Pros: Crawford in top form, with Palance
Cons: the story stretches the believability factor a little
With a little stretching and lots of style, Sudden Fear is one great film noir steeped in the tradition while retooling some of the more interesting narrative techniques we have come to appreciate form the best of the genre. It shows some of Joan Crawford’s best work as an actress and reaffirmed her place as a star, albeit and aging one, while delivering a cracker-jack story about love and greed.
During rehearsals for her latest Broadway play in New York, wealthy heiress Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) goes against the decisions of her producer and director and fires leading actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) because to her he doesn’t posses romantic good looks. WhenBlainebumps intoMyraon the train toSan FranciscofromNew Yorkthe two meet on amicable terms and become friends, eventually falling in love and marrying. When former girlfriend Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) pops up to threaten Lester with exposure of his fraudulent behavior, he partners with the woman to killMyrafor her estate. Myradiscovers their plan and hatches one of her one and a battle of wills ensues which will leave one gloating victor.
The film was a hit for Crawford, bringing her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress which pretty much reaffirmed her stature as one of the biggest stars inHollywood. The academy also nominated Palance for Supporting Actor, and handed out nominations for Cinematography and Costumes. Although Elmer Bernstein didn’t get a nod from the Academy for his excellent tumultuous music score, he probably deserves it. The music is the perfect barometer for the emotional undertow of the movie, sufficiently setting up the tone for scenes, but staying out of the way when the camera lingers on Joan Crawford’s countenance as she exhibits joy, happiness, consternation, and fear.
Running at 110 minutes, it’s easy to see where this one is heading about 100 minutes before the end. Although a good deal of time is spent setting up the narrative, once the plot locks into gear, the action is fast and furious up to the dramatic climax in the shadowy noir-soaked streets of cinematographer Charles Lang. We know what the ultimate outcome will be and it’s exciting to see how the world begins to go dark for the characters involved in the passion play. I thought thatMyrawould go through with it and turn the stereo-typed drama into some real toothy crime tale, and the sense of fate that descends onto the narrative in the finale might be a little too heavy handed for those except the most valiant noir aficionados.
It’s too bad that this kind of story always turns out so badly in these classic films. For a later noir, coming out in 1952, Sudden Fear has the look and feel of the earlier darker post-war noirs, and the commentary it obliquely makes about the acting profession and the theatre is a more sophisticated view of human relationships. Crawford’s character Myra shows herself to be as capable a performer as the conniving Palance and the audience for this one certainly must have had a great times watching the Joan strut with her shoulder pads while exhibiting excellent display of emotional character change.
It seems way too convenient for Jack Palance to play the conniving actor in the flick. He is ostensibly characterized as the successful Broadway star who everybody says is a great talent, but without the Hostess-Twinkie Soap Opera good looks, and during the course of the movie he turns into a gold-digging crud driven by libido and greed. If this is an apt character trait, why is his character an actor in the first place? Actors have traditionally been portrayed as folks involved in their talent regardless of their financial success. Half way through the movie Palance’s Lester Blaine gives up seeking new acting work and settles into wallowing inMyra’s wealth, and we wonder just how this talented individual went wrong.
The film sticks with the noir tradition as Fate steps in to deliver a poetic finish, with the Joan leaving her mark on the final fading frames. It’s clearly her film, and watching her older woman make it with Palance’s younger hot actor might make the viewer feel a little squeamish, knowing what we do about Crawford’s dalliances with some of the up and coming stars of tinsel town.