Sudden Fear (1952)

Last year, I read AJ Finn’s thriller suspense novel, The Woman in the Window, in which the protagonist spends most of her time drinking wine and spying on her neighbours. I didn’t like the book, but the protagonist, besides being an alcoholic and a voyeur, had one thing to recommend her: she was a lover of old suspense films. The book had plenty of references to classic noir cinema, and I got a kick out of seeing how many of those I’d watched. And making notes of the ones I hadn’t seen yet, but which I thought I should try to get hold of.

Sudden Fear was one of those I hadn’t seen before, and when I found a very good print on YouTube, I decided to give it a try.

The story begins at a theatre company; rehearsals for a play are in progress, and the playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford), a very wealthy heiress who insists on working for a living because she doesn’t want to live off all her inherited wealth, is sitting with a few other people. Onstage, the lead actor, Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) is speaking a romantic dialogue to his co-star.

Myra, watching him, tells the director and producer that Blaine is all wrong for the role. He doesn’t look romantic. She agrees that his acting is excellent; but his looks, no. They have to replace him with another man. She exercises her right, as the playwright, to decide the casting.

There is no help for it; somewhat reluctantly, the director tells Blaine that he’s been fired, and Blaine is furious. He points out to Myra that Casanova was no big deal in the looks department, and then, even as Myra calls to him to stop, Blaine strides off the stage.

The play progresses, another actor replaces Blaine, and when the play is finally staged, it is, as is usual with Myra’s plays, a big success. Myra, satisfied and pleased, takes a train to Chicago, and realizes, shortly after she gets in, that Lester Blaine is on the train too. She has been feeling bad about not having been able to apologize for how hurt he had been, and she now goes forward to meet him.

It turns out that Blaine had noticed Myra on the train too, and it also turns out that he’s willing to forgive and forget. They soon get chatting, dining together, playing stud poker, and becoming friends. By the time they’re midway through the journey, Blaine has already got his ticket extended to Chicago.

By the time they arrive, Blaine and Myra are the best of friends. Two people have come to the train station to receive her: Ann (Virginia Huston), who is Myra’s secretary; and Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett), who is Myra’s lawyer, adviser and good friend. Ann is surprised to see whom Myra is with, but Myra is so obviously delighted to be with Lester Blaine that Ann accepts this new friendship.

And it doesn’t stay just a friendship for long. Blaine sweeps Myra off her feet; she is starry-eyed, in seventh heaven. They go about everywhere together, and all is bliss and romance.

Until one evening, when Myra is hosting a dinner party at her home. Blaine is long overdue; there has been no news from him, even to say that he may not be able to come. Worried and tense, Myra phones him repeatedly, but there’s no answer.

Meanwhile, we get the first inkling of what Lester Blaine is really like. He paces about his apartment, while the phone rings in the background. It is strident, insistent; Myra’s panic is palpable even long-distance, even without his picking up the phone to answer her. Still, Blaine lets it ring, until it stops.  

Back in her apartment, Myra is by now so anxious, she decides to go and check on Blaine.

Leaving Ann to look after her guests, she takes a cab to Blaine’s. When he hears the cab draw up and sees, through a chink in the window curtains, Myra get out, Blaine immediately picks up a packed suitcase, puts on his hat, and goes out the door. It’s all perfectly timed: he appears on the landing at the head of the staircase just as Myra starts coming up.

There is a melodramatic dialogue: Blaine tells Myra he is tired of people thinking he’s after her for her money. She’s so rich, he’s so poor. He has nothing. Touched, and desperately in love, Myra assures Blaine: she is nothing without him. Her wealth is nothing, it means nothing. She’s looking up pleadingly into Blaine’s face, and after a moment, he relaxes. They kiss…

… and, in the next scene, we find them married, honeymooning at Myra’s summer house by the sea not too far from San Francisco, where Myra has her home.

When they get back to regular everyday life, Blaine starts looking for acting jobs. Myra says he needn’t; after all, she has plenty of money. But Blaine refuses. He won’t touch her money, not the money she’s inherited and not the money she earns. Myra is impressed. During one of their conversations, in her study (where she does all her writing), Myra demonstrates the dictating machine she has set up in the room: it has several microphones scattered across the room, hidden discreetly within the fittings and furnishings. Myra, as she likes to do, can pace about while she speaks, and wherever she is in the room, the microphones will pick up the sound and record it.

Unknown to Myra, one of her newer acquaintances is already well-known to Blaine. This is Irene (Gloria Grahame), a young woman who is introduced to Myra by Junior (Mike Connors), Steve’s younger brother and a lawyer, like Steve: in fact, both Steve Kearney and Junior represent Myra.

Junior is head over heels in love with Irene, but—as we discover in a hurried scene when Blaine and Irene snatch a few minutes alone—Irene is Blaine’s girlfriend. She is furious at Blaine for the way he’s ditched her and married Myra, but Blaine reassures her. He knows what he’s about.

Myra, of course, is blissfully unaware of all of this. She believes fully in Blaine’s love for her. That evening, just before a party at which both Kearneys (as well as Irene, among others) have been invited, Myra tells Steve Kearney how much she trusts her husband. Steve is drawing up Myra’s will: she intends to bequeath most of her wealth to a trust she is going to be setting up in memory of her father. Steve’s drawn up a draft will and has, provisionally, put in a sum of $10,000 per year to be left to Blaine until he remarries.

Myra has a look at this document and refuses. She loves and trusts Blaine; she does not want to tie him to her even from the grave. No; she doesn’t want to give him just $10,000, and she certainly doesn’t want him to draw an income only until he remarries.
Wait, says Myra; she had better decide right now how she’ll reword it. She’ll dictate it to the dictating machine.

Steve and Junior are leaving soon for Sacramento and will be gone the weekend; they’ll return on Monday. By then, if Myra has her emendation to the will ready, they’ll prepare a fresh document. Myra agrees. Steve leaves her to it, and, alone in her study, Myra starts dictating what she wants to leave for Blaine: all of her property, all of the royalties from her works, in perpetuity…

Shortly after, Myra goes back to the party. Irene and Blaine, looking for a place for a quick tryst, come into the study.

The next morning, when Myra comes into her study, Ann has just come out of it. She mentions that Myra seems to have forgotten to shut off the dictating machine; Ann has done it. Myra goes on inside by herself, settles down, and turns on the playback option on the dictating machine. She hears, once again, all that she had dictated about the will.

Just as she’s reaching forward to turn off the machine after the last of her words, and the brief silence that follows, there’s a sharp sound. And then, two urgent voices in a hurried conversation. Blaine and Irene. Blaine telling Irene he cannot stand Myra, cannot stand this farce of being the loving husband. The will hasn’t been signed or attested yet, and that can’t happen until the Kearneys get back from Sacramento on Monday. So they have till then. Till Sunday night, to get rid of Myra, before her will becomes final.

Myra is frantic, not just shocked out of the roseate dreams she’d been nurturing, but terrified. The small record on which the machine has recorded the conversation, she realizes, is a crucial bit of evidence. She scrambles to hide it, to slip it into one of the thick books in her library—and, in the