I had no prior knowledge of what Sudden Fear was about, and I was relatively taken aback to see a film set during a stage rehearsal. You have your lead actor in the middle of a passionate soliloquy. This is Jack Palance getting a go at a more substantial role. Then, there’s the writer and authoritative creative mind behind his current material: Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford).
They are immediately at odds because she proposes to give him the axe and being the artistic force that she is, she makes the decision stick. He’s not her idea of a true romantic lead. This level of occupational animosity feels like a portent for something to come — what it is exactly we don’t know yet.
It starts out fairly innocuous when the writer and actor reunite. It’s quite by chance. They get awfully chummy on a train to San Francisco cutting through the awkwardness to play poker and share a drink together. The story trades the New York atmosphere for the West coast and with new geography comes new developments in their story together.
Her rejection of his casting was nothing personal, and she grows fond of him. He in turn gets brought into her life little by little. One moment in her office, he’s caught up in the swells of her poetry and speaks it back to her through a fancy dictaphone.
Crawford’s reaction shots are evocative, on the verge of something as if she’s just about ready to run over to him for an embrace. She’s been moved, but the dividing line between reality and fiction, or at least stage acting, is not something a writer should so easily confuse. Still, emotions get muddled.
What follows are interludes of pure ebullient joy appropriate for a budding couple. It’s hard to describe but amid all of this, there is also a mild sense of unease. The feeling is perfectly encapsulated by the moment when the newlyweds trek down to the water’s edge together only for the man to say just how dangerous the drop below looks to him. It’s something for us to put away for later consideration.
It seems apropos that the introduction of Gloria Grahame would almost instantly act as an augur of total noir. Suddenly, the movie has its twist toward the shady and undesirable. It’s the shift one waits for and relishes just the same. And this is just the beginning.
Some part of me wants to proclaim Sudden Fear the crowning achievement of the woman in peril subgenre or at least the greatest of the San Francisco iterations, though there are others like House on Telegraph Hill (I’m conveniently leaving Vertigo out since it’s mostly from the male perspective). Regardless, it has to do with laying the dramatic groundwork as well as fully utilizing the reputation preceding Joan Crawford.
Because Grahame and the scorned Palance not only know each other, they have a history, and Myra Hudson is a part of their plans. However, it hinges on the dramatic irony. Their target finds out what’s going on.
Voices amplified and booming out into the open space sends her back peddling against the walls in sheer horror. It’s her slice of domestic bliss being totally annihilated in one instant. Then in her distress, she loses her one shred of definitive evidence. From there we’re sucked into her dilemma as all rationality quickly evaporates. We don’t have time to care.
Obviously, everything in the movie is between actors; this is not reality. However, it’s intriguing to think about how the level of performance shifts. Palace is playing an actor, but then Crawford finds out his true intentions, now she must put on a performance of her own and so they are both playing parts within the movie to satisfy one another. The question remains who will break first in this charade. Because it must end at some point.
If you care about spoilers, my discussion of Sudden Fear might be a letdown, but for me, it feels like a picture wrought with tension more than relying on secret keeping. This is how we can make sense of it and appreciate all its mechanisms working on us as an audience. It’s so important for these women in peril movies that there is some level of identification or at least empathy for our lead. In this case, Crawford.
The whole ordeal weighs on her because she’s not trained to be an actor, and yet she takes to her role whether it’s snooping around an apartment or touching up her penmanship. Her final performance is almost as premeditated as any crime might be, and there’s some pleasure in watching it play out.
There are an array of these subtle intricacies executed in front of us for our viewing pleasure. A brief glance. A note left in a glove. The emblematic shot is the shadow of a clock hand swinging like a metronome across Crawford’s incomparable face. There’s an inevitability of what’s coming next…
I’ll double down on my early championing of Sudden Fear as a superlative woman in peril movie. However, my reasoning developed a new layer. What makes this movie particularly thrilling is not the fact Crawford is set up solely as a victim. Actresses whom I admire like Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly all faced similar fates in the movies.
The difference here is how Crawford takes matters into her own hands, not just in a last-ditch struggle for survival or a convenient turn of events. She’s prepared to end others just as coolly as they wanted to end her. I’m not sure if it’s believable, but it’s a stunning transformation nonetheless. We must also recognize this is not really who she is. Her core humanity is made very plain.
Only after the fact with some space do we recognize the vortex of this entire story. There are no policemen or your typical authoritative experts. No helpers. Bruce Bennett and Virginia Huston are no use (even future P.I. Mike Connors is negligible).
It’s really a cat-and-mouse game with three characters and no innocent bystanders. Sudden Fear feels lean and gaunt because the thrills are directed very intensely and there’s not a lot of expositional fluff. That’s what the introduction was for. In the end, it’s pure noir drama with a kind of blistering doom.