My friends Gabriela from Pale Writer, and Erica from Poppity Talks Classic Film, are teaming up together to host their first ever blogathon! They are honouring the life and career of Joan Crawford. Be sure to visit their sites to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.
I’m writing about Sudden Fear. It took me a while to get around to watching this film. Part of the reason it took so long to finally watch this, is that I have always much preferred Joan’s 1930’s and 1940’s films and performances to her later work.
I have always felt that Joan’s performances in her earlier films are far more natural than her performances in many of her later films. I’ve also always found the characters she plays in her earlier work to be much more interesting than many in her later work.
When I finally sat down and watched Sudden Fear, I didn’t know what to expect from either the story or from Joan. I was completely blown away by Joan’s performance as Myra Hudson. Joan effortlessly moves between playing a character who is a sweet and lovestruck woman, to one who is devastated, shocked and vengeful. Without a doubt Joan delivers one of her best performances in this film. Her performance here has ended up becoming one of my favourites from amongst her work.
I also like how Joan conveys to us exactly how lonely Myra is. Through her performance we see that despite being a successful, popular and wealthy woman, Myra is lonely and yearns for romantic companionship and happiness. It’s doubly cruel that she finds this long desired happiness, only for it to be snatched away in the most hideous and unexpected of ways. Joan more than deserved her third(and ultimately final)Oscar nomination for her phenomenal performance in this film.
Sudden Fear is directed by David Miller(Midnight Lace, Lonely Are The Brave). The film is based on the 1948 novel of the same name, which was written by Edna Sherry. The screenplay is by Lenore Coffee(who would go on to write the screenplay for the gothic suspense film, Footsteps In The Fog, just a few years later) and Robert Smith. The film would be Joan’s first job for RKO Studios, this was after she had asked to be released from her Warner Bros contract earlier in the year.
This film really surprised me with how it does an about face halfway through and becomes a completely different type of film.
Sudden Fear starts off as a romantic drama and then it veers off into Noir territory. I love how the film switches genres and plays with our expectations of how the story is going to continue.
Myra Hudson is a Broadway playwright who is watching rehearsals for her new plays. She rejects actor Lester Blaine(Jack Palance) for the lead role in the play after watching him rehearse. Lester is very hurt by her decision.
Some time later, Myra and Lester meet up again and find that they are drawn to one another. They get closer and end up marrying. Seemingly their marriage is idyllic and he has long since forgotten about the unpleasant way they first met.
Unbeknown to Myra, Lester and his girlfriend, Irene(Gloria Grahame) are planning her murder so that they can get the money left in her will. Myra discovers their horrible plans, after the pair are accidentally recorded on one of the records Myra uses to record her script ideas on.
Myra is horrified, scared and devastated by what she hears them saying. She accidentally ends up breaking the record with the recording on it, and therefore she loses her proof that this plot against her is a reality. In order to protect herself from this point onwards, Myra begins to plan a murder plot of her own against Lester and Irene. Myra has great doubts about what she is planning to do though. It is uncertain who will strike first.
Once we see the moment where Myra learns of the murder plot against her, Joan really makes us fear for Myra’s safety as much as Myra fears for it herself. Joan looks terrified, desperate, shocked, vulnerable and confused all at once. The discovery scene contains some of the best acting of Joan Crawford’s entire career in my opinion.
Myra overhears the murder plot. Screenshots by me.
In the space of just a few minutes, Joan Crawford convinces us that Myra’s world has come crashing down around her. The person closest to her has deceived her and doesn’t actually have a single shred of love or affection for her. Imagine how you would feel if you learnt this about someone you love. Myra loses her bearings upon hearing what Lester plans. Myra is completely adrift and alone at this moment. Myra doesn’t know what to do. She stumbles around the room, jumps at the slightest noise and looks as though she is about to suffer a breakdown. I love how Joan goes from displaying expressions of shock and confusion, to showing pain, grief, terror and fear. Joan really makes us feel the emotional impact of what this woman has just learnt. This scene is a real highlight of the film.
The other highlight of the film is the unforgettable sequence where Myra imagines her own murder plot becoming a reality.
This sequence is nightmarish and is filled with some very interesting imagery. The sequence reminds me quite a bit of Marlowe’s drug fuelled hallucinations in Murder, My Sweet (1944).
I also love how we see Myra become more and more conflicted about what she is planning to do, but that we in the audience feel that we won’t blame her if she does go through with it. In a way her plot is a form of self-defence. The way this all plays out is very interesting and it doesn’t end the way you think it might.
If there is a weak point to be found in the film, then I feel that it lies with the casting of Jack Palance. Please don’t get me wrong, he is a good actor and I can’t fault his performance here. It’s just that he is so well known for playing villains, that I for one have trouble accepting and trusting him as a supposedly decent guy.
This was actually only the second film he had ever appeared in, so at this point in his career he was pretty much still an unknown. I have no doubt that audiences at the time didn’t suspect him to be up to no good. If you are watching this now after being very familiar with his career as a villain, then it is much more likely that you too will consider him shifty from the beginning.
I think that the role of Lester Blaine really required an actor who was very well known for playing good guys. If they had cast such an actor in the role, then I’ve no doubt that we would be just as shocked and confused as Myra is when she discovers the truth about him. As it is, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Lester was revealed as the villain of the piece. Jack just seems super shifty from the beginning, which I’m sure isn’t what was intended by either the writer or director.
That casting issue aside, Sudden Fear is an excellent film, and is one which is filled with terrific performances. Joan Crawford steals all the scenes and is undoubtedly the main attraction. I can imagine no other actress playing Myra. I love how Joan captures how gentle, innocent and vulnerable Myra is. This role is very different from the many strong and confident women she had played before, and this role really highlights what a versatile actress Joan was. Gloria Grahame is also very good as Irene.
If you’re after a thrilling Noir film, then I highly recommend that you check this one out. It’s a film full of surprises and plenty of suspense. Have you seen the film? What did you think of Joan’s performance?