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Sudden Fear

Ring a Ding Ding 

Sudden Fear (1952)

What would be more shocking: Discovering the man you just married and are mad about doesn’t love you and is having an affair or that he wants to kill you for your money? I had a hard time deciphering which of these circumstances, which come hurtling at Joan Crawford‘s character in Sudden Fear, were more hurtful to the woman. Sudden Fear comes at a time in Joan’s career when she is in between the gorgeous face she brought to the screen and the more mature look that moviemakers tried to pass off as that past beauty. Despite being a thriller, this film did not come at the end of her career when she was making all those absurdly bad slasher movies (see Straight Jacket or Berserk).

As play-write Myra Hudson, Crawford’s character has the prerogative to choose who she likes for a leading man in her most recent play, and it’s not Lester Blaine, played by a young and sort of handsome Jack Palance. Lester tells Myra off before leaving the stage and the show goes on to be a great hit without him. When Myra boards a train to her home in California from New York, she discovers Lester is on board and invites him in for a drink and game of cards. The two enjoy the lengthy trip together and continue to see each other while in California. We get the sneaking suspicion that Lester might have sinister motives for dating the wealthy woman –based on his interest in a dangerous set of stone steps along a cliff at Myra’s home– but the two marry anyway.

Surfacing at one of the couple’s parties is Gloria Grahame as Irene, who has followed Lester to California after seeing a newspaper notice of his nuptials. She has some dirt on the groom that leads him to seek out employment of his own so he can pay the woman’s living without using his wife’s money. It soon becomes evident that despite his initial disdain towards the blonde, the two have become lovers.

It is not until Myra’s dictating machine accidentally left running picks up the duo’s conversation about how Lester makes out in her will that we actually discover the husband does not love his wife as it appears he does. On that dictation device Myra hears that to avoid a lousy settlement that Myra will sign as part of her will in three days, Lester and Irene plan to kill her and secure her entire fortune for the man. The villains have three days to execute and accident, and Myra might have been able to protect herself had she not accidentally broken the record onto which this evidence is recorded. The remainder of the picture is a high-stress account of Myra trying to avoid any precarious situations with her husband while also scheming to kill the man and make it look like Irene did it. The criminals get their just desserts but not in the  manner Myra plans.

Besides the excitement of the second half of Sudden Fear, the most profound scene is Myra’s solitary experience while listening to the recording of her husband and his lover’s plan to kill her. Her emotions start as pure remorse at hearing the lovers’ affectionate words towards each other before transitioning to horrid shock at the abject danger in which she lies. I think it might be impossible to watch that scene and those following it without thinking about what you might do in such a situation. The natural thing would be to run, get out of town without telling Lester where she has gone, but Myra does not take this course. The first of the three days that mark her doom are spent holed up in her bedroom in shock and fear of her husband, which she tells him is the result of a headache. The next day she cozies up to Lester and suggests they take the weekend at a vacation house, which appeals to him as an excellent murder site. She tells him they will go on the third day but then cancels last minute by citing other party plans she had forgotten. This pushes the murders’ plans to the very last evening before Myra is to sign her legal documents and allows her to manipulate the schemers into their own deaths.

     Sudden Fear was highly enjoyable as it allows Crawford to play beautiful and influential without being the man eater she often portrayed. She conveys vulnerability well and turns her character around to be powerful enough to plan a murder of her own while still remaining too weak to carry it out. This was a well-acted and highly suspenseful story executed to its best.

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3 Responses

  1. Rachel, I’ve seen SUDDEN FEAR in bits and pieces when I’ve stumbled across it on TCM and the like, but your review has convinced me I need to give it my undivided attention sometime! Glad to hear Joan Crawford gave a sympathetic performance without resorting to “man-eater” tactics! I understand SUDDEN FEAR was nominated for 4 Oscars, too, including Best Actress for Crawford and Best Supporting Actor for Palance. Happy New Year to you and yours, with all good things coming your way in 2012!

  2. Sounds interesting. I hate it when your adulterous lover tries to kill you for your money. Oh well, just one of things in life. Wait. What? This hasn’t happened to you?

    • Haha! It’s true the movies do suggest that this sort of betrayal happens all the time. I guess I’m just not as extraordinary as the people they make movies about. Also I’m not rich, but perhaps that means I’ll be the murdering one?

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