing one for what it is. I appreciated the attempt at a more light-hearted twist to the typical, heavy-handed approach to this kind of material. I don’t recall the last time I saw any vintage film that dealt with murder and deception and did it with a healthy dose of humor. On that level, I enjoyed what this film had to offer, and I expect those only familiar with latter-day Hitchcock films will, too. I found the entire picture extremely atypical of his usual directorial style, not in subject per se, but in execution. There is also a reasonable amount of suspense generated by the end of the film (albeit too little, too late), and the antagonist is truly threatening when the story calls for it. There’s also an immediacy to the performances here that demand not only attention, but respect. The action is intentionally melodramatic, and this movie works much better, in fact, as a theater piece than a traditional Hollywood production. The creative choice of opening the film like a play is completely appropriate in this context and puts one in the right frame of mind in which to approach the film. For me, though, this is one instance that style couldn’t quite overcome an all-too-obvious lack of substance.
Video: How does it look?
The 1.37:1 full-frame transfer presented here is, to be honest, a critic’s worst nightmare. When viewing any film of this age, I expect a certain level of unavoidable image degradation. What I found on this disc, however, demands far more than the usual concessions. Right from the start, you can tell the source print used must have been in terrible shape. Artifacts are everywhere and regretfully don’t get better as the film progresses. Nicks, cuts and scratches of all sorts plague the entire presentation. There is also a pronounced softness to the look of the film that, while a possible an artistic indulgence, detracts from the viewing experience far too often. Bewildering (at least to me) is the slight edge enhancement that crops up now and again. As soft of an appearance as this movie has, it makes edge halos that much more inexplicable. Worst of all, being that this is a black and white film, this transfer suffers immeasurably from inaccurate contrasting, producing whites that are never clean and blacks that achieve a newspaper gray at best. This is a very disappointing presentation all around.
Audio: How does it sound?
Another Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track from the Hitchcock Collection, the audio presentation fares much better than the video (which is to say that it’s adequate). I noticed no distortion of dialogue or score present, and range is about what you’d expect from such a limited source. Nothing to disappoint fans here, but then I suppose this disc already has enough problems without audio dropouts.
Supplements: What are the extras?
As with the other films from this collection, the main extra included is a retrospective documentary. This one, “Hitchcock and Stage Fright”, actually made me appreciate the film more than I did upon my initial viewing. There are plenty of looks here into the filmmaking process and also into what place this particular movie has in the context of Hitchcock’s later, more critically praised works. As with the “I Confess” disc, this documentary proved much more entertaining than I had expected, with enough insights to enrich my experience with the film itself. The original theatrical trailer is also included, complete with a newsreel of sorts featuring Jane Wyman’s acceptance speech after winning an Academy Award.