Retrospective Review: Sudden Fear

Year: 1952
Runtime: 110 Minutes
Director: David Miller
Writers: Lenore J. Coffee & Robert Smith
Stars: Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame

By Bianca Garner

The Film Noir genre isn’t always the immediate place to go for great female representation. Women in Noir are often presented as the stuffy secretarial type who works silently in the background for the private eye, or the concerned stay-at-home wife to the police detective or she’s the seductive Femme Fatale who will almost always get her competence. It’s very rare that we see a Noir with a female character in the lead, it’s a genre only reserved for the manliest man…the cigarette smoking, Scotch drinking, tough-talking man whose only true love is the job.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Film Noir. I love the mise-en-scene of a Noir film, the striking cinematography, the pulpy narratives and the impact its had on cinema as a whole. There are so many great Noirs out there which I recommend, from the likes of “Double Indemnity”, to “The Maltese Falcon”, to “The Big Heat”. However, these films centre around a male character and tell the story from a male perspective. So, despite being a huge fan of Noir, I have to admit it’s not exactly the friendliest genre when it comes to female representation.

So, it was an absolute delight to stumble across David Miller‘s “Sudden Fear”, a film which presents us with a murderous Homme Fatale and a strong female character as its lead. Rather than resort to sheer violence and brute strength, Joan Crawford‘s Myra uses her intelligence in order to outsmart her scheming husband. Crawford is a tour-de-force here, delivering what many consider one of her best performances. In Fact, “Sudden Fear” would see her receive her third and last Oscar nomination. The film marked the supposed ‘end’ of Crawford ‘s career (although she would refuse to disappear from the limelight quietly), and at the ripe old age of 47 (yes, that’s considered ‘old’ in Hollywood), studio executives believed she was too old to play the romantic lead. Well, Crawford would prove them all wrong.

sudden fear beginning

Crawford is Myra Hudson, a middle-aged heiress who is also a successful Broadway playwright. She gives the final word when it comes to her plays and everybody around seems to respect her opinion. She finds herself falling hopelessly in love, with Lester, a much younger actor (Jack Palance, who was 33 years old at the time of filming), who Myra ‘fired’ from her play as she believed he wasn’t believable as the romantic type (the irony).

“David Miller’s “Sudden Fear”, [a film which] presents us with a murderous Homme Fatale and a strong female character as its lead. Rather than resort to sheer violence and brute strength, Joan Crawford’s Myra uses her intelligence in order to outsmart her scheming husband.”

sudden fear gloria

For the first few weeks of their relationship, everything seems rosy. Lester seems like the ideal man; caring, sensitive, and supportive. Myra looks at him like he’s a gift from God, she’s absolutely smitten. Then, Lester learns that Myra is writing her will and plans to leave the bulk of her fortune to a foundation. He plots her murder with the help of an old flame Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame), who has followed Lester to San Francisco. However, the scheming pair weren’t aware that they had been secretly recorded and Myra soon discovers the sinister truth of her new beau. So, what does Myra do? She decides to come up with a plan of herself to get revenge.

Myra Hudson is an interesting and complex character that still rarely gets seen in contemporary film. When we are first introduced to her, she’s this strongly independent woman who seems accustomed to the life of a single middle-aged woman but Crawford shows us how lonely Myra is and how she’s craving for love. The train scene where Lester and Myra meet again after he’s recently been fired is a wonderfully acted scene by both Crawford and Palance. We can see the tension between the two characters gently bubbling on the surface, not just the emotional strain but the sexual tension between them.

sudden fear train

Crawford pulls a slightly curled smile whenever she listens to Palance’s Lester, as she’s amused by the puzzle of who this man is and what he wants. As their journey continues, both begin to open up to each other and by the time they arrive at their destination, Myra’s opinion of Lester has done a complete 180 degrees. There is a rugged beauty and charm to Palance’s Lester, and it isn’t hard to believe how a strong, independent woman like Myra could become so love drunk and fall under his spell.

“Crawford had been an actress in the silent era of film; she understood the power of using facial expression to convey the inner turmoil of her character and she demonstrates so much with her wide-eyed expression.”

Apparently, Palance was described by directors, co-stars, critics and even the studio press agent as one of the ugliest stars in Hollywood. Perhaps this is the reason why the lighting gets visibly less forgiving for him as the events of the film take place. The director is said to have told Cinematographer Charles Lang to “make him [Palance] look awful. Shoot him as he is.”

suden fear 1

Certainly, Lester becomes more and more unhinged as the film unfolds, towards the end, he takes on the role as this prowling creature hidden by the shadows of the San Francisco nighttime. If you take a look from this still, you can clearly see how villainous Lester appears, Palance is dripping with sweat, his neat hair now array and his eyes wide in mania, we even see the bags under his eyes. Gone, is our memory of the charming, smooth-talking man from the train. The film’s climax is nerve-racking stuff, pure Film Noir at its finest, especially with the use of high angle shots that help to demonstrate how vulnerable Myra has now become. Again, she is completely alone in the world.

sudden fear night

It’s not only Lester who changes. As the narrative unfolds, the straight-faced, composed Myra we were introduced to at the start of the film, begins to unravel. Crawford had been an actress in the silent era of film; she understood the power of using facial expression to convey the inner turmoil of her character and she demonstrates so much with her wide-eyed expressions that we instantly understand how much pain and suffering her character is in. When compared to the coolness of Grahame (who seems too cool to actually do any real acting), Crawford remains the queen of acting. She gives this performance everything she’s got.

“Sudden Fear” is a firecracker of a film, that delivers on thrills, some laughs and a lot of suspense. Don’t just take my word on it; François Truffaut declared Sudden Fear “a masterpiece of cinema.”

In what is perhaps the best demonstration of Crawford the actress, when her character hears the diabolical plan of Lester and Irene, we see a range of emotions spilling out of Crawford. Perhaps, spilling isn’t the correct word, because Crawford is all about control. We see Myra wrestle to control several emotions all at once: anger, sorrow, anxiety, pain, confusion, denial and most importantly, fear.

suden fear night

“Sudden Fear” is a firecracker of a film, that delivers on thrills, some laughs and a lot of suspense. Don’t just take my word on it; François Truffaut declared Sudden Fear “a masterpiece of cinema,” and noir scholar Foster Hirsch acclaimed it as “the best, the purest film noir I’ve ever seen.” It’s a noir that completely dismantles the usual troupes of the genre, and that’s why I love it.

4.5 stars

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