Venetian Blinds and Gleaming Silver Pistols: On Sudden Fear
In “Sudden Fear,” the 1952 film which brought Joan Crawford her third (and final) Oscar nomination, love is synonymous with neurosis. Love is filled with pleasure, surprise, and comfort, but experiencing it is akin to stepping into a dark maze. Most importantly, love de-activates one’s emotional radar, the radar that would normally pick up on all of the obvious red flags dotting the landscape.
Watching Joan Crawford’s Myra Hudson fall in love, and then, shatteringly, out of love, only to discover that she is literally surrounded by red flags, is one of the deep pleasures of “Sudden Fear.” The emotional journey Myra goes on is epic in scope. The film starts out as a “woman’s picture,” a melodrama, a romance. Once the deliciously nasty Gloria Grahame enters the action, there’s a clear mood-shift. Grahame brings with her a grubby and vicious reality, and the film careens into a thrilling noir. It’s a “woman in distress” picture (akin to Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”), with Myra Hudson at its precarious center. Crawford’s performance is so visceral, so immediate, so intelligent, that director David Miller didn’t need to do anything artificial to “up” the stakes (although the film has a couple of wonderful hallucinatory sequences). All he needs to do is point the camera at Crawford’s face. In a career of great performances, Crawford’s Myra Hudson is at the top of the list.
Gorgeously shot by master cinematographer Charles Lang, “Sudden Fear” is a bi-coastal film, starting out in New York, crossing the country by train, and ending in the dark glamorous tilting streets of San Francisco.
Myra Hudson is a famous playwright, as well as a San Francisco heiress. In the opening scene, she is seen sitting in the seats of an empty Broadway house, watching a run-through of a scene in her upcoming play called “Halfway to Heaven.” A new young actor named Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) has been cast in the lead role. With a chiseled face like a medieval woodcut, he quivers with a kind of coiled sexy intensity, as he performs a monologue (which may suggest that Myra needs an editor):
When I wake up in the morning, when I go to sleep at night … I think of you. You are all the women in my life: the sister I never had, the mother I’ve almost forgotten, the wife I have always dreamed of. There isn’t a relationship you can name which exists between a man and a woman of which I wouldn’t want to say let it be you.
In real-life it is usually a mistake to infer biographical details about writers from their fictional works, but here it is appropriate. Myra has never married. She has a busy life with many good friends. That monologue, however, is the expression of a dream of all-encompassing love, a dream almost disturbing in its totality. It is love as neurotic need, a need to be “all” to someone else, a through-the-looking-glass vision of disorienting symbiosis. We end up hearing that monologue three times over the course of the film, in different contexts. The words echo. (They echo in Crawford’s performance as well. When Myra falls in love, Crawford shows how long-delayed and long-deferred that dream has been for Myra. There is not just happiness in Myra’s love. There is relief.)
Myra is not happy with Lester’s performance. In discussing it with her producer and director, she says, “He’s not my idea of a romantic leading man.” Palance was early in his career at the time of “Sudden Fear,” he was a relatively new face, and it’s interesting to see Crawford consider him, sizing him up. No, he’s not a typical “romantic leading man.” He’s got something much more interesting going on, and that is part of the beautiful tension of the opening sequences of “Sudden Fear,” before Lester reveals his evil nature. Myra has Lester fired in a public way, although she feels sorry about having to do it. Lester throws a tantrum, storming off the stage. Myra feels terrible, but the show must go on. “Halfway to Heaven” is an enormous hit, sans Lester Blaine, garnering rave reviews.
Giddy with success, Myra boards the train to San Francisco. I have a soft spot for train scenes in cinema (especially considering train travel in its current iteration is so anti-glamourous). Films like “North by Northwest,” “Twentieth Century,” “Brief Encounter,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Shanghai Express” (and, in a more modern vein, “The Darjeeling Limited”) are a testament to the romance of trains, their poetic possibilities, their no-man’s-land atmosphere. The passengers are unmoored from the everyday world whizzing by their windows. And that happens in “Sudden Fear.” Coincidentally, Lester Blaine is also on the train to San Francisco. Myra invites him to her private cabin for a drink, and they end up playing cards, quoting Shakespeare, having dinner, laughing, getting to know one another, all the way across the country.
By the time they disembark in San Francisco, they are in love. The early love scenes take place in dazzling daylight, with sweeping orchestral music: dizzying shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the two of them strolling through a cathedral-like redwood forest, Myra taking him to her summer house (complete with crumbling treacherous path down to the dock.)
Palance puts strange-ness into the role from the beginning. It is difficult to tell what he might be up to. All is revealed, awfully, in the scene where he fails to show up at a party Myra throws in his honor. Myra abandons her guests and calls and calls his line. Nobody picks up. Miller gives us our first real mood-shift, ominous in its stark contrast to all that has come before. Lester’s room is shot from a low-angle, an iron bedstead looming in the frame. Lester’s legs are shown pacing back and forth in front of the camera. He smokes a cigarette, letting the phone ring and ring. When Myra shows up at his apartment, frantic, he meets her on the stairway, complete with packed suitcase, telling her he’s not good enough for her, she has so much, he has so little to give her!
