Accused of murdering the husband of famous stage actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), actor Jonathan Cooper goes on the run making a desperate plea of innocence to his friend Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), an aspiring actress. Eve believes him and along with the help of her father aids Jonathan into going into hiding. Eve and her father both believe Jonathan was framed, the most obvious suspect being Charlotte Inwood. Eve’s belief in her friend’s innocence is so strong that she decides to put her acting talents to work, posing as a maid/personal assistant of sorts in order to get close enough to Charlotte to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder and to clear Jonathan’s name.
In many ways Stage Fright could be considered a cousin film of sorts to Murder! (1930) one of Hitchcock’s earlier films, his third talking picture in fact. Both films prominently feature a murder (obviously) with the theatre as a backdrop for the story and both cleverly feature actors with strong feelings about said murders putting their skills to use in some pretty unique ways. Although both films may share a few thematic similarities, rest assured Stage Fright is no mere retread. While its true that Stage Fright is one of Hitchcock’s more low key films, many of the masters trademarks are in place such as the ordinary person thrust into an extra ordinary situation although in this film that familiar Hitchcock troupe gets a bit of a reversal in the sense that Wyman’s character thrusts herself into the middle of the case. Its a fresh twist and Hitchcock would later take a similar approach to the device with Paul Newman’s character in the equally underrated Torn Curtain (1966). Its true that Stage Fright might not be as overtly suspenseful as may of Hitchcock’s other films although as it stands it certainly isn’t lacking any either especially when taking into consideration the manner in which Hitchcock chose to present the material. The moments leading up to the films finale in particular are an exercise in nail biting tension, pure Hitchcock it its execution and the backstage setting lends a major hand in one of Hitchcock’s most innovative ways of disposing of a character.
It should comes as no surprise to anyone that Marlene Dietrich owns the film, stealing every scene she’s in with ease with all her flamboyant glory, and said flamboyance was more than perfect for the films very British sense of humor. While not an all out comedy, Stage Fright is one of Hitchcock’s more overtly humorous films, Hitchcock’s cameo in the film is defiantly one of his most memorable not to mention perfectly timed with one of the films more hilarious moments featuring Wyman trying out a phony cockney accent. Going back to Dietrich, her role in the film wasn’t limited to just acting. On the contrary, she virtually directed herself taking control of the lighting and camera placements for all of her scenes, something which Hitchcock surprisingly didn’t object to and its no wonder considering the results on the screen as the lighting for all of the scenes involving Charlotte is for lack of a better term, impeccable. The scene where Wyman first meets Charlotte in particular stands out with Dietrich looking like the ultimate femme fatale (although this is basically the case for whenever she’s on screen) with the lighting perfectly complimenting her black funeral garb. The moments leading up to the films climax are yet another example of artistry with light, this time all Hitchcock as he chose to obscure the majority of the surroundings in complete darkness with the exception of the eyes of the two participating actors in the scene making the events even more unbearably tense.
For Stage Fright Hitchcock employed a device that audiences in 1950 simply were not ready for and felt blindsided. As a result the reaction to the film was less than favorable. Even Hitchcock himself later regretted using it even going so far as calling it the second biggest mistake he ever made, the first being the scene with on the bus in Sabotage (1936). In the years since Stage Fright its become pretty common place in films but back then it was considered quite radical, and it is somewhat puzzling that the film isn’t one of Hitchcock’s more well known when considering just how revolutionary his using of this particular device was. Some believe that the films reputation suffered over the years due to Hitchcock constantly stating his regret over his usage of that one trope while others would attribute the reason behind the status of the film as it simply became overshadowed by the films Hitchcock would follow it up with for Warner Brothers such as Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M For Murder (1954) and The Wrong Man (1956) not to mention the other certifiable masterpieces Hitchcock helmed during this period that weren’t distributed by Warner Brothers. Regardless of the reason, Stage Fright is more than worthy of standing alongside other Hitchcock classics and although it may not be the most thrilling of Hitchcock's films, its certainly one of his most entertaining.