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Sudden Fear

Sudden Fear(1952)

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For some strange reason, Sudden Fear (1952) - available on DVD from Kino International - is rarely mentioned when people talk about great suspense thrillers. One of the reasons may be that the film was out of distribution for years due to legal technicalities and long forgotten by the audiences that first saw it. Another reason may be that by the early fifties a Joan Crawford film had become synonymous with extreme melodrama. Just look at the excessive nature of her performances in Torch Song (1953) or Johnny Guitar (1954). Critics and reviewers began to denigrate her performances as theatrical and campy - a criticism that's justified in many cases - but Sudden Fear is an example of how good she could be when given a strong script (by Lenore J. Coffee) and a talented director. The film became a smash hit and part of it's success is due to Crawford's expert performance. In many ways, it was her last great role of the fifties; she won a Best Actress Oscar nomination for it. The film also won Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor Jack Palance, Best Cinematography (Charles Lang) and Best Costume Design (Sheila O'Brien).

But even without Crawford, Sudden Fear would have succeeded on the strength of its ingenious screenplay alone. It's an intricately plotted tale about Myra Hudson, a wealthy middle-aged playwright who is casting her current play on Broadway. She takes a dislike to Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), the leading man favored by her director and has him dismissed for lacking the appropriate romantic qualities for a leading man. When she later encounters Blaine on a cross-country train trip to San Francisco, the actor charms her with his unpretentious manner and she soon finds herself falling in love with him. By the time they reach the coast, they've become an item and in record time they're married. Myra's wonderful new husband soon proves to be a better actor than she ever imagined. Shortly after their honeymoon Myra discovers a chilling conversation accidentally captured on the dictation machine in her study - Lester and his mistress Irene (Gloria Grahame) are plotting to kill her for her money.

Visually, Sudden Fear has the look of a film noir and even has some of the trappings of that genre (a dangerous femme fatale, an amoral male protagonist, etc.) but it is essentially a suspense thriller. The cinematography by Charles Lang uses shadows and isolated light sources brilliantly, particularly in the nerve-wracking sequence where Myra spies on Lester through a closet door in Irene's apartment as he discovers a loaded gun on the floor. The on-location footage of San Francisco is also evocative and should be of interest to anyone who knows and loves the city. Myra's spectacular Pacific Heights home on Scott Street is now the Indonesian Consulate and the Tamalpais Apartment building (where Irene lives) can still be seen on Greenwich Street. Best of all is the way director David Miller uses the steep hills and twisting streets of San Francisco in his neat twist ending.

In a strange case of reality imitating fiction, Joan Crawford was opposed to Jack Palance as her leading man in Sudden Fear for the same reasons that Myra Hudson opposed the casting of Lester Blaine in her play. She didn't think he was handsome enough or leading man material. Instead she wanted Clark Gable for the role, even though the character was supposed to a younger man. Director David Miller had a difficulty time convincing her to accept Palance. According to Bob Thomas in his biography, Joan Crawford, Miller told her: "In your last few pictures, Joan, you've played not only the female lead but the male lead as well. That won't work in this picture. We need suspense for the audience. Hitchcock will take a girl like Joan Fontaine, who is as delicate as Dresden china, and dress her in a tweed suit with a bun in her hair to make her even more vulnerable." Her eyes began to brim. "You mean I'm not a woman." Miller kissed her on the cheek to stop the tears. "I'm not talking about here and now. I'm talking about what happens before the camera." "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I'm sorry," he said. "All right, I'll take Jack Palance." Despite the fact that both actors approached their craft differently - Crawford was schooled in the studio system, Palance was a product of the Actors Studio in New York City - they compliment each other perfectly in the context of the story and make Sudden Fear a memorable viewing experience.

The Kino International DVD of Sudden Fear is a perfectly acceptable disk though it has not been given a major restoration for this release. The black and white source materials look fairly clean and sharp for the most part though there is some occasional graininess. The Dolby digital mono track is also preferable to the rather weak monophobic sound but this DVD will sustain fans of the film until someone undertakes a major DVD restoration of Sudden Fear.

For more information about the film, visit KINO INTERNATIONAL.

By Jeff Stafford