Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hitchcock revisits early style in 'Stage Fright'

Stage Fright (1950)
Starring: Jane Wyman, Richard Todd, Michael Wilding, Marlene Dietrich, and Alastair Sim
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A flighty acting student (Wyman) tries to help a friend she thinks she's in love with (Todd) when it looks like he is being drawn into a murder cover-up by a manipulative diva (Dietrich). Things get even more complicated when she realizes she is actually in love with the police detective working to solve the murder (Wilding) and when she comes to fear that her friend was more than just an innocent bystander in the murder plot.

Although made in 1950, "Stage Fright" feels more like the movies Hitchcock made in the 1930s like "Young and Innocent" rather than his other films from around this same time, such as "Strangers on a Train". Maybe it's because of the English setting and characters, but for some reason, the mix of humor-to-suspense, the pacing of the story, and even the outcome, gives the film a tone that Hitchcock will never again use. Perhaps, as is suggested on the DVD commentary track, this film was Hitchcock's "goodbye" to England and that early part of his career, even if it came roughly a decade after his relocation to Hollywood. Everything I found so pleasant, charming, and oh-so-early-20th-century British about Hitchcock's early films are present in this

Some viewers may not like the quaintness of the film's characters, most of whom feel like they belong in an Agatha Christie novel, or perhaps even a detective novel directed at teenaged girls what with the central character been an independent-minded, if a naive and prone to over-romanticising everything, girl who is out to do the right thing, her way. (Although as far as that goes, this may well be one of the more "girl-friendly" mystery movies I've come across.)

However, it is that very quaint, old-fashioned nature of so many of the movies characters that make the villains seem all that more evil and twisted when their natures and motives come to light. The character played by Richard Todd--our young heroine's original love interest--seems all the more terrifying and threatening when his full psychopathic nature comes to light because he is surrounded by such otherwise gentle and fundementally well-mannered people. It is one of the most intense scenes in any Hitchcock film.

Another thing that works far better than it has a right to is the insta-romance featured in this picture. I've complained about this plot device in many films before--the one where characters meet and instantly fall in love because supposedly their Fated to be True Loves but in reality it's Dictated By Plot Needs--but here it actually works. Maybe I can buy into the sudden and complete romance between our heroine and the police detective because of the old-fashioned atmosphere that permeates the film, or maybe it's because of the clumsy and realistic way their relationship gets its start, but it was for once one I could buy into, and one that I found myself caring about when it looked like it was going to fall apart.

It could also be that I buy into the insta-romance because Jane Wyman's Eve and MIchael Wilding's "Ordinary" Smith are so likable both in the way they are acted and the way they are written that even my cynic's heart gave way to well-wishes and romantic impulses. The characters are charming and the actors have great on-screen charisma. Wyman and Wilding make perhaps one of the best couples to ever grace a Hitchcock film.

There is really only one downside to "Stage Fright", and it's one that critics and Hitchcock himself has slammed it for. The film opens with a "flashback" that we later learn isn't entirely true. Hithcock reportedly stated that he later regretted starting the movie that way, and critics have commented that a film should never include a flashback that's a lie. Personally, it didn't bother me that much, although I would have liked there to have been a clue or two that demonstrated the lie before it is explained to us so that I might have figured it out on my own, but perhaps my perspective is informed by the fact that I've sat through entire movies that turned out to be lies, such as "The Usual Suspects."

If you love the early Hitchcock movies, you need to check out "Stage Fright". Like so many of his British pictures, this is a sorely under-appreciated effort.