Joan Crawford controls every aspect of this glamorous, Oscar nominated noir about a murderous marriage double-cross. Good acting enlivens a by-the-book, gimmick-laden plot, with every moment designed to flatter the star.
The Cohen Film Collection
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 110 min. / Street Date December 13, 2016 / 34.99
Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Bruce Bennett, Virginia Huston, Touch Connors, Bess Flowers, Taylor Holmes, Lewis Martin, Arthur Space.
Cinematography Charles Lang
Film Editor Leon Barsha
Art Director Boris Leven
Original Music Elmer Bernstein
Written by Lenore Coffee, Robert Smith from a novel by Edna Sherry
Produced by Joseph Kaufman
Directed by David Miller
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Joan Crawford movie Sudden Fear is an efficient and stylish thriller. Although it’s technically film noir, its story of a two-way murder frame-up is sublimated to the actress’s overpowering personality. It’s the first movie where Crawford was able to swing her considerable clout outside of direct studio oversight, and as a backseat producer she hit a home run. Despite its often laughably mechanical plot, the movie enjoys a sterling reputation. Good acting will do it every time. By 1952 Crawford had still not quite yet slipped into her forbidding late-career groove of playing strangely rigid, perpetually anguished women. She surrounds herself with bright talent and even shares the screen with a younger actress more beautiful than she. But la Crawford is learning the rules of late career survival, experimenting with heavier makeup and chiaroscuro film noir lighting to hide her advancing age.
Ah, the world of the Broadway theater! Experienced hit playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) has her life completely in balance. Her collaborators respect her, she has a devoted secretary in Ann Taylor (Virginia Hudson) and good business backing from attorney Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett). She’s also an heiress, but keeps her late father’s millions in trust and lives on her own self-made fortune. Myra is so self- possessed that she fires hot-shot leading man Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) on an instinctual whim, against the wishes of the director. As luck has it, Myra and Lester meet on a San Francisco- bound train. They get along so well that they’re ready for marriage by the time they reach her fancy mansion overlooking the bay. But there’s a hitch: Lester’s too-good-to-be-true behavior is mostly an act. As he maneuvers Myra into marriage, he’s already been contacted by his girlfriend Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame), a gorgeous but toxic blonde quicker to suggest murder than Lady Macbeth. Lester and Irene need to work fast. In a few days Myra will sign a new will, that they think will block Lester’s access to her father’s millions.
Is Myra Hudson a forgotten twin of Blanche Hudson, and sister to our beloved, profane Baby Jane Hudson? Just a couple of pictures later Joan would become a holy terror on Johnny Guitar, using her star clout to wage a war against a fellow actress and demand major story changes mid-shoot. Here she seems to have everything firmly in hand. Never ceding center stage, Crawfor keeps Sudden Fear as focused on one character as a complex noir tale can be. Scenes without Myra are minimized. Every dramatic high point is reserved for Myra, to the exclusion of others. We’ve all read about Crawford’s later films, where last minute rewrites deprived actresses like Betsy Palmer and Diane Baker of their key scenes, to instead give the star yet another emotional highlight. In Sudden Fear we only hear the audio of Irene and Lester’s nasty plotting to murder Myra, as it is played back on a dictaphone. “It’s all about Joan,” of course, as she gets a bravura two-minute grandstand opportunity, reacting in anguish to every cruel revelation on the recording. In the hardboiled kill-off finale, everything again plays off Crawford, and Gloria Grahame’s input is kept to an absolute minimum.
Try to imagine an alternate Casablanca, if Claude Rains were such a selfish and powerful star that he could control the cutting. Imagine the entire farewell scene staying with Captain Renault’s POV, with most of Rick and Ilsa’s romantic farewell either dropped, or played over reaction shots of Claude Rains. That’s often what happens in a Crawford-controlled movie. Some of them are so bad, that they’re watchable only to observe the phenomenon. The moral fabric of pictures like Female on the Beach and The Story of Esther Costello must be twisted in knots to a.) keep Crawford in focus to the exclusion of other actors, and b.) keep Crawford’s highly compromised characters technically clear of moral fault. In the final appraisal, Crawford’s characters are always innocent, and often selfrighteously innocent.
Now, I’m not arguing that Sudden Fear doesn’t work as a romantic mystery thriller… but it is limited by the fact that its only real mission is to showcase Ms. Crawford. To do so requires some clever plotting. (spoiler) When Myra finds out about her husband’s diabolical murder plans, she uses her skills as a playright to float a counter-scheme. Myra will beat Lester to the punch, shoot him dead, and then pin the murder rap on that peroxide hussy Irene. Myra doesn’t even need a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s How to Succeed in Homicide without Really Trying to formulate her scheme. It comes complete with a neatly-written itinerary to allow her to murder by the clock. She knows exactly when Lester and Irene will arrive at Irene’s apartment, as if one could really rely on people to keep their social schedule like a timetable.
Yes, Myra is all set to burst forth and shoot Lester, but will she go through with it? Ah, most of the movie consists of Myra/Joan going through multiple emotional changes. One minute she’s cowering in disappointment, horror and fear, and the next she’s become Lucretia Borgia. Lester has used an actor’s skills to hoodwink Myra, and now she’s using her writing skills to exact a high-class revenge. I do admire the highly cinematic scene in which Myra, hiding in a closet, must watch as Lester sets a wind-up kiddie toy in her direction. Will he hear her trying not to breathe? Will he see her chrome revolver, left out on the carpet in plain view? In mechanical terms Sudden Fear has good thriller punctuation.
