The story was adapted for the screen by Whitfield Cook, Ranald MacDougall and Alma Reville (the director's wife), with additional dialogue by James Bridie, based on the novel Man Running by Selwyn Jepson.
Much of the plot has a theatrical setting. There is a female protagonist, and early on, the film features an account by an unreliable narrator, which the audience sees as a flashback. The plot also is punctuated by numerous humorous scenes.
Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) is an aspiring actress at RADA. She is interrupted in rehearsal by her friend (and crush) and actor Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), the secret lover of flamboyant stage actress/singer Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). Via a flashback, he says Charlotte visited him after killing her husband; she was wearing a bloodstained dress. Jonathan claims he went back to her house for another dress, but was seen by Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh), Charlotte's cockney dresser. He escaped the police and needs help.
Eve takes him to her father's house on the coast to hide. Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim) notices that the blood on Charlotte's dress has been smeared on deliberately; he and Eve think that Jonathan was framed by Charlotte. Jonathan angrily destroys the dress and thus the most useful piece of evidence.
Eve starts to investigate. She hears Charlotte's dresser Nellie Goode boasting about the notoriety in a bar. While she is there, Eve meets Detective Inspector Wilfred O. Smith (Michael Wilding), and they become friendly. Eve then poses as a reporter; she bribes Nellie to tell Charlotte she is ill and to introduce her cousin "Doris Tinsdale" as a replacement. Using her acting skills, Eve becomes "Doris" and starts working for Charlotte. Eve discovers Charlotte is having an affair with her manager Freddie Williams (Hector MacGregor).
Eve and "Ordinary" Smith become more friendly. When Smith visits Charlotte, Eve has to disguise the fact that she is also "Doris" the maid. Smith makes a courtship visit to Eve and her mother at home, where the commodore drops subtle hints that Jonathan has left the seaside house.
Despite her widowed status, Charlotte continues to perform her West End musical show. Jonathan comes to her dressing room asking her to accompany him abroad. She casually tells him no, but he says he still has the bloodstained dress. The police search for Jonathan, and Eve again helps him escape. He hides at the Gill's London residence. He is grateful to Eve, but she is starting to fall in love with Detective Smith.
Smith and Eve kiss in a taxi on the way to the RADA garden party, where Nellie Goode confronts Eve, demanding more blackmail money. Eve does not have enough, so Eve's father comes to give Nellie more cash. Freddie Williams spots Eve (thinking she is "Doris") and orders her to help Charlotte, who is to sing on stage in a tent. During the performance, Commodore Gill gets a small boy to carry a doll wearing a bloodstained dress onto the stage as Charlotte sings "La Vie en Rose". Charlotte collapses and "Doris" has to help.
Seeing this, Smith confronts Eve and the commodore, but Eve proclaims her true affection for Smith as well as Jonathan's innocence. They persuade Smith to set Charlotte up. Once the theatre has closed, they use a hidden microphone and "Doris" tells Charlotte she has the bloodstained dress. Smith and his men listen using the theatre loudspeakers. Charlotte admits planning her husband's death, but says that Jonathan actually committed the murder. Charlotte offers Eve 10,000 pounds to keep quiet.
Eve sees that Jonathan has been brought to the theatre by the police, but he escapes. Charlotte realizes her conversation with Eve was broadcast to the detectives, and that she will be charged as an accessory to murder. Detective Smith tells the commodore that Jonathan really did kill Mr. Inwood and that Jonathan has killed before, though he got off on a plea of self-defense.
Hiding below stage, Jonathan confesses to Eve that Charlotte goaded him into killing her husband. His flashback story was all lies, and he was the one who smeared more blood onto the dress. He threatens to kill Eve to give a reason for pleading insanity, but she escapes, and in the confusion, Jonathan is killed by the stage's falling safety curtain.Jane Wyman as Eve Gill
Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte Inwood
Michael Wilding as Wilfred "Ordinary" Smith
Richard Todd as Jonathan Cooper
Alastair Sim as Commodore Gill
Sybil Thorndike as Mrs. Gill
Kay Walsh as Nellie Goode
Miles Malleson as Mr. Fortesque
Hector MacGregor as Freddie Williams
Joyce Grenfell as 'Lovely Ducks'
André Morell as Inspector Byard
Patricia Hitchcock as Chubby Bannister
Ballard Berkeley as Sergeant Mellish
Gordon Bell as Chauffeur
Though Hitchcock had lived and worked in Hollywood since 1939, this mystery/thriller, which is mixed with humour, was made in London locations. The only members of the cast who are not British are the two top-billed stars: Wyman and Dietrich.
Featured is an original Cole Porter song, "The Laziest Gal in Town", performed by Dietrich in a sultry fashion. Dietrich's costumes were designed by Christian Dior. Dietrich was allowed an unprecedented control of her shots by Hitchcock during the filming. When asked during the filming about working with the famously controlling, and technically adept Dietrich, Hitchcock replied "Everything is fine. Miss Dietrich has arranged the whole thing. She has told them exactly where to place the lights and how to photograph her." Later, he said of Dietrich "Marlene was a professional star. She was also a professional cameraman, art director, editor, costume designer, hairdresser, makeup woman, composer, producer and director."
Stage Fright garnered some adverse publicity upon its initial release due to the "lying flashback" seen near the beginning of the film. However, some film critics, including those of Cahiers du cinéma, see the flashback as simply being an illustration of one person's version of the events: the events as recounted by the character whose voice-over we hear, which was presumably Hitchcock's intention.
The film has a few extra-long takes, reminiscent of those that Hitchcock used in Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), both films produced by Hitchcock for Transatlantic Pictures in partnership with Sidney Bernstein and released by Warner Brothers. Stage Fright was originally intended to be a Transatlantic release, but became a Warners release instead.
The biography of Dietrich by her daughter said that Dietrich did not particularly like Jane Wyman, perhaps because they were such opposites.
Howard Maxford, author of The A-Z of Hitchcock: [The Ultimate Reference Guide], notes that some aspects of the Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters case have similarities to the plot of Stage Fright.
Although Stage Fright is based on Selwyn Jepson's short story "Man Running" (also known as "Outrun the Constable"), it differs in some ways. In the original story, Jonathan Cooper is called Jonathan Penrose, and Freddie Williams is the actual murderer.
Alfred Hitchcock's cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In Stage Fright, he can be seen 39 minutes into the film as a man on the street turning to look at Eve as she rehearses her scripted introduction speech to Mrs. Inwood.
In the 4 June 1950 edition of the New York Times, Hitchcock stated:
"In Stage Fright
, I have been told that my performance is quite juicy. I have been told this with a certain air of tolerance, implying that I have now achieved the maximum limits of directorial ham in the movie sandwich. It isn't true. There may have been a 'MacGuffin' in my film appearance, but not a ham."
Trade papers called the film a "notable box office attraction" in British cinemas in 1950.