Sudden Fear (1952)

Directed by David Miller
Cinematography Charles Lang

The Homme Fatale in Sudden Fear

“See, I’m not the kind of man who can live on his wife’s money.”

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We’re twenty-four minutes into the film Sudden Fear when we realize that the main male character, actor Lester Blaine played by Jack Palance is rotten, and it’s this knowledge that acts as a suspense builder in this taut noir film—a tale of greed, adultery and murder. Up to this point, we’ve just suspected Lester’s intentions, but now our doubts are proved correct. Sudden Fear, a woman-in-jeopardy noir with Joan Crawford playing heiress, Myra Hudson—is the tale of a woman who may meet a foul end at the hands of her deceptive, less-than-loving husband, Lester. For a large chunk of the action, Myra is oblivious to her husband’s evil intentions, but since the plot lets the audience in on the threat, we are committed to the suspense from the start. As spectators, we know that Myra is in danger, and so we are riveted to Lester’s devious plan to rid himself of a wife he so obviously loathes.

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Sudden Fear based on a novel by Edna Sherry, brought Crawford her third and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Directed by David Miller this 1952 film was the first picture Crawford made for RKO after asking to be released from her Warner Bros. contract. Crawford hated her last Warner Brothers film–This Woman is Dangerous. The film cast her in a rather spongy, implausible role as a female gangster who loses her eyesight and then turns soft and weepy when faced with a possible future as a happy little housewife. For noir fans, Sudden Fear showcases Crawford in one of her most powerful roles.

When Sudden Fear begins, wealthy playwright Myra Hudson is in New York casting for her new play. Lester Blaine lands the part of the leading man, but during rehearsals, Myra finds him lacking as a romantic hero. She abruptly, publicly, and rather callously fires him on the spot. Myra’s advisors think she’s making a mistake, but since Myra always gets her way, a disgruntled and bitter Lester exits the stage.

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Myra’s play is a raging success, and she’s due to return home to San Francisco by train. Is it coincidence that Lester Blaine just happens to turn up as a passenger on the same train? Myra seems to think so, but in light of Lester’s humiliation, somehow, his statement that he has no hard feelings towards Myra just doesn’t feel right. On the train journey to San Francisco, Lester entertains and woos Myra, and by the time they reach their destination, Myra is in love. Lester seems to be the perfect lover, and he certainly has perfected the symptoms of an enamored man. He’s attentive, sensitive and gentle, and Myra, who’s smitten by the romance, seems oblivious to the differences in their ages and social status.

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Myra may be swept along with Lester Blaine’s smooth style, but for audience members, that niggling doubt remains. At this point, however, Lester’s game may be mean-spirited revenge, or perhaps he’s a pathetic loser after her money. But one brilliantly constructed scene clarifies Lester’s manipulation and Myra’s vulnerability. Lester fails to show up for an evening at Myra’s splendid home, and Myra ditches her guests to seek out her missing beau. While she dashes to his hotel, we see Lester pacing back and forth, waiting only for Myra’s arrival to begin a performance that involves his pride, a suitcase and a one-way trip back to New York. It’s with this scene and its clever camera shots that Lester is revealed as the center of power in the relationship, less-than-sincere and dangerously manipulative in his professions of love.

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After we become aware of Lester’s true intentions, the suspense moves away from the question of what Lester is capable of to when and how Myra will have an “accident.” The plot plays with scenes at Myra’s gorgeous coastal cliff top home. The steep stairway to the ocean, carved into rock offers the perfect location for a nasty accident. Since the audience knows that Lester has evil intentions towards his wealthy wife, we are riveted to Myra’s nimble walk (in high heels) down the rocky staircase. We can wince all we want at the spectacle of Myra’s potential danger, but we are powerless to warn her.

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Another clever device used as a suspense builder by the film is the use of Myra’s recording machine. The plot reveals this nifty little piece of technology early in the film—along with a demonstration of its abilities. The machine is a crucial part of the plot, but as it turns out, machinery may be relied on for its usefulness, but it’s still subject to the vagaries of human emotion.

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The plot thickens when tarty, brash Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame, one of my all-time favorite noir stars) arrives on the scene as Lester’s vicious love interest. Irene hasn’t been invited to San Francisco, but she wheedles her way into Myra’s exclusive set nonetheless. Greedy and amoral, she accelerates Lester’s desire for wealth, and together they make a lethal combination of lust, violence and murderous design. Clever camera shots of reflected images in mirrors reveal the main characters’ true emotions—Myra’s lawyer’s distrust of Lester, Irene planning murder, Lester’s mask of loving, doting husband suspended, and Myra horrified by just how far she’ll go.

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The film’s plot is as well rounded as a Greek tragedy, with just desserts for those who concoct evil ends for others. But it’s the delivery of those just desserts that makes for riveting viewing. The city of San Francisco assumes a spectacular role in Sudden Fear. The film includes great shots of the city, and it’s played here as both an ambivalent setting for nefarious actions, and also as a rat’s maze in the frenzied, final action-packed scenes. The city’s inanimate beauty serves to highlight urban indifference to its inhabitants’ actions.

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Sudden Fear gives Crawford a terrific role and gives her the chance to act her heart out. Here she’s the tough, cold businesswoman who melts with Lester’s continued interest. Weakened by emotion and threatened by violence, she spends one hysterical terror-filled night in the shifting shadows of her bedroom before going on the offensive in the no-one-fucks-with-Joan role fans love so much.