Seeing Lester refuse to answer the phone clues us in that he is working on some horrible end-game, that every bit of what we have seen has been calculated and planned, and we now know that Myra is in terrible danger.
The entrance of Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) into the film makes clear what has only been insinuated thus far. Lester is in cahoots with Irene, an old flame from back in New York. Irene struts into Myra’s house-party, having weaseled her way into an invitation, looking around her with the cold calculating gaze of an estate assessor. She is the serpent in the garden. Lester meets up with Irene secretly, and their dynamic is rough, nasty, scrappy. In one famous moment, he pushes her down on the couch, pushes her hard, and she barely blinks an eye. Lights a cigarette coolly and says up to him, “Thanks a lot.” “Thanks for what?” “For still loving me.”
Against the advice of her friends, Myra decides to change her will, leaving her estate to Lester. It is a gesture showing her love for him, for all he has given her. Part of Lester’s “job” was to make Myra fall for him that hard, and it brings the passionate sexual side of their relationship into a degrading clarity. Love (and, it is implied, sex) has damaged Myra’s radar. At one point, Irene asks Lester, “You don’t think she suspects, do you?” Lester sneers, “Not the way I make love to her.”
An important prop in “Sudden Fear” is Myra’s dictaphone. She has placed speakers all over her study, making it possible for her to pace and speak freely. On one terrible day she discovers the dictaphone had been left on and recorded a conversation between Lester and Irene, huddled in the study during a party. It is Myra’s moment of discovery. The room fills with the plotting urgent voices of Lester and Irene, the camera staying close on Crawford’s face. Myra goes from confusion, to dawning horror, to moments of sharp denial, to the deepest hurt as she realizes just how deeply Lester has fooled her, to sheer terror for her own life. It is a tour de force of acting.
To give some perspective, Myra listens to that dictaphone tape for almost three minutes. It is three minutes where Myra goes from happy peaceful woman to a shattered broken wreck. By the end, Myra is so overwrought that she runs to the bathroom to throw up. Students of acting should study Crawford’s work in this scene. John Wayne always used to say that he did not consider his job to be that of “actor,” he was more of a “RE-actor”. Crawford’s work in the dictaphone scene is a shining example of what Wayne was talking about.
There is one scene where, drenched in sweat, wearing a black fur coat, and a white head scarf, she hides in Irene’s closet, terrified that she will be discovered. Miller puts Crawford in almost total darkness, showing her face only partially with a beam of narrow light. Crawford shows us more through that one narrow beam than other actors could show utilizing their entire bodies. It is deeply specific work from her, harrowing in its sense of truth and fear: at one point she becomes so frightened that she claps her hand over her mouth, she doesn’t trust herself to stay silent. The high-strung terror and panic vibrate off of her body.
There are eloquent sequences involving Myra’s nightmares about being murdered, falling through the empty air, screaming, and there is one gorgeous and relentless scene where Myra is shown fantasizing out her plan of how to get Lester and Irene before they get her. She sits at her desk, and a clock pendulum swings across the screen, ticking by the passage of time, as her plan unfolds before her eyes, her eyes shown in an afterimage on the screen throughout. It’s a beautiful and creepy device: it shows us how the plan should go, so that when things start to go wrong, we know.
The final scene is a chase through the night streets of San Francisco, the city becoming as important to the film as the dictaphone. The streets are gleaming and steep, empty and scary, shadows thrown out against the opposite walls like phantoms with a life of their own, ghosts of the dreams that have died. Myra flees up and down the alleyways, along the vertical sidewalks, running for her life, her black fur coat making her a part of the shadows, a part of the night.
Crawford had a long career. She was always in it for the long haul. She worked, and she worked smart. She cared about acting. She knew the material that would be good for her, and she lobbied hard for parts she thought she deserved. Her taste was meticulous. She knew her strengths, she played to them. In an interview with Roy Newquist, years after “Sudden Fear”, Crawford summed up her memory of the film: “Melodramatic as hell, but the story and script were strong, not too original but strong, and the casting couldn’t have been better, and the director, David Miller, not only knew what he was doing but took cues from all of us.” Unfortunately, Christina Crawford’s poison-pen memoir about her mother, “Mommie Dearest”, has taken up a lot of the oxygen around Joan Crawford’s reputation, and it does the star a great disservice. She may not have been the best mother, but she is one of our greatest movie stars.
Along those lines, when the same Roy Newquist told her he wanted to put some of their interviews into a big profile piece in McCall’s magazine, Crawford balked, and said, “The only important parts of me are on film.”
Watching “Sudden Fear” is a poignant reminder of the truth of those words.