Beefing on Hitchcock
Alfred Htichcock's 36th major motion picture, Stage Fright, is a simple and unexpected twist on his classic "wrong man" style of story. It is far from being his finest film, yet it is definitely one of his most ambitious.
The film tells the story of a man on the run from the law. Jonathan (Richard Todd), an actor, has a secret lover, an actress Charlotte (Marlene Dietrich), who has admitted to him that she had murdered her husband, and believing it was in self-defense, he agrees to dispose of her blood-stained dress. After being seen running from the scene of the crime, he sought refuge with his friend Eve (Jane Wyman) who believes in his innocence. Eve and her father conclude that the stain has been smeared on purposefully and that Jonathan is being set-up by Charlotte. Eve goes undercover to prove his innocence, and after several twists and turns in the story, she discovers the truth behind the murder.
While Hitchcock has frequently used the story of the "wrong man" to drive his movies along, Stage Fright is unique in that it is the first to rely on what is called an "unreliable narrator." We, the audience, are shown a flashback early on in the film, to convey what the main protagonist is telling of his story. Since we are to believe this is our hero and it is common for us to take what they tell and show us at face value, we tend not to question it. As the story progresses though, his story and the flashback itself become questionable, leaving the audience wondering just what the truth is and who exactly committed this murder. There are a few other possible suspects aside from just Jonathan and Charlotte, which lends to the mystery even if you are aware of the possible deception within the story.
As is even more typical in Hitchcock's pictures, the crime and the "whodonit" element of the story act more as "macguffins" to drive along a budding romance between the leads. Going back through his catalog, you find plenty of instances where the man, wanted by the law for a crime he may or may not have committed, seeks refuge with (or drags along unwillingly) a lovely woman, and the two eventually fall madly in love with each other. I have always pointed out that the "Master of Suspense" had always focused more on love stories than he ever did on suspense and mystery... many times dismissing the believability of the plot completely simply because it pushed the romance forward. This film is no exception, and the leads, Todd and Wyman, work well off each other in a very nice on-screen chemistry that just makes the story work. You want them to win and live happily ever after.
Stage Fright is another of the lesser known Hitchcock films from this era. Sitting amidst a long run of "classics" and certainly right before nearly every one of his "greatest" films, I feel it's almost criminal that this was left off of the "Masterpiece Collection" blu-ray set. At the very least and the very most, The Criterion Collection should pick this one up, and when that ever happens, it will live comfortably on my shelf with all the rest.