From: The Art of Alfred Hitchcock © 1976 and 1999 by Donald Spoto, published by Doubleday Anchor: New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland.  Excerpted here with the kind permission of the author and the publisher.

Alfred Hitchcock's STAGE FRIGHT

[Editor's note.  The Art of Alfred Hitchcock was Dr Spoto's first Hitchcock book, full of perceptive essays on the individual films.  Read this essay on Stage Fright attentively and you will be amply rewarded.  Spoto is a prolific biographer and scholar, author of more than twenty books, and is a Hitchcock authority.  His forthcoming book from Hutchinson is Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.]
                        I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
                        A stage, where every man must play a part,
                        And mine a sad one.
                                                                THE MERCHANT OF VENICE 

"THE ASPECT THAT INTRIGUED me is that it was a story about the theater," Hitchcock once said.  Produced in England just after Under Capricorn from a novel by Selwyn Jepson called Man Running, the screenplay by Whitfield Cook concerns Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), an aspiring actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, whose boyfriend Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) seeks her aid in establishing his innocence.  He insists that he is being framed for murdering the husband of actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), who took advantage of his infatuation for her.  Eve disguises herself as a maid, gains Charlotte's confidence, and with the help of Inspector Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding), nearly proves Charlotte was the murderer.  But she finally plays her role so well that Jonathan is in fact revealed to be the killer.  By this time Eve has transferred her affections to Wilfred Smith, and when Jonathan is killed trying to escape, the final frames suggest she may at last find a true relationship with the inspector.  

One of Hitchcock's least appreciated works, Stage Fright annoys some viewers because of its complex plot, its surprises, twists, double twists - and, most of all, by its bold use of an opening false flashback, an account told by a murderer (and seen by us as he tells it to another) and therefore finally revealed as a lie.  There's no doubt that this is a film demanding the most careful attention - but Hitchcock always deserves this attention, and our enrichment derives proportionately.  Stage Fright is in fact a major comic work, entirely worthy of the various significant talents who contributed to it. 

The safety curtain of an English theater slowly rises under the credits, revealing not a stage set, but real-life London in full motion; when the curtain is fully raised, we're pitched at once into the action of the story.  Immediately, the distinctions between appearance and reality, between theater life and street life, begin to blur.  Everything that follows is an interconnected series of ruses, costumes, lies and artifices, and everyone in the story plays a variety of real-life roles - a favorite Hitchcock motif, exploited as early as The 39 Steps.  As in Hitchcock's darker romances, appearances and identities slip and slide.  Nothing is certain in the world of disguises, performances, matinées and theatrical garden parties. 

The opening scene of flight from the police - in Eve Gill's open roadster - establishes the film's tripartite structure, a series of ever-slower journeys until the final stasis.  The film is built, in fact, like a rallentando - a gradual slowing down - from that first chase to the midpoint of the more leisurely ride in a taxi (the love scene between Eve and Wilfred), to the final motionless "ride" of Eve and Jonathan in the unused eighteenth-century stage-prop carriage.  Within this framework, Eve, a young novice actress, is disabused of her belief in the glamour of theater life and - precisely by successful multiple role-playing - first endangers herself and at last confronts the shifting and specious nature of her own romantic illusions.  

In this regard, it's crucial that at the end Eve must go under the stage, to confront a more paralyzing fear and to invent an ingenious acting ploy whereby she disarms a pathological killer and saves herself.  Real stage fright, in other words, is something beneath the stage, deeper than mere onstage panic.  Thus the melodramatic play in which Eve is first seen rehearsing at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (and in which she seems to be egregiously incompetent indeed) at last becomes a "thriller" from which she must extricate herself by a superlative performance.  

Besides Eve, Charlotte too is a performer, her demented lover Cooper is a performer, and everyone in the story plays roles.  "You're an actress.  You're playing a part.  No nerves when you're on," Jonathan tells Charlotte (although in the lying flashback), just after she begs him to "draw the curtains, Johnny!"  The scene points forward to the final horrific moment, when a stagehand is asked to "lower the iron curtain," effectively cutting off Jonathan's escape (and by implication, his head).  