Charles Lang’s noir lighting helps Crawford figure out ten new ways to throw shadows on her face for dramatic effect. It isn’t to hide her age quite yet, but it still seems as overdone as Myra’s many costume changes. Lang’s skill also contributes to the finale, a tense car vs. pedestrian chase on the steep San Francisco streets. It’s so good that it (as pointed out in the thorough commentary by Jeremy Arnold) a location change to Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill is completely disguised. Oddly, once Myra realizes that Lester realizes that Myra knows that Lester is trying to kill her, the ending chase scene is pretty anti-climactic. When watching it now I find myself thinking that Joan did pretty good, running on all those uneven surfaces in heels, without falling and skinning her knees. If she fell running downhill on one of those steep S.F. streets, she could get pretty badly banged up.
Everything about Crawford’s performance is control, especially her Great Lady act with the patrician diction she learned so well at MGM. Even as we admire Myra’s poise, we wish Joan could have once just let the freckles show and acted like a normal human being. In her honeymoon scene we actually see her bare back when she’s supposed to be naked, but there’s still a strong feeling of militant prudery. The only Crawford movie in the ‘fifties where she occasionally achieves a vulnerability down on the human level is Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves. It’s a grim story, but she actually lets herself be a little ‘ordinary,’ a little less image conscious.
Others disagree but I see little chemistry between Myra and Lester. Jack Palance is good casting for a romantic lead, yet he often seems overly theatrical to me, even when playing an actor. In place of romantic sparks, Crawford and Palance do excellent work trading reactions, as in a spy movie: ‘Is my ruse going over well? Does she suspect me?’
Gloria Grahame performs well under pressure, making Irene’s thoroughly venal rottenness seem natural behavior for a girl who can’t say No. Her screen time isn’t that minimized, but the part is shorn of dramatic high points. The movie was nominated for four Oscars, including both leads. Had Ms. Grahame’s part been fleshed out a bit, I’ll bet she could have been nominated as well. Perhaps it worked out best for her. She got the Supporting Actress nod, and won, for her interesting part in MGM’s The Bad and the Beautiful.
Elsewhere in the cast, Bruce Bennett once again plays a passive male opposite Crawford’s Alpha Female, as he had done so well in Mildred Pierce. Virginia Huston is an approved female supporting actor for Crawford: when she shares a screen with the star Huston doesn’t change her expression or even move. Young Mike (Touch) Connors gets a big break as a rogue male prowling after Irene. Story-wise, his character gives Irene the entreé to move in Myra’s lofty social circles.
The nearly two hours of Sudden Fear move quickly, at least the first time one sees the movie. And Joan Crawford fans will find her at the height of her powers, in a vehicle superior to her later WB contract pictures, and most of what would follow. Technically speaking, I think the film is noir, in that Myra goes through a psychic ordeal reacting to the betrayal of her marriage. In execution it’s just a ‘who will kill first?’ murder thriller, with stylish direction and lighting schemes to maintain the mood. It’s different than a plain-wrap Wife In Jeopardy thriller in that Crawford’s Myra isn’t merely a terrified victim — I’m thinking of Doris Day’s mechanical thriller Midnight Lace as a prime example of that. Crawford gets to have it both ways: she’s the terrorized spouse and also a conniving schemer as cunning as the villains. I don’t know the meaning of Myra’s inability to carry out her counter-murder scheme, but she sure as heck isn’t innocent, as the film seems to insist.
A last remark: did anybody sense this early that Joan Crawford’s slide toward grotesquery would make her suitable as a horror star? She never became a horror icon like Vincent Price, but her later career took a strong turn in that direction. We certainly get glimmers of that in a brief expressionist sequence where Myra imagines being a murder victim: in a swift string of highly stylized shots we see her falling from a skyscraper, being smothered with a pillow, etc. That’s giving the audience what it wants!
The Cohen Film Collection’s Blu-ray of Sudden Fear is a good-looking restoration of a film that’s been difficult to see for quite a while; my last peek was at a mid-’90s laserdisc that was no beauty. Picture and sound are very good overall and the show has a natural dusting of grain that gives it a strong film look. As it’s a 1952 release the Academy aspect ratio is correct. This is a very early music title for composer Elmer Bernstein, and his powerful score assures us from the start that something heavy is going down. His action cues are excellent — even if I heard a rhythm from The Magnificent Seven in there for a few seconds.
Cohen offers a trailer, a little pamphlet with some photos and credits, and a full commentary by TCM writer Jeremy Arnold. He offers a wealth of information about the film, including the odd way it came about just as Joan Crawford was leaving her contract at Warner Bros. Jeremy provides insightful bios on the performers without dishing dirt — he brushes past Crawford’s dicey pre- Hollywood years simply by listing her as a chorus girl. Other commentators that sling trash talk about old stars just for the fun of it do the films a disservice.
Jeremy Arnold sees Sudden Fear as a noir classic and I don’t, but I chalk up that discrepancy to my particular Crawford bias — I did a docu once that required studying her career for four months straight. The experience left me a changed man. If Crawford indeed had 40% of the profits on this show, she must have been a happy camper when it turned a profit — she worked like a slave at MGM for almost twenty years, and many of them on a less than lucrative contract salary. The bottom line is that Sudden Fear always had a reputation as a superior thriller, and since it’s not often revived, new viewers will probably like it too. The very first edition of The Film Noir Encyclopedia sported a cover photo of Palance and Crawford’s faces, locked in a sinister embrace.
Happily, English subtitles are provided. The Cohen Media Group / Cohen Collection has restored yet another worthy film to Blu-ray disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Sudden Fear Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, feature commentary by author Jeremy Arnold.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 30, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson