On Sudden Fear (1952)


Here’s an excerpt from the essay I wrote on Sudden Fear for Bright Wall/Dark Room‘s Noir issue. The rest is behind a pay-wall, but here’s a taste. Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame, Sudden Fear is a gorgeous and tormented classic, featuring two of my favorite Joan Crawford acting sequences.

On Sudden Fear.

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11 Responses to On Sudden Fear (1952)

  1. mutecypher says:

    I put this in my Netflix queue based on your earlier reference. I think it’s coming tomorrow, I’m looking forward to it!

    I’ll watch Ida in a couple of days also.

  2. This is a long time favorite of mine…bought the subscription just to read your take (though it looks like there’s plenty else to get into over there!)…Lovely, insightful take as usual. I’ve always thought it was especially fascinating as a unique combination of emotional and physical terror, with one finally dissolving into the other when Palance turns into a truly terrifying force of nature at the end. As to the performances–when Gloria Grahame is the third best thing in a movie, that’s one great movie. Anyway, thanks for the heads-up about the magazine.

    Oh yeah, I naturally had to watch it again after reading…”I was just wondering what I’ve done to deserve you.” One of the great line readings ever. (though the whole movie’s a quote machine.)

    • sheila says:

      Oooh, yes, NJ, great line. So complex.

      It’s fascinating how all the red flags are there from the start – but love makes Joan C. ignore them.

      How about her feverishly plotting at the end – with the notes, and the handwriting, and the schedule … It’s just an incredible sequence, made heartbreaking because this was the guy who showed up and made her so happy. It was all a lie.

  3. I know…And then she falls apart and can’t go through with it. I watched it with a good friend a few years ago and she was completely thrown. Thought Joan had pulled off the perfect murder (and the suspense would come from whether the-decent-person-gone-wrong got caught…a much more standard noir approach). Like you said in your piece, so much comes from character and this is one that really pulls off that writer’s dream–logical surprise. (And then keeps scaring you even when you know the plot because of all that damned atmosphere!)

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. mutecypher says:

    I watched Sudden Fear last night. What a striking film! Jack Palance and Joan were both excellent. I liked Lester’s response to Myra when he was fired, telling her to go look at the portrait of Casanova in the SF art museum to see what a seductive guy looked like. And the train ride, I expected him to just dump her at the end after having made his point.

    Jeeze, when Joan falls in love… it’s almost a different style of acting. I remember when I first started watching Japanese films, it took me a while to become accustomed to the expressive faces. I’m sure other folks have remarked on the similarities between her style and that style. Once you get used to it, it’s breathtaking. She loved him so freaking much. And then when she hears that dictaphone… the horror and betrayal and fear are just Wagnerian. And yet, I can imagine her character doing all of those things: a successful woman not expecting to find a romantic love, experiencing a physical yearning to love and be loved when the chance presents itself, she could have a happiness she never thought could be hers. And then finding out what the man she loved really thought of her. And that he was planning to kill her with his floozy secret girlfriend.

    I’ll need to watch this again in a while. I don’t know what to think of Lester not coming to the party that Myra threw for him. Was he waiting for her to come so that he could put the hook in even deeper? Was he having his own crisis of conscience about having played her for so long. Was he planning on embarrassing her as payback? Or did he expect Myra to come to him? I’m not sure what’s going on there, I’ll need to see it again. It may still be opaque on repeated viewings.

    That scene when he sees Irene, I wanted to tell Lester to wipe his chin, he was drooling so much! I didn’t get that they had met, I just assumed it was some James M. Cain deadly lust at first sight. And they met after Lester and Myra were married, what would Lester have done if he had never seen Irene again?

    This is just a great film, with so many non-answers. I love that Myra imagined killing Lester and framing Irene. And then she wasn’t able to do it. I love that she screamed to warn Lester about Irene when he thought it was her. And all the tension about how the two of them were going to kill her, it was almost comic how he kept getting put off. Plus the line that Nondisposable Johnny quotes, holy frack! And I loved the look of freedom on Myra’s face at the end.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I really enjoyed it.

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher – ahhh! So excited you saw it. Today is Crawford day on TCM and I am going to post the review of Sudden Fear in honor of that. It’s been behind a subscriber paywall long enough.

      The dictaphone scene. Master class acting stuff. She is the best there is – NOBODY knows how to work for a camera like Crawford. It’s practically a lost art.

      Palance is just superb – equally as strong as Crawford. And what an interesting pairing. I loved his point about Casanova, too – I imagine that Palance got a lot of “comments” like that in the beginning of his career – since he wasn’t classically good-looking or whatever. But he was sexy, he was confident, he was so HIMSELF.

      That moment when you see him in his little apartment – letting the phone ring. Sooo chilling.

      My take on what he’s doing there: It was all a ruse. He knew she would be frantic, and he knew she would come over. So he waits. He lets the phone ring. He waits some more, giving her time to get in her car and race over. And then, he picks up the suitcase and “accidentally” meets her on the stairs. She’s softened by her own terror at that point – so his “Oh poor me, you give me so much, what can I possibly give you” monologue is perfectly timed. She’s so relieved to see him she overwhelms him with “you give me so much, no no no” – It’s so SINISTER. Because he basically forces her to choose – because he knows her love for him will be much more powerful that way.

      But I agree with you – that it is up for interpretation. It’s not 100% clear what he is doing – which makes it scary, especially since it is our first real glimpse of his true face.

      Isn’t Gloria Grahame something else? He shoves her and she falls over. She lights a cigarette and says, “Thanks.” “For what?” “For still loving me.”

      Ah, noir.

      // Once you get used to it, it’s breathtaking. //

      I love your observation. This is something my friend Mitchell and I talk a lot about. Younger actors often think that good acting started with Robert De Niro. Or Meryl Streep. But once you understand the style, and once you understand how GOOD Crawford is at it – I mean, she’s untouchable.

      She brings out SO much in those scenes when she realizes she’s been duped. Fear, heartbreak, embarrassment, disappointment … It’s a phenomenal performance.

      // what would Lester have done if he had never seen Irene again? //

      That’s an interesting point. I think Lester was always scheming – the way he looked at those crumbling steps at the summer house … you could almost see him figuring out a way to get rid of his wife. Irene, though, breezed in and made it much much easier.

      I also love how much of it was filmed on location. They really used those tilt-y streets. Gorgeous and frightening!!

  5. bugsy_pal says:

    I was stoked to see that you had written something on this film. It’s quite few years since I saw it, but it had a big impact on me. Joan’s performance stands out, but Palance was also very good. To me, it’s not unlike her great performances in Possessed and Mildred Pierce, where she puts her faith in the love of a man, only to be betrayed. She plays the betrayed woman with varying degrees of hysteria and resolve in those movies, but always convincingly.

    I recently saw another David Miller film for the first time – ‘Lonely Are the Brave’. That also knocked my socks off.

  6. sheila says:

    Bugsy – Hi! Thank you!

    I love her in Possessed too – she’s so awesome.

    And yes, Palance is wonderful. You actually buy that he may very well be what he says he is – until that scene where he doesn’t pick up the phone. The betrayal is extreme. He plays it very well. He’s excellent!

    I haven’t seen Lonely Are the Brave – love the title – and I will check it out. Thank you for the recommendation!

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