Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 20, 2022)
Across his career, Alfred Hitchcock worked with plenty of legends. Via 1950’s Stage Fright, we get the director’s one and only collaboration with actor Marlene Dietrich.
Drama student Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) finds herself in a tight spot. Her friend – and crush – Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) becomes framed for murder, and she wants to help.
Jonathan carries on an affair with entertainer Charlotte Inwood (Dietrich), and he gets the blame for the death of her husband. Eve goes undercover in an attempt to prove Jonathan’s innocence.
From here, I will discuss many parts of the plot that contain heavy spoiler material. If you don’t want to spoil the movie, please skip from here to the technical section.
I struggled with what to write about this movie for quite some time. One of the roadblocks stems from the fact that it just doesn’t present a very complicated plot, so there doesn’t become a whole lot to explain.
The “wrongly accused man” plot shows up in far better Hitchcock films, but a big twist separates Stage Fright from the rest. It turns out that the entire basis of the narrative - Jonathan’s flashback that starts the film – exists as a complete lie and Jonathan did kill Charlotte’s husband.
Unfortunately, the film lollygags toward this allegedly shocking finale, so by the time it rolls around, I had already checked out of the movie. The pace just feels far too slow, and the characters become less than gripping, so it really doesn’t hit the heavy chord it wants.
As it developed into cinematic convention over the years since, the “unreliable narrator” seems best revealed closer to the middle of a movie. This helps build suspense toward the end so it can get the movie rolling toward the climax the viewer desires.
Hitchcock regarded this avant-garde idea of the unreliable narrator in Stage Fright as one of his greatest career mistakes. When he saw the film after it had been assembled, he knew it wouldn’t work like he hoped.
The bland characters only exacerbates the lackadaisical pace the movie follows. Eve isn’t exactly the most interesting of Hitchcock female characters, though through no fault of Jane Wyman’s.
Wyman was a cute young lady, but her character seems sort of dopey, and her motivations never really become sufficiently clear. Sure, she avoids contacting the police because she doesn’t want Jonathan to get caught, but why? The film fails to make her rationale obvious.
Eve’s involvement with Detective Inspector Wilfred O. Smith (Michael Wilding) feels about as electrifying as wet newspaper, so their romantic acts like a cinematic obligation rather than a driving narrative force.
The film itself just doesn’t come with that typical Hitchcock feeling to it - at least not Hitchcock in the 50’s. This film fits better with his earlier career, before he hit his stride.
How un-Hitchcock does Stage Fright feel? There’s a musical number in the middle of the movie that absolutely grinds it to a halt.
Dietrich sings a Cole Porter number called “Laziest Gal In Town” that acts as the clear inspiration for “I’m Tired” in 1974’s Blazing Saddles. Of course, it’s not Hitchcock’s fault that “Laziest Gal” will inspire laughs due to that connection, but it doesn’t help his cause.
Hitchcock films “Laziest Gal” like he has no idea what to do with it, because this isn’t his strength. It comes off as some sort of contractual demand made by a true “Movie Starlet” rather than something that the usually tight-fisted Hitchcock wanted.
Stage Fright just doesn’t become that exciting of a film. Even its super-noirish ending - supposed to be white-knuckled and ultra tense - falls flat. This become subpar for Hitchcock.