RKO Radio Pictures, 111m 11s
The femme fatale gets the majority of credit for the most deceitful behavior in film noir, but the homme fatale portrayed by Jack Palance in SUDDEN FEAR deserves special mention. One of this noir classic’s highlights is a masterfully-staged sequence when Palance’s phony Lester Blaine wants to prove his honor to his significant other. Through the darkest distillation of deception, he stages an imaginary departure, as if he were going to run out on the wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) without any prior discussion. In an award-worthy performance, Blaine explains he does not deserve Hudson: "I have no place in your life, Myra, no proper place...I don't belong to your world. You have so much. I have nothing." Hudson falls for it and Blaine seals the deal. He has found his meal ticket.
Early in the narrative, Blaine's acting chops and unconventional looks have far less impact on Hudson, who does not feel Blaine is the proper man for her latest Broadway production "Half-way to Heaven." Later Hudson and Blaine meet on a train bound for Chicago. After a somewhat awkward reconnection, the two become friendly and enjoy each other's company while playing cards. Their difference in class amounts to a huge red flag: Blaine is the son of a Pittsburg coal miner, while Hudson has never known anything but wealth and success. Though still smarting from being fired from his role in her play, Blaine follows the heiress Hudson to her hometown of San Francisco, where a love story between the two intensifies. Unfortunately for Hudson, the noir element of fate has drawn her to Blaine, who the viewer senses cares only about her financial statement.
Given the manner in which the plot is set up, it comes as no surprise when Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame), the woman of Blaine's past, slithers onto the scene. Director David Miller leaves little to conjecture about the nature of the relationship between Neves and Blaine, which is based on rough sex. In a classic film noir series of events, Neves arrives unexpectedly and threatens Blaine's relationship with Hudson. Blaine pushes Neves around, but such behavior only excites her! Blaine closes her apartment door so their physical connection may continue off-screen. Clearly Neves is not a woman who prefers cuddling, and Blaine is her ideal counterpart. "I'm so crazy about you, I could break your bones," Blaine assures Neves, who would not have it any other way.
One of the film's great ironies is the recordings captured by Hudson's dictating machine, which reveal both her selfless love for her worthless husband and the plotting of her demise. The dictating machine also infers a close association between sex, brutality and death. That is quite a sordid implication, and a dramatic turning point for Hudson, who finds herself forced to prove she can out-act Blaine, who must continue his own performance. The tension builds steadily as Hudson hopes her abilities as a dramatist translate to the unpredictable film noir world. SUDDEN FEAR concludes with a very satisfying chase sequence, well complemented by the convincing performances by the leads, an inconvenient mechanical dog and the pulse-quickening score of Elmer Bernstein.
Film noir themes and motifs within SUDDEN FEAR should be spotted by fans of the genre without much trouble. Mirrors are used to show the hidden truth, as when Hudson's lawyer Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett) appears worried about Blaine's motivations, or when Blaine is shown scheming behind his wife's back. Often the elaborate staircase suggests danger in the noir film, or it implies one character's superiority over another. Both motifs come up in SUDDEN FEAR, though more imaginatively than one might expect. The film's most precipitous steps do not factor in the narrative as foreshadowed, and the one moment of bodily injury associated with a staircase is faked. Thanks in part to his turn as Blackie in the sublime PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), the presence of Jack Palance around Joan Crawford's character near any of the various stairways always raises concern for her safety. Even if you are not a fan of film noir, consider SUDDEN FEAR a persistently engaging suspense thriller.
The Myra Hudson character may not have needed another hit play, but Joan Crawford had just left Warner Bros. and sought a commercial success as a freelance artist. The Joseph Kaufmann Productions feature SUDDEN FEAR performed well at the box office for its distributor RKO. My first look at this film noir gem was by way of the Kino Video DVD released in 1999. Despite an absence of extras and a mediocre presentation at best, the obvious quality of the feature film elevated the disc to one of my most prized possessions in my rapidly expanding film noir collection. Naturally I was excited to boot up the new Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray edition. This 2K restoration, presented on a dual-layered disc framed at 1.37:1, looks a little hazy in motion, especially in comparison to the top film noirs available thus far from Warner Archive and The Criterion Collection. No matter; any improvement over the lackluster DVD is certainly welcome, and the difference between the new Blu-ray and the old DVD is easy to appreciate.
|Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray|
|Kino Video DVD|
The audio commentary track recorded for this Blu-ray release features film historian Jeremy Arnold, author of TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: THE ESSENTIALS: 52 MUST-SEE MOVIES AND WHY THEY MATTER (2016). Arnold offers plenty of detail about the humble beginnings of Lucille Fay LeSueur and her emergence as Hollywood star Joan Crawford, who essentially served as the executive producer of SUDDEN FEAR. Arnold references prior treatments of the script that were improved upon for the final revision, and he also discusses the original novel by Edna Sherry, which differs from the adaptation devised by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith. Without giving too much away for the uninitiated, the source material concludes much differently than the movie. Crawford was so impressed with the novel that she agreed to a 40% profit-sharing deal, which resulted in a $1 million take for the veteran actress. The only other supplement is a re-release trailer (1m 20s).
SUDDEN FEAR earned four Academy Award nominations in 1953, including Best Actress in a Leading Role (Crawford), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Palance), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Charles Lang) and Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Sheila O'Brien). Cinematographer Lang also shot ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and THE BIG HEAT (1953), two of the essential film noirs of the early 1950s. Other women-in-peril films helmed by director David Miller include TWIST OF FATE (AKA BEAUTIFUL STRANGER, 1954) and MIDNIGHT LACE (1960).