This article is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring 2019 blogathon. You can read more about the femme/homme fatales of film noir at this link
In order to survive a double dose of femme/homme fatale scheming you need a noir game plan as tight as Joan Crawford's in the gripping thriller Sudden Fear (1952). The old Hollywood icon withstands the murderous schemes of homme fatale Jack Palance and femme fatale Gloria Grahame with a rare combination of brains, hidden recording devices, and a mink coat disguise.
Sudden Fear tells the story of independently wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) who has a beautiful home in San Francisco, a thriving career, and a close group of friends. Even with all of these advantages, Myra is a bit lonely, and she falls for out-of-work actor Lester Blaine (Palance) during a cross-country train trip (Myra first meets Lester during an unsuccessful audition for one of her plays).
After a whirlwind courtship, Myra and Lester marry and settle into a life of meaningful philanthropy, glamorous parties, and quiet weekends at the beach. However, when Lester learns of Myra's plans to change her will so her substantial fortune goes to charity, he begins to plot her murder with an old flame (Grahame). Myra remains oblivious to the couple's schemes until she accidentally leaves on a recording device and stumbles upon a tape of the devious duo plotting her murder. Rather than call the police and file for divorce, Myra hatches a complicated plan for revenge that drives the movie's gripping plot.
Sudden Fear, which is based on a novel by Edna Sherry, was made at RKO Pictures by producer Joseph Kaufman and director David Miller. Crawford, who had just left Warner Bros. after a decade as one of the queens of noir, eagerly jumped at the chance to play Myra, and she urged Kaufman and Miller to hire her '30s costar Clark Gable for the part of Lester. However, Gable couldn't or wouldn't take on the role -- depending on who you believe, either MGM wouldn't let Gable out of his contract or he wouldn't play a villain or a little of both--so Miller convinced Crawford to take a chance on Palance, a then little-known actor who had intrigued Miller through his tough-guy role in Panic in the Streets (1950). Finally, RKO contract player Grahame added to her femme-fatale roster with her performance as Lester's partner in crime, Irene Neves.
Sudden Fear was a critical and box-office success when it opened in 1952 and it garnered four Academy Award nominations including Crawford as best actress and Palance as best supporting actor. In fact, Palance always credited Sudden Fear as his breakthrough role, which led directly to his iconic performance as the fearsome villain in Shane (1953). Grahame actually won the best supporting actress Oscar for what was basically a memorable cameo in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), but no doubt her much more substantial role in Sudden Fear gave AMPAS members an extra incentive to check her name on the ballot.
Viewed today, Sudden Fear is still a potent Hitchcockian thriller with a sensational Elmer Bernstein score and innovative direction from Miller (a fantasy sequence in which Myra imagines the fate of Lester and Irene is a particular highlight), but it is the three lead performances that are the real standouts. Palance isn't a typical old Hollywood leading man, but his rough-hewn charisma and distinctive looks actually work really well for the role. The future screen Dracula is completely convincing as a gaslighting psychopath who almost hypnotizes Myra into ignoring his true nature (in perhaps the most telling line in the film, Lester reples, "Not the way I make love to her" after a nervous Irene asks if Myra has any suspicions about their murderous plot).
|Jack Palance in a publicity still for Sudden Fear (1952)|
However, as great as Palance and Grahame are, Sudden Fear is really a tour-de-force for Crawford. She gives a magnificent performance that is both a personal and professional triumph. Crawford does veer a bit into Carol Burnett-parody territory a few times, but her performance is mostly quite effective, especially in the bravura scene where she discovers the tape that proves Lester and Irene's guilt. Myra's emotions range from disbelief to shame and rage, which Crawford conveys by using her very expressive eyes. The final scene, in which a battered, but victorious Myra walks away from an an accident (GIF below), is a triumph of movie-star acting that features one of the great sustained closeups in old Hollywood history.
Sudden Fear is available on DVD and video on demand.