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Warner Home Video presents
Stage Fright (1950)

"Hands that applaud can also kill!"
- Tagline

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: September 06, 2004

Stars: Jane Wyman, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Marlene Dietrich
Other Stars: Alistair Sim, Dame Sybil Thorndike
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (suspense)
Run Time: 01h:49m:50s
Release Date: September 07, 2004
UPC: 085393981426
Genre: suspense thriller


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ C+BC- B-

DVD Review

Audiences in general, and American audiences in particular, don't like to be made a fool of at the movies. They like to go in knowing what to expect and feel like they are smarter than the screenplay throughout; how else to explain the continued mainstream success of mindless-but-fun timewasters like Pirates of the Caribbean? Art films are held to a different standard, and there is some pseudo-intellectual pleasure in pretending you know what's going on in Mulholland Dr., or pretending it's fun to discuss. But when it comes to mass-market, mainstream entertainment, like, say, an Alfred Hitchcock movie, audiences will accept plot twists, suspense, and action, but they won't accept being lied to. Or, at least, they didn't upon the release of Stage Fright, a minor entry in the Hitchcock cannon that was greeted with tepid critical reaction (which lingers to this day) because the entire story is built on a lie.

The story begins with a flashback, as Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) tells Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) of his plight—he's running from the police, wrongly implicated in the murder of his mistress' husband. He tells her the wife, stage siren Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) was the real killer, albeit accidentally, and he was merely attempting to cover up the crime for her when he was spotted by a maid. Eve, an actress in training, nursing a crush on the wronged man, aggrees to help him, first by hiding him at her father's (Alistair Sim) house, then by posing as Inwood's maid and trying to dig up dirt on the crime, which she believes may not have been an accident at all.

Though Stage Fright is, like every Hitchcock picture, wonderfully entertaining and smartly directed, it feels a little looser and less immediate than his best films. One of the few films Hitchcock made in England after coming to Hollywood in the late 1930s, it has a leisurely pace with frequent digressions into British humor. Though the story carries with it a surprise ending (which basically negates everything that has gone before), there isn't much in the way of suspense, and not for a minute is the picture ever truly scary.

But even if it isn't Psycho, Stage Fright is full of worthwhile moments, thanks largely to the wonderful cast. Though Wyland is the star (in a role that makes good use of her comic talents, particularly as she impersonates the cockney housekeeper and argues back and forth with her father), Dietrich steals the show, despite minimal screen time. Inwood is the vamp, of course, and Dietrich, a film legend who most certainly deserves her reputation, plays it to the hilt. She even sings an original Cole Porter tune, The Laziest Girl in Town which became a staple of her live performances. Sim has a ball as Eve's droll father, who gets caught up in the mystery, and Michael Wilding plays it straight as a detective trying to solve the case (while he falls for Eve). The love story feels rather rushed and underdeveloped, and Hitchcock offers up some odd moments, like a near-slapstick scene at a carnival with character actress Joyce Grenfell, almost as a way of admitting there isn't much to the mystery at hand, so why don't we just have a bit of fun over here?

And of course, though it may be something of a cliché to say it, a bad Hitchcock film is still better than the best most directors could hope for, and if nothing else, he proves here that he can make an interesting film out of even the most flawed, meandering screenplay. The director has gone on record as saying that he counts Stage Fright's trick on the audience as one of the chief failures of his film career (second only to a mishandled suspense sequence in Sabotage), but I think he's selling himself short. By challenging the audience to rethink everything they think they know about film language and narrative technique, he turns a middling film into a flawed, but worthy addition to film history.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Though not as cleaned up as many of Warner's top shelf titles, Stage Fright still looks decent on DVD. The source material is fairly clean, showing only occasional scratches and a bit of dust and dirt. The image is fairly grainy at times, particularly in some darker scenes, but contrast remains sharp throughout. There are a few noticeable jump cuts and skipped frames, and some of Hitchcock's camera tricks are given away by the increased resolution (including a cool composited shot with Dietrich large in the foreground and action with Todd in the background).

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: What was already a fairly airy, inconsistent mono mix (with a bit of background hiss and limited range that makes vocals and music sound a bit shrill) is made worse by the fact that the audio is frequently out of synch with the image, so speech doesn't quite match mouth movements. I don't know if the film was always shown that way, but it is a noticeable distraction, and something I think they would have been able to fix with digital remastering.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Each of the titles in Warner's Hitchcock Signature Collection includes a new 20-minute documentary from famed DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau. Taken individually, they're interesting, but be warned—seven of the nine titles' docs include the same group of four or five speakers, including critics like Richard Osborne, filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich, and Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, and can get a little repetitive.

Stage Fright's piece is interesting because the interviewees discuss why it is generally considered a misfire, even by the director himself. Don't watch this first, by the way, because they give away the twist ending almost instantly. The majority of the 20-minute piece focuses on the actors, with appropriate clips from the film, but there isn't a lot of real information there, just opinions from the critics. Overall, it's a typically glossy, fast-moving, interview-heavy Bouzereau piece.

The only other extra is the trailer, which highlights Wyman's presence with a clip of her accepting awards for her performance in Johnny Belinda. Unlike many old trailers, it doesn't unwittingly give away the twist ending (in contrast with many recent trailers, which intentionally give away the twist ending).

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

Stage Fright is generally recognized as one of the lesser entries in Hitchcock's filmography, but it's still an interesting one. It's never truly shocking or suspenseful, but it is entertaining, with a showy performance from Marlene Dietrich and a twist ending that was daring for the time, and it deserves it's place in Warner's Signature Collection boxed set.

 


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