Eve's father is also a role-player, in a portrait charmingly created by scenarist Whitfield Cook and engagingly rendered by the incomparable Scottish actor Alastair Sim (whose first name is misspelled on both opening and closing credits).  

"You're just dying to get into a part in this, and you know you are," Eve tells him. 

"A part in this melodramatic play, you mean," he replies, in a triumphant comic scene at his seaside cottage.  "That's the way you're treating it, Eve - as if it were a play you were acting in at the Academy.  Everything seems a fine acting role when you're stage-struck, doesn't it, my dear?  Here you have a plot, an interesting cast, even a costume [the blood-soaked dress].  Unfortunately, Eve, in this real and earnest life we must face the situation in all its bearings … [or else] you'll spend a few years in Holloway prison, meditating on the folly of transmuting melodrama into real life."  

Eve, we should note, is different things to different people.  To Jonathan she's a patient and helpful friend whose love for him he conveniently exploits.  To her father she's an apprentice actress ("You're my audience, Father!  I wish you'd give me a little applause now and then" - which he later does, after Charlotte is unmasked by Eve).  To Wilfred, she's an innocent actress.  To Nellie Good (Kay Walsh), she's a newspaper reporter wishing to disguise herself as the dresser's cousin, to gain access to Charlotte.  And to Charlotte she's Nellie's cousin Doris - whose name Charlotte can't quite seem to get right (she calls her Phyllis, Mavis and Elsie).  

Charlotte is a performer on a deeper level, too - her widowhood, especially, becomes her most pointed attempt at self-glamorizing ("Couldn't we work in a little color?" she asks about the funereal black outfit.  "Or let it plunge just a little in front?").  And she directs others - Eve especially - in their forms of address, their tones of voice, and their wardrobes.  

Quite early, we learn the truth about Jonathan, which Charlotte tells the police and which Eve overhears.  Charlotte is trying to exonerate herself from involvement in the crime, but what she says of Jonathan is true:  

"I suppose I shouldn't have seen him as often as I did, but I didn't realize how madly infatuated he was with me.  I just didn't realize.  You'll never know how much I blame myself for all this.  When my husband came back from New York last week and I told Johnny I couldn't see him, he kept on phoning me.  He wouldn't let me alone.  Oh, maybe if I'd agreed to see him he wouldn't have done this dreadful thing."

Dietrich's focused rendition of the Cole Porter song "The Laziest Gal in Town" is the film's clearest tip-off to the resolution of the plot; Hitchcock never, after all, merely inserts a song into a film without a powerful structural reason: "It's not that I shouldn't, it's not that I wouldn't, and you know that it's not that I couldn't - it's simply because I'm the laziest gal in town," she sings in a triumphant proclamation with multiple meanings.  Our first thought about the lyrics is obvious, but later we realize they're also a pointed reference to what she did with Jonathan, exploiting his fanatical devotion to the extreme that he killed her husband.  

But on its most serious level, this leisurely comic tale is but another Hitchcockian reflection on romantic illusion.  In this case, Eve's refusal to believe the guilt of the man she's in love with (in spite of overwhelming evidence) makes this film a kind of comic female version of The Paradine Case.  The crucial moment in this regard occurs when Eve's affections begin to shift from Jonathan to Wilfred, and this happens when Jonathan, seeking lodging with the Gills, embraces Eve.  Convinced of (what she thinks is) the ineradicable bond between Jonathan and Charlotte, she gazes at the piano and we (with her, from her viewpoint) remember the romantic piano melody played by Wilfred (shades of The Paradine Case again).  It's additionally important, therefore, that this sequence is at once followed by Eve's ride in the taxi with Wilfred, accompanied by the same music; it's one of the gentlest and sweetest love scenes in the Hitchcock canon.  

The taxi ride is also psychologically acute, although audiences today (unfairly, I think) find it a little arch and coy.  Wilfred and Eve are more interested in one another than in the logic of their own remarks, and finally they are so locked in the collusion of their romantic gaze that their words meld and become senseless inter-phrases.  Hitchcock is, at this point, one up on the sophisticates, for this is the gentlest puncture of the romantic fallacy.  It's the director's understanding little joke, a grace note to the richness of this undeservedly neglected comic masterpiece.