“Sudden Fear” (1952): Neither sudden nor fearful

The 1953 noir Sudden Fear was directed by David Miller and starred Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and Gloria Grahame. The Criterion Channel is currently presenting several of Crawford’s film, and this was what prompted viewing Sudden Fear. After Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Way became available from the library and I CONSUMED it, I needed to watch its rebirth, namely, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Way (1950). Another Gloria Grahame film.

Grahame’s not great in this film, but neither is Crawford, really. In fact, it’s a B-film, at best (although I am not sure that this is what people mean when they say “B-film”). But even B-films can be interested to write about, to think about.

A still from the 1953 noir Sudden Fear, in which several characters have gathered for drinks before dinner.

The film begins with Crawford’s character Myra Hudson, the impossibly successful playwright Myra Hudson, deciding to cut the actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) from her newest production. In explanation to the director and producer, she claims that no woman could fall in love with this man—he’s an unconvincing romantic lead.

Who would argue that Jack Palance is a strong romantic lead? His best film was undoubtedly Goddard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), which won’t be made for a decade. And who would have anticipated that Goddard would cast Jack Palance! In that film he’s an opportunity for Brigitte Bardot’s character, not a genuine love interest. He’s plays a schmoozey American film producer with a lot of money and no aesthetic scruples.

When I hear the word culture, I get out my checkbook.

—Jack Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch in Contempt (1963)

But scriptwriters think they are Greek tragedians, so it’s not surprising that Lester (“Blaine! That’s a major appliance, not a name!”) and Myra’s paths are destined to cross once more. And the potential consequences seem grim. For we learn not long after the couple wed that Lester had left his wife Irene (Gloria Grahame) back east, who’s coming to town to help cash in on Lester’s big score.

In addition to being a playwright enjoying tremendous success, Myra comes from money. Lots of it (probably married to Jack Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch from Le Mépris). So when Lester learns that Myra’s about to sign away a major part of her wealth, he and Irene plot Myra’s demise.

Sudden Fear‘s twist comes from the recording device on which Myra dictates scenes and monologues as they come to her. In the scene in which Myra displays how the recording device, which is voice-activated, comes on, only the most naive filmgoers would fail to anticipate that this device will reveal some important information to one party or the other. And so it does: Lester and Irene inadvertently confess to their secret mutual love, his distaste for Myra, and a plan to make sure her wealth comes into his hands.

In Sudden Fear, Myra's voice-activated recording device, by which the hunters are revealed to the potential quarry.
Myra’s voice-activated recording device

The scene in which Myra learns of this plot should be the most dramatic. Myra hears the lurid conversation and is naturally quite upset. She plans to put the recording aside but accidentally drops it in the process: it shatters. Then she spends an evening terrified of her husband, but finally by the next morning seems to have regained some composure.

But Myra becomes a plotter as well—a role in which she is formidable. She imagines killing Lester with Irene’s gun and then framing Irene to take the blame. That this character would be capable of such treachery reflects on the psychic violence she’s suffered, on reflection we conclude. But whether that transformation seems feasible within the film is doubtful. The film itself acknowledges as such when Myra sees herself with the gun in hand and … sees herself.

In turn, though she’s in mortal danger from her husband when he discovers what’s afoot, she is forced to deliver no killing blow. Instead, as Lester searches for Myra on the streets of San Francisco, he spies Irene who is dressed the same. Myra witnesses him accelerate into Irene, but the accident takes Irene’s and Lester’s lives. A very neat ending in which the main character need not lose her moral person.

I do not know why this film is entitled Sudden Fear, but I expect that the novel by Edna Sherry of the same name has developed this theme more concretely. I presume the sudden fear is what Myra experiences when she learns of her husband’s betrayal. One senses, I think, the weight of the scene when this revelation occurs. The movement of the film, which is quite brisk, suddenly slows down considerably. At no other point has the narrative developed so slowly.

So perhaps my subtitle is false. Myra’s discovery is slow in unfolding, but it’s eventuality is clear from Myra’s demonstration of her recorder. What’s more, her fear is perhaps not as great as the audience’s that this character will wholly break with her … character.

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