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Sudden Fear (1952): Joan Crawford’s Shock to the System

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

To view Sudden Fear click here.

As the first season of water cooler sensation Feud has recently finished airing, it’s funny to reflect how certain movie stars tend to surge in public interest at random intervals. Case in point: Joan Crawford, whose films have been TCM and home video favorites among younger viewers and who is now enjoying her biggest pop culture awareness since Faye Dunaway turned her into a domineering camp icon in Mommie Dearest (1981). It’s become common for movie fans to pigeonhole much of Crawford’s work as campy or, more commonly, as “women’s pictures,” which tends to fence them off into some kind of minor category apart from all those war films and biblical epics.

Well, the joke’s on those critics considering how little Crawford’s films have dated and how many people still watch them. You can certainly be amused by Joan’s more outrageous ventures into the surreal, e.g. Torch Song (1953), but she was a woman who could grab that camera and hold your gaze stronger than just about any other movie star out there. Fortunately she had a work ethic that wouldn’t quit and made loads of films both within and outside the studio system, which means you can spend much of your love stumbling on a Crawford film that doesn’t get regular play.

One stunner that never fails to stop people in their tracks is Sudden Fear (1952), which you can watch right here on FilmStruck as part of the spotlight, “The Lives of Actors.” This independent film noir from producer Joe Kaufman was picked up for theatrical distribution by RKO, but it’s been an oddly overlooked title in her filmography due to various rights issues and its erratic appearances on the small screen. This one was shot just after Crawford had pushed her strong-willed heroine roles to new extremes in Flamingo Road (1949) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), and while at first it might seem she’s playing a typical Hollywood damsel in distress, it’s not long before she starts turning the tables and asserting herself in fine melodramatic form.

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

Here Crawford is cast as Myra Hudson, a wealthy and very successful playwright (and heiress) who passes on a candidate for her next big play, Lester (Jack Palance), because she doesn’t buy him as a Casanova type. Naturally he decides to prove her wrong by wooing her in real life on a train ride, but of course, he’s just as creepy as he seems and even has a scheming girlfriend on the side (played perfectly by Gloria Grahame). Myra’s plan to change her last will and testament takes a warped route when she decides to employ a snazzy new recording device that plays a pivotal role in the many twists and turns that follow, including a big reveal scene that finds Crawford stampeding through every expression in the actor’s handbook with an intensity that still keeps you glued to the screen for a very lengthy stretch of film time.

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

In a rare turn of events for a potboiler like this, Sudden Fear wound up earning no less than four Oscar nominations (though winning none) including nods for Crawford and Palance along with Charles Lang’s cinematography and Sheila O’Brien’s costumes. It’s a slick, striking little noir that proves Crawford’s affinity for it in Mildred Pierce (1945) was no accident, and even though it runs longer than average (111 mins.), there’s nary a dull moment in it.

Any of you Crawford fans out there should get ready to start swooning from the opening credits as the creation of her appearance alone gets an entire five-item title card all to itself. (Lingerie and Hostess Gowns by Tula! Hats by Rex, Inc.! Jewels by Ruser!) At least it’s somewhat justified by the fact that the ensembles of the two leading ladies play a major role in the film’s final act, when each little accessory counts. Here again viewers may be tempted to classify this film as camp, but that’s dismissing the clever use of artifice throughout starting with the opening on a theater stage that gets mirrored beautifully in the climax. Romance is an illusion, a struggle for power, and ultimately a deadly battlefield in this film, and who else could be a more formidable warrior to root for than Crawford? Her strong appearance and forceful delivery always made her tough to buy as a vulnerable romantic lead (echoing what she says to Palance), but as a schemer, a woman scorned or a tough boss, there’s no believability issue at all. Lest you get thrown by the label of this one as a noir, note that it belongs to that glossier end of that categorization with films like Laura (1944). That approach would continue to benefit this film’s director, David Miller, who returned to the woman-in-peril thriller playpen with the not dissimilar Midnight Lace (1960) with Doris Day.

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

Film music buffs should get a kick out of this film’s score, too, which is one of the very first efforts by a young composer named Elmer Bernstein. This was even before he cut his teeth on little practice runs like Robot Monster (1953) and went on to break through on The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which of course turned into a decades-long run of Hollywood glory including The Magnificent Seven (1960) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). His music here is brash, forceful and heavily jazz-inflected, as dramatic and unsubtle as the film itself and laying the groundwork for his smoky, lusty work to come on The Carpetbaggers (1964). Incidentally, Bernstein would only go on to score one more Crawford film, albeit one in which she played a supporting role, The Caretakers (1963).

I should also add that if you enjoy watching the film here (and believe me, before 2016 you couldn’t see a decent-looking version of this to save your life), you may want to check out the Blu-ray released recently by Cohen Media Group featuring a fine audio commentary by a name you TCM fans (and particularly TCM Classic Film Festival attendees) might recognize, Jeremy Arnold (who can talk about Lawrence of Arabia [1962] like nobody else). So give this one a spin and get ready to see one of Hollywood’s all-time biggest stars at the peak of her powers in a once-neglected film that’s finally getting its due.

Nathaniel Thompson

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