Thursday, February 11, 2016

Stage Fright (1950)

Film: Stage Fright (1950)
Stars: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Watching an Alfred Hitchcock classic for the first time is a bit of a thrill.  So many of my favorite movies of Hollywood's Golden Age were made by the great director, the man who brought us The Birds and Psycho and Vertigo, that seeing one of his movies that I don't have completely memorized is a bit of a bizarre circumstance, as you almost feel like you should be quoting alongside it.  That was the case with Stage Fright, which with its big-name stars Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich, seems like the sort of movie that I should be going at verbatim.  Still, I had never seen Stage Fright until last night in my quest to find more room on my DVR (this 31 Days of Oscar is really helping me cross a lot of pictures off my list, and get eliminated things that have been lounging about my Genie for months), and so I decided that it was a cold Wednesday night and perhaps I should give it a go.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film may not be what one instantly thinks of when you list Hitchcock's greatest movies, but it is definitely one that feels like it should be listed amongst his finest.  After all, we have a legend like Marlene Dietrich, playing a cabaret-style actress Charlotte Inwood, in the lead.  Dietrich, known for her onscreen enigma and glamour, is the perfect star for a Hitchcock picture, and indeed she lives up to the hype.  Her Charlotte, a woman we assume throughout most of the movie has killed her husband, is a great Hitchcockian creation.  She frequently is flirting and romancing pretty much everyone onscreen, and there's a sexuality to her that is undeniable.  Dietrich, over forty when this picture arrived, still has that intense glamour that radiates in every scene and in many ways reminded me of Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars so many years later (who was clearly borrowing from her), what with her bored attitude to the stage and those who worshiped her behind it.

If only the rest of the film had been able to equal Dietrich's allure and magnetism, but alas the film's remainder is in the hands of the lesser Jane Wyman.  Wyman is a celebrated actress, admittedly, with a number of fans in different corners of the cinema but I will admit right now I have yet to find the role that really sells me on the Oscar winner.  Her Eve is not going to be that performance for me, it turns out, even though I had high hopes that Hitchcock would have found some way to make her work.  Playing a frumpy busybody trying to clear her friend/crush Jonathan Cooper (Todd), her motivations and accents are all over the place.  She's playing the daughter of Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike, quite possibly the two most British human beings ever to grace a movie screen, and yet she can't bother to have an accent to match her parents and almost the entire surrounding cast.  Plus, she constantly is falling in and out of love and can't sell her character's naivete/newfound moxie and it feels like she's re-approaching the character in every different scene.  Dietrich, who disliked Wyman immensely, made a comment about how Wyman "looks too much like the victim to play the heroine," which may have been catty but it's spot-on-Wyman makes Eve seem like someone just waiting for her detective boyfriend to figure out what to do next, rather than taking on the task herself.

Still, no single actor can weigh down a Hitchcock picture completely, and while this film doesn't have the excellent and iconic scenes of say, Cary Grant running from a plane or Janet Leigh taking a stressful shower, there's still so much to celebrate visually, particularly the brilliant lighting on Dietrich or the way that Alastair Sim fiendishly cuts his own hand to try and incriminate Dietrich.  I loved the dotty old woman played by Thorndike (it's rare that Hitchcock has humor this opaque, but it works), and Richard Todd's Jonathan seems to borrow just a hint from the Hitchcock's "queer" character file, enough so that I wondered if there might have been some holdover from Rope.  The mystery itself may be easy to solve for modern audiences, but I imagine that audiences at the time were baffled about the flashback, where we had a misleading narrator in Jonathan (it was unprecedented at the time for a flashback to feature a lie).  Overall I had an excellent time, even if Wyman deterred the film from becoming a classic.

Those are my thoughts on this movie-how about yours?  Who has seen the Hitchcock thriller Stage Fright?  What are some missing holes you have in Hitch's filmography?  Is Ordinary Smith or Chubby Bannister the better moniker?  And what is the role that will finally convince me to love Jane Wyman?

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