On the unsung Stage Fright (1950)…
Stage Fright is one of the quietest films in Hitchcock’s cannon, but deserves a lot more attention. It’s criminally neglected in the tranche of the director’s essential viewing – the likes of Psycho (1960) , Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954) for example – and I have never understood why.
It has the usual set-up but is less frantic in pace than many of his similar “man-on-the-run” films. Jane Wyman is charming as the good-natured Eve with Alistair Sim and Sybil Thorndike adding colour and humour in supporting roles. Marlene Dietrich’s cold and dispassionate performance is perfect in the context of the movie’s late plot-twist. To complete the set, Richard Todd plays Hitchcock’s “man-on-the-run” although he is not the subject of the director’s gaze for most of the picture, when he is, his tortured and melodramatic looks are as worthy as those from any leading man.
But the cast isn’t why I like this film so much. What I love about Stage Fright is the B&W cinematography and orchestrated set-pieces. The picture has a great mood right from the start, and Hitchcock’s lighting techniques on this one are right up with there with the tragic shadows in Psycho (1960).
The Garden Party sequence is one of Hitchcock’s best, and I cannot fathom why it is been forgotten by critics. It has everything – black humour at the shooting gallery, startling imagery of blood on a doll’s dress and stylish shots which seem to foretell the director’s future use of the “dolly zoom” in Vertigo (1958).
The final frames take place in a prop-carriage backstage as Wyman and Todd hide from the police. It’s expertly done, with Todd pouring his heart out and revealing his inner madness as Hitchcock’s lens clocks their emotion-filled eyes in the gloomy light.
Hitchcock gleefully plays with the plot throughout, presenting actors as people who are incapable of removing the mask of performance when they leave the stage, as individuals whose off-screen lives are just as rehearsed as their on-screen counterparts. It’s an appealing idea which underlines the whole of his film, adding depth to repeated viewings. Wyman’s cat-and-mouse game impersonating Dietrich’s maid is the most blatant example but by the end both Todd and Dietrich’s characters are shown to be retrospectively acting in order to hide their true nature.
Stage Fright concludes as it opens, with a curtain call on the stage. At the finale, the curtain is the literal guillotine for our hapless murderer. As Wyman is led away, through an elongated corridor, the end credits roll. An unsung masterpiece.
NB: The film is notable for breaking the cinematic convention that a flashback never lies. In Stage Fright, it certainly does.
Hotdog rating: 9/10