One of Hitchcock’s most underrated works—and it sees the director at his most patient, crafting a tale that builds up spellbindingly.
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
1950 | UK | Drama/Mystery | 110 mins | 1.37:1 | English
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Jane Wyman, Richard Todd, Michael Wilding
Plot: A struggling actress tries to help a friend prove his innocence when he’s accused of murdering the husband of a high society entertainer.
Awards: Official Selection (Locarno)
Distributor: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
First Published: 3 Oct 2017
Stage Fright was completely lost in the shadows of Alfred Hitchcock’s next film—and a very successful one—Strangers on a Train (1951). Not just criminally undervalued, but also seemingly forgotten by many, Stage Fright is one of the director’s most underrated works.
I’m sure even some Hitchcock fans might have glazed this over, prematurely judging how ‘less’ a work this is as compared to the likes of Rear Window (1954) or Psycho (1960).
Please allow me to set the record straight: Stage Fright may be nowhere near the heights of his masterworks, but it is a superb film, one that stars Jane Wyman as Eve, a struggling stage actress who inadvertently becomes involved in a murder case when she tries to hide her good friend, allegedly the prime suspect. Screen goddess Marlene Dietrich also stars as Charlotte, a high-society performer whose late husband is the deceased in question.
One of the reasons why Stage Fright works so well, despite the conventional premise of its murder plot, is Wyman and Dietrich’s performances. Their characters are fully fleshed-out, with Hitchcock taking time to develop their relational dynamics.
“Oh, darling, don’t confide in me. Pour some tea, will you?”
A film that subsumes its mystery into the drama that unfolds, Stage Fright starts off intriguingly with the aftermath of the murder, and patiently brings us into its world of deception and half-truths.
After a while, and this is to Hitchcock’s credit, who the murderer is becomes less important; what emerges instead is a fascinating battle between Eve and Charlotte as the former tries to pin the murder on the latter.
It is a game of two faces, performed with dexterity by Wyman who becomes two characters in one, digging herself into an ever-widening hole that she might not come out of. Hitchcock milks most of the suspense through this—after all life’s a stage, and stage fright is what you get when life’s uncertain.
Its climax, fittingly set in an empty performance venue (when truth is threatened to be revealed, can one act anymore?), is a tour de force, and one of Hitchcock’s most satisfying denouements.
Stage Fright is a spellbinding work, and the best thing about it is that it dictates its own pace, and asks of the audience to follow suit.