Title: Sudden Fear
Genre: Film-Noir, Thriller
Director: David Miller
Lenore J. Coffee
based on the novel of the same name by Edna Sherry
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography: Charles Lang
A full-fledged star vehicle for Ms. Crawford, in this film-noir tale, she plays Myra Hudson, a rich Broadway playwright-spinster, who intuitively vetoes an actor Lester Blaine’s (Palance) audition for her newest play, since his unusual look doesn’t seem to be well qualified for a romantic role, which prompts Lester’s chagrin and he rebukes that Myra is wrong for her impetuous decision.
Some days later, on the train back to her home in San Francisco after the play turns out to be a hit, Myra encounters Lester, out of courtesy and to manifest there is no hard feelings, they bury the hatchet and Lester proves to her that he in fact is a virtuoso romantic suitor for her despite the age difference, and she is significantly besotted, the two tie the knot afterwards, which erects a perfect hotbed for the ensuing murder plan.
There is an ulterior motive in Lester’s agenda from his very first move, when his old flame, a sensual siren Irene Neves (Grahame) arrives uninvited, the two scheme together to murder Myra after knowing that the latter will donate the bulk of her fortune to a foundation. But Ms. Crawford will not resign herself to an unwitting wife who is like a lamb to slaughter, right in the midway, Myra receives a rude awakening and unearths Lester’s sinister plan, after the initial shock and distress (which inconveniently outstays its welcome as Ms. Crawford’s one-woman show), and a clumsy act which accidentally destroys the key testimony, she straightens up and dauntlessly decides to preempt their action in her own way.
Here, the movie starts to glisten with suspense, under the ominous chiaroscuro lighting, particularly designated in her favour, Ms. Crawford’s dignified mien glints intensely from resolution, hesitation, worry to utter fear, and everything is on tenterhooks, viewers vicariously experience the struggle, strain and danger from Myra’s viewpoint, playing meek and unsuspecting in front of her double-faced husband on a daily basis, cautiously plotting her counter-move in the sly step by step, while keeping hold of her usual pretence without arousing any suspicion, she must be a natural actress herself to fake a glamorous fall from staircases without any damage done to undercut her mobility, also a first-rate penmanship-imitator, and practising her first-ever plan of murder in her mind, which is a dead giveaway that things will not proceed exactly in the way as she has envisaged. The biggest question is, is she as good killer as an actress? Is she capable of pulling the trigger when the crunch arrives?
The script mercifully (or rather cowardly) saves Myra from being the ultimate executioner of poetic justice, lest it would blemish Crawford’s iconic benevolent image, she is never a noir heroine, and here, she is ever so close to be one, an Oscar nomination is quite rewarding, it is the only time, she and her arch-enemy, Ms. Bette Davis (in Stuart Heisler’s THE STAR 1952) are competing in the same category, although both are the charming also-rans in this case. An angular, hatched-faced Jack Palance is an unorthodox leading man in his career breakthrough role, who has no qualm in oozing venom while being hospitable and deferential. Yet, he is routinely degraded with a BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Oscar nomination, high-fives with his fellow nominee Richard Burton in Henry Koster’s MY COUSIN RACHEL (1952), an Olivia de Havilland’s vehicle, two glaring examples of Academy’s category injustice for budding leading actors.
One of the strong points of this David Miller’s thriller is the cinematography from Charles Lang, greatly taps into the forbidding nighttime of San Francisco, e.g. the final chasing sequences in the steep streets, sufficiently surpasses the ongoing action itself. Finally, a friendly advice to all female viewers, sometimes, you have to stick to your instinct of the first impression, simply because it is a life-saving bonanza bequeathed by nature itself, don’t easily throw it away.