Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlene Dietrich, Jane Wyman, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Alastair Sim, Patricia Hitchcock, Dame Sybil Thorndike, Joyce Greenfell, Kay Walsh
Written by: Whitfield Cook, Alma Reville, James Bride, based on a novel by Selwyn Jepson
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 110
Date: 23/02/1950

Stage Fright (1950)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Curtain Thrall

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Stage Fright on DVD

In 1950 three women played grand old actresses in three major movies. Each played a big star (or a faded star) with a serious diva complex. Two of them rode to the top in the biggest films of the year, while the third has unfairly languished behind.

That year, Bette Davis was 42 in All About Eve, Gloria Swanson was 53 in Sunset Boulevard and Marlene Dietrich fell between them, at age 49 in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright. Admittedly, Hitch didn't have nearly as much to say as did Joseph L. Mankiewicz or Billy Wilder with their opuses. Nonetheless, Dietrich is magnificently luminous and her work deserved just as much attention.

Ultimately, though, the rest of Stage Fright just doesn't live up to Dietrich. At least in those other two films, the scale and dialogue matched up to the actress's charisma. Here, Dietrich is surrounded by a cast and story that's just a good Hitchcock picture -- but not a great one.

In trouble, Johnathan (Richard Todd) comes running to his best friend, Eve (Jane Wyman) with a terrible story. Johnanthan's beloved Charlotte Inwood (Dietrich) has appeared on his doorstep wearing a bloody dress, her husband murdered. Eve helps Johnny hide with her reclusive father (Alastair Sim) then uses her acting skills to go undercover as Charlotte's dresser to help clear her friend. Meanwhile a detective (Michael Wilding) comes snooping along; Eve befriends him but jeopardizes her cover.

Aside from Dietrich, Sim (Ebeneezer Scrooge in 1951's A Christmas Carol) seems to be the only cast member who enjoys himself here, playing his scenes with a wry energy that demands others follow. The rest of the film suffers from a strange lethargy, as if Hitchcock were suffering from a cold and couldn't concentrate properly. One of its biggest problems comes right at the beginning. Johnny tells his story to Eve in flashback, but just because we see these events it doesn�t mean that they actually happened. By opening the film with this confusion and failing to establish the rules, Hitchcock cheats the audience. And while he was known for "playing us like a piano," he always, always stuck to a certain code of ethics.

Nonetheless, as Francois Truffaut would no doubt say, even a lesser Hitchcock film is as good as a great film by nearly anyone else. So come to Stage Fright for Dietrich and Sim and stay for the Hitchcock touch.

DVD Details: The DVD comes with a new making-of documentary and a trailer.

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