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The fact that Myra is a successful playwright is artfully weaved into the story when she imagines she can write her way out of a real-life problem just as she would write a script for one of her plays. Myra’s attempt to script her own life is seen in a series of imagined flashforward sequences. Unfortunately, since she is dealing with real people and not fictional characters, there’s an element of unpredictability that even Myra can’t anticipate. Just as the timing in a play must be precision perfect, Myra’s scheme also relies on split second sequencing. The film uses the ticking of a clock to emphasize the crucial timing involved in Myra’s plan. The clock ticks away like a metronome with the action and nerve-wracking suspense building to a frenzied, orgasmic, and deadly conclusion.

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Written by Guy Savage
Ladies and Gentlemen: Miss Joan Crawford is now a freelance actress!

It did not mean much to be queen of the Warners lot the last few years. If she had to struggle, why not struggle on her own! With time, place, and circumstance all perfectly aligned, Miss Crawford, with trepidation and a bit of magic, forges ahead and begins her 20-year freelance career. She embraced television along the way and gave herself more challenges. (I think of those lucky people sitting at home in the 50s, and Miss Joan Crawford appears in their living rooms — just as good as seeing Bette Davis or the Duke. Wow!)

Miss Crawford was defiantly not going to disappear, and with Pepsi-Cola on the horizon, she would soon be everywhere!

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This film challenged and elevated Miss Crawford and she elevated the audience! Sudden Fear is a good, crisp, clean thriller and is expertly cast and directed. The opening credits are good, with the musical score from the great Elmer Bernstein — he takes you right in and gets the heart beating and keeps it beating!

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Miss Crawford is generally excellent throughout. She gives us an intense night in the theatre. Her emotions fit the story and script perfectly, and her performance at this point in her career isn’t just showing off but damn good acting. I do not find much fault with this film because I can always count on it, and Miss Crawford provides me with a thrilling evening.

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Mr. Kaufman produces with the star in mind and the new way of doing business in Hollywood for a studio gal like Miss Crawford. This was big stuff, and Mr. Kaufman does everyone involved a favor by being a complete professional. Just wish he had more stories for Miss Crawford.

Miss Crawford herself was already behaving like a producer, as she was very concerned about the budget and hired director David Miller, a former film cutter from her MGM days. I think he and the cameraman and the editor captured some fine moments and held some scenes for quite some time and in other parts wasted no time; all which is hard to do — the cuts are top notch.’

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A closet, a gun, a car chase, a child’s toy, a ticking clock, a key, a bottle of poison, a birthday party , a scarf — all of these things are characters in the story. Hitchcock would have had fun with this one! Mr. Miller gives the audience some panic-stricken moments of pure terror and suspense, and it all blends well.

Miss Crawford’s acting ran a gamut, that is for sure. She is loving, waiting, sweating, running, hiding, thinking, and then there is a beautiful fade-out of Miss Crawford walking up a hill and going home and walking right into the camera. It is actually touching, and something of her spirit comes through with that fade-out. I love it!

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Her face is magnificent. Her face upstages herself! It should get co-billing. Miss Crawford holds your interest and the freelance world takes notice. Sudden Fear receives four Oscar nominations. (Miss Crawford receives her third nomination for Best Actress for this film.)

When all the elements are there, or most of them anyway, it is hard to miss. (I think Miss Crawford said that at one point and it is true.)

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Supporting Miss Crawford is the fresh Method actor Jack Palance. He is one rough dude, and despite all the rumors over his being cast, I think he made the role his own. He gives it the charm and sleaze that is standard in most bad men, and you believe he could be a killer and a thief and a two-timing no-good louse. The cameraman (an expert) had a hard time photographing Mr. Palance, and in the early scenes he looks a bit different. I saw this film at the Castro theatre in San Francisco and people laughed a little (which they will do at older films), and on the way out I heard a few people talking about how bad Mr. Palance and Miss Crawford looked. I was a bit mortified and I can see it now, but I think the camera work is a bit magical and adds some depth to the film process and the menacing script. Palance earned his Supporting Actor nomination and I was happy to see Miss Crawford’s film get the big Hollywood recognition.

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Ladies like Miss Crawford are horrified; ladies like Gloria Graham are intrigued and in love with the rat men. Gloria Graham is some of the best support Miss Crawford was going to get in the remaining decades. She makes her role the essence and epitome of lazy, evil trash-girl on the make, and wanting some cash to retire and live happily ever after! She makes the film wide awake when she walks in the room, and somehow things will not be the same! Miss Graham is wonderful and she won an Oscar for The Bold and theBeautiful, filmed and released the same year, and also starred in The Greatest Show on Earth. However, for me, Sudden Fear remains her best performance and defiantly Oscar-worthy.

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The other supporting cast members are strong and consistent: Bruce Bennett from, yes, Mildred Pierce has a few good moments of acting with his eyes. Virginia Huston of Flamingo Road is the perfect secretary; I bet she had more scenes and they were cut, because she just disappears. I like her persona. Mike Connors (of TV’s Mannix) handles his role with some ease and plays well. It could have been anybody in his part, but it was him and I think his acting is very confident.

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Sudden Fear is something Miss Crawford should be proud of. My only sadness is that, besides Baby Jane, she was never going to recapture or surprise us with one more good worthy role and mark her 50th year in show business in 1975 with an Emmy-worthy role or a very rare motion picture role deserving of her talents.

My other reason for loving this film: As a San Franciscan, I love seeing the city in its 50s glory. I know every spot where the actors appear, and every building. It is very nostalgic for me; I even worked in the house on Scott Street (catering), and I just crack up that Jack Palance lives at the bottom of the “crookedest street,” which is now a complete tourist venue.

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Other than a horrible nightgown that one reviewer wrote about (I totally agree, it is awful), costumer Miss O’Brien remains a question mark for me because of that thing. However, Miss Crawford looked very appealing and glamorous and classy, with the right amount of sex appeal that worked with the script.

Sudden Fear was a great moment in Miss Crawford’s career and our cinema. It is a wonderful film. Go see (rent) it tonight!

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