Saturday 23 March 2019

Movie Review: Sudden Fear (1952)

A woman-in-distress suspense drama, Sudden Fear features stylish tension, playful plotting, and an overabundance of wide-eyed acting.

Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is an independently wealthy and successful middle-aged playwright, about to launch her new Broadway show. During rehearsals she insists on firing actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), because she does not believe he is handsome enough for the leading role. The show opens and is a great success.

On a train trip back to her hometown of San Francisco, Myra bumps into Lester. He is exceptionally gracious, they spend time together, fall in love and are soon married. Myra is deliriously happy to have found true love and starts planning to update her will to include Lester. Suddenly a woman called Irene (Gloria Grahame) appears in their social circle, and everything changes.

An RKO Pictures production with Crawford a driving force in pulling the project together, Sudden Fear has enough quality to engage. Romance, drama, deception and murder plots gel into a potent Hitchcockian noir package.

A slow and prolonged first half introduces the main characters but plays more like a fluffy romance than any kind of thriller. The suspense elements take off in the second half with a ticking clock, greed, a compromised conspiracy and a convoluted preemptive revenge plan. Director David Miller deploys plenty of panache and a large serving of style as he focuses on Myra's predicament to deftly skip past some of the unlikely logic.

With Crawford fully committed to an almost silent movie level of overacting, Miller optimizes what he has. The dialogue all but disappears from the final 30 minutes, the excellent Elmer Bernstein music takes over and genuine tension is generated as despite the preponderance of plotters, nothing goes according to any plan. The twisty and hilly San Francisco locations (with some subbing by Los Angeles) echo the intermingling plots and add plenty of ambience.

The good cast contributes to the enjoyment level. With Crawford consuming the sets and her costars with her eyes, Jack Palance provides a robust counterpart as a complex charmer and struggling actor intent on proving just how good he is at romance. Gloria Grahame as Irene introduces a jolt of naked avarice, impatient to grab her undeserved slice of what rich society has to offer. Bruce Bennett and Mike Connors appear as brothers and lawyers Steve and Junior Keaney, the latter also entangled with Irene.

Miller throws in plenty of toys and red herrings to maintain an edge. Technology in the form of a sophisticated (for the day) recording system stands alongside playfulness represented by a wind-up dog gadget to amplify moments of revelation and tension. Any film where a tiny toy dog is transformed into a suspense device is tracking in the right direction.

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