Sudden Fear April 1, 2017
Joan Crawford has a killer face. It's a face that doesn’t adhere to the typical displays of softened classic Hollywood femininity — it's a mask of stark, exaggerated allure, all chiseled cheekbones, hungry eyes, bee-stung lips, porcelain skin. Her face is a canvas onto which we can project our wildest cinematic fantasies – Crawford has the kind of mug fit for any genre.
Particularly the melodrama, a genre wherein she has plenty opportunity to gasp in exasperation, whether that exasperation is underlined in romantic ecstasy, unfiltered happiness, or unbridled anguish. Her face is at its most expressive in 1952’s Sudden Fear, a tremendous “woman-in-trouble” film noir that calls for her not to twist barbed dialogue to her liking but to use her face and body as catalysts to convey the torment her character experiences during the film’s brusque 111 minutes.
In the movie, she is Myra Hudson, a Broadway playwright cum heiress forever having to prove herself in a world perpetually (and ignorantly) painting her as the symbolic rich girl who’s had everything handed to her in her life. Such is an unfair characterization: in her decades of working, she has seamlessly turned herself into a major name in her business. She could easily retire, given that she’s nearing 50 and has all the Benjamins in the world to pamper her every materialistic need. But Hudson has never grown tired of success. “I desire to achieve,” she says to a character early in the film. “To earn my own keep.”
We first meet her at her most ruthless. Her new play is still in development, and we’re introduced to her just as she’s overlooking one of the first rehearsals. And she’s not much impressed with the tentative male lead, Lester Blaine (Jack Palance). It’s not that he’s untalented or that he’s an inept actor – it’s that he doesn’t fit the part. No hard feelings. He’s fired, despite pushback from Hudson’s behind-the-scenes crew.
She never expects to see the man again. But a handful of months later, they find themselves stepping on each other’s heels when they discover that they’re traveling on the same train. Most in her shoes would attempt to keep a distance. But Hudson wants to make amends. Immediately after spotting Blaine, she makes an effort to get to know him and apologize for his riffing. And against the odds, a palpable sexual chemistry hovers in the air.
Following a brief courtship, the two are married, and the union cannot be described as anything other than blissful. Perhaps Hudson has always put her romantic ambitions aside for her career, and for once is she finally able to channel her occupational passions into the passions that come with having a love life. Montages circling around their apparent happiness abound. But because the name of the movie is Sudden Fear, it's clear from the start that there’s a good chance that all in front of us is too good to be true. Our suspicions prove to be correct: some time into their coupling, Hudson discovers Blaine is actually in a serious relationship with a blonde floozy named Irene (Gloria Grahame), and that the illicit duo is planning to kill Hudson for her money. Being the razor-sharp career woman that she is, Hudson is temporarily shaken but in no time devises a foolproof plot that very well might make victims out of the power players trying to make a victim out of her.
And Sudden Fear moves with the frenetic energy of a locomotive, vibrating with suspense until it reaches a breaking point that undoubtedly gratifies the tension ripening. It’s an effective exercise in the woman-in-trouble subcategory, true, but it’s made with such artistic valor that we can’t help but be reminded of the shadowy, Gothic noirs helmed by Fritz Lang and Edgar G. Ulmer in the 1940s. There’s plenty of room for agog delivery on the part of Crawford, but there are even more for moments highlighting director David Miller’s aptitude for silence as a medium for terror and Charles Lang's innovative photographic displays.
Of course, Sudden Fear’s greatest asset is Crawford, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. Crawford is a maestro when it comes to asserting her dominance, wearing high fashions, and wielding a gun when need be. But Sudden Fear is an anomaly in that it allows her to be break free from the dramatics that make Joan Crawford Joan Crawford and lets her be an actress. There are two bravura sequences in the movie that force her to simply listen and react to terrifying revelations, minutes ticking by with no other intrigue exciting us besides her and her relationship to the camera. Those sequences are arguably among the best examples of why Crawford felt like more than a movie star. She was also an actor with a dazzling array of skills in pocket.
She’s additionally well supported by Palance and Grahame, who just as much look their parts as they do embody them with cohesion. Palance’s tall, sinewy build makes him equally old-fashionedly masculine and thoroughly intimidating. Grahame, with her shifty eyes and enduringly frozen top lip (the actress was obsessed with “perfecting” her facial features with cosmetic surgery over the course of her career), is well cast as a vapid manipulator still not quite as far past her low class roots as she’d like to believe.
There’s not a moment during Sudden Fear during which we aren’t totally enraptured, and that’s a testament to how well Miller dresses the operatic scenery and how well Crawford sells the material. It’s a masterpiece of its genre – it’s an unmissable Crawford vehicle as potent as her famed 1945 comeback, Mildred Pierce. A-