director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: Whitfield Cook/Ranald MacDougall/Alma Reville/from a novel “Man Running” by Selwyn Jepson; cinematographer: Wilkie Cooper; editor: E. B. Jarvis; Marlene Dietrich (Charlotte Inwood), Jane Wyman (Eve Gill), Richard Todd (Jonathan Cooper), Michael Wilding (Inspector Wilfred Smith), Alastair Sim (Commodore Gill), Sybil Thorndike (Mrs. Gill), Kay Walsh (Nellie Goode), Hector MacGregor (Freddie Williams), Joyce Grenfell (Shooting Gallery Attendant), Ballard Berkeley (Sergeant Mellish); Runtime: 110; Warner/ABPC; 1950-UK)

“Stage Fright is hardly frightening.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stage Fright is hardly frightening. It’s a laudable movie that features Hitchcock’s droll humor. It’s a mystery tale that is not too difficult to figure out who the guilty party is. The fun comes in playing along with the man on the run theme and to follow along with his love stricken heroine and her eccentric family. The peerless Marlene Dietrich is just delicious as Charlotte Inwood, a stage actress/chanteuse with a rather vulgar personality and an odd sense of humor, who rules the London stage world as if she were a pampered peacock with fangs. Stage Fright is more of a romantic comedy than a suspense film, though there is an element of grave danger that comes about in the final scene for the heroine.

I simply loved the film even though I was not crazy about the choice of Jane Wyman as Eve Gill, the perky ingenue, an amateur actress who falls in love with a detective while helping her boyfriend escape. She turns her heart over to the detective upon hearing a beautiful piano rendition played by him. Jane Wyman is certainly acceptable in this damsel-in-distress role, but doesn’t really sparkle like a Grace Kelly.

This film, the second one Hitchcock has done in England since his return from America, is one of the master’s most subtle and sharpest comic efforts. It investigates the deceptions people use to hide the truth about themselves, as lying is taken a step further and made into an art form by all the characters except for the detective and the heroine’s slightly off kilter mother. Stage Fright is sandwiched in between Hitchcock’s “Under Capricorn” and “Strangers on a Train”, and is equal to if not better than both.

Hitch starts out with the panicky Jonathan Cooper (Todd) telling his only friend in the world, Eve Gill (Wyman), who is hurriedly driving him to a hideout because she loves and trusts him. He tells her that he’s implicated in a murder and that the husband of Charlotte Inwood was just murdered. He states that he’s been framed by Charlotte.

In a flashback the story is related from Jonathan’s point of view, as he tells Eve how Charlotte and he were lovers and that she came to his flat with blood on her dress asking him as a favor to return to her flat and get her another dress so that she can get to the stage on time to appear in the hit show. In the trick flashback (Hitch is playing games with the audience on this one) we see Jonathan spotted by the housekeeper, a rather dour individual called Nellie Goode (Kay), as he is running from Charlotte’s place with a dress under his arm. That misleading eyewitness report is why Jonathan tells Eve he needs her help to escape from the police and she responds by taking him to see her father, the Commodore (Sims), who couldn’t be funnier in his droll role. He’s separated from his wife (Sybil) and living on his boat, romanticizing that he is a smuggler.

Anxious to help her boyfriend out, whom she believes is innocent, she befriends the handsome young detective assigned to the case, Wilfred Smith (Wilding), when she follows him into a pub after seeing him leave Charlotte’s flat. Smith falls for her and drives her home, making a tea date at her mother’s place. She next connives Nellie with some money, to say that she is her cousin and will send her as a replacement maid and dresser to Charlotte for a few days because of her illness. While being Charlotte’s dresser, she is convinced she will exonerate her boyfriend by getting some information on the actress. What she learns is that Charlotte’s real boyfriend is her stage manager Freddie Williams (MacGregor), and that Charlotte could care less that her husband is dead. She only seems glad that her musical show is even a bigger hit than before because of all the murder story publicity.

Eve, who is a student with RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and is an aspiring actress, gets the detective to take her to their charity garden party. She hopes to get the detective to see he is on the wrong track chasing Jonathan when it is Charlotte who is the murderer. Eve gets her father to help, even if he doubts her old boyfriend is innocent. He, nevertheless, comes up with a plan to have a cub scout go up to the stage where Charlotte is singing and show her a doll whose dress is smeared with blood. This puts a fright into Charlotte.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Eve blackmails Charlotte when they are back in the theater, getting her to offer to buy the blood-smeared dress back from her at a ridiculously high price. The police listen in on the conversation. This works but the only trouble is, that Eve is the last one in the film to find out that her boyfriend really is guilty. As a result, she is trapped alone with him in the theater as the police hunt him down.

This is certainly not Hitchcock’s best work — it is not suspenseful enough for that, after all the master of suspense should live up to his reputation. But the film is diverting and artfully done, and Dietrich was never better.