Review: Stage Fright (1950)

Posted by Brandy Dean March 7, 2013 6 Comments 9430 views

As I was watching Stage Fright, it occurred to me that the old saw about sex and pizza applies to Hitchcock’s lesser works as well. Stage Fright isn’t the greatest, but it’s still pretty good. Of course, I’m comparing Hitchcock to himself here. Compared to other thrillers playing in your local theater in 1950, Stage Fright probably ranks pretty high. At any rate, I’m big big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, but this movie sailed right past me. When I saw it in the TCM lineup, I had to do a double take. How did this one completely escape me?

I’m a bit conflicted about what to include in this review, and what to leave out. Generally, I don’t bother myself with being concerned about spoilers. Some of the movies I watch are 100 years old. What’s the point of not “giving away” the plot points? Stage Fright is 61 years old (a great looking 60, granted), and if you know anything about it or even read a capsule review, you might already know. But I didn’t know… at all. I didn’t even know there was anything to know, so it’s hard for me to judge how knowing would have affected my viewing and my reaction to the movie. See, now I’ve told you there something to know… and you know there’s something to know, which I didn’t know… agh! I will try to tip toe around the spoiler, and if all you know is that there’s something to know, watch the movie before you know more.

Here’s what is great about Stage Fright: it’s thoroughly Hitchcockian. If you love Hitchcock, you know what I mean. From the score to the set up to the pacing to the shots, it’s Hitchcock through and through. But Stage Fright also embraces that alternate side of Hitchcock which is typically absent from “golden era” Hitch films like Vertigo and Rear Window. That darkly humorous, wryly playful Hitchcock that shows up early and late in his career – think (the first) The Man Who Knew Too Much meets The Trouble with Harry – makes a rare ’50s appearance in this movie.

Here’s what’s lacking in Stage Fright: great acting. True, we have the incomparable Marlene Dietrich, but I’m not sure Hitchcock really knows what to do with that kind of female personality. She’s no delicate blonde doll after all, nor is she ever a straight up femme fatale. Dietrich is complicated and she feels a bit wasted in this movie. Jane Wyman takes the lead here and she’s okay. But Jane Wyman is no Doris Day and Richard Todd can’t even serve Jimmy Stewart a drink. Again, the actors are serviceable, just not fantastic.

The film starts, after the raising of “The Safety Curtain” on a theater stage, with something we expect from Alfred Hitchcock – a man wrongly accused a crime and a plucky sweetheart who believes him and is willing to work her tail off to prove him innocent. Then we’re drawn into the stage actor’s world, where everyone is overly dramatic and never, ever tells the truth. Eve Gill, that plucky gal, is a drama student and aspirining actress who is eager to try on the role of a Nancy Drew-ish girl detective, complete with false identities, fake accents, and physical disguises. Eve’s father Commodore Gill (played by Alistair Sim) is deeply invested in fancying himself a smuggler. Dietrich’s Charlotte Inwood plays the part of grieving widow like a champ, all the while lamenting the dreary blackness and prudery of widow’s weeds. Through the power of narrative irony, we the viewers know what is true and what is not true, and we are dazzled by the piling on of lies, deceptions, half truths, and dissimulation. It’s starting to feel like a meta-examination of the inherent falsehood of the craft of actors.

And then… well I’ll stop. Hitchcock’s Stage Fright takes a hard left. Not quite the narrative u-turn Psycho will take some years later, but a shocking, confounding, and (in its time) controversial turn. I’ll say that the film becomes a meta-examination of the inherent falsehood of an entirely different kind of craft. If you haven’t seen Stage Fright, go watch it. And before you get your knickers in a twist, remember, as Jean Luc-Goddard said, “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”

Gallery of Images from Stage Fright

Watch the trailer for Stage Fright

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Watch a delightful compilation of Hitchcock cameo’s, including Stage Fright

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Further Reading (after watching of course!):

A very erudite examination of Stage Fright from Senses of Cinema.

A critical take from This Distracted Globe.

A closer look at the original work Stage Fright was adapted from.

About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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There are 6 Comments

  1. - May 30, 2011
      -   Reply

    I have run across the odd person here and there, who gets really peeved at you-know-what in “Stage Fright”. I ask them if this is the first movie, particularly a crime picture, they have ever seen where a character lied. That usually brings them up short.

    I’m a huge Jane Wyman and Richard Todd fan and wouldn’t want anyone else in the movie. Any time spent watching Sybil Thorndike and Alastair Sim is a grand time.

    • - May 30, 2011
        -   Reply

      I have to agree with you regarding the peevishness… For me it’s not an issue at all and sometimes unreliable narrators are the best of all. I think you could debate the effectiveness with which Hitchcock executes the device, but I don’t argue with the decision (or the ethics) to use it.

      It is perhaps horribly unfair of me to compare Wyman and Todd to Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart. Todd certainly does not have much meat to gnaw on in the role of Cooper, Copper being an almost invisible character (our first clue perhaps?). I didn’t totally dislike Wyman in this movie, but for me there’s a bit of disconnect in someway… maybe the gap between her seeming innocence and the ease with which she lies? I’m certainly not disparaging Wyman in general, and only noting the way I reacted to her in this Hitchcock film.

  2. Pingback Hitchcock: Order in Chaos « Pretty Clever Films

  3. Pingback Original New York Times Review of Hitchcock’s Stage Fright « Pretty Clever Films

  4. - March 9, 2013
      -   Reply

    I quite like this film. True, it’s not Hitchcock’s best but I really like the fact that we, as an audience, were lied to in grand fashion. It’s a good reminder that we only know what the movie chooses tells us.

    I especially like that Hitchcock cast Wyman in this role because it’s something you never see coming.

    Terrific post and good discussion. I need to see this movie again.

  5. - March 26, 2013
      -   Reply

    I think it’s terrible. The ending is frustrating. A cheat — not unlike Suspicion, another stinker by the master. A textbook case of bad plotting. Hitchcock was at least honest when he discussed the film with Francois Truffaut. He knew when he screwed up.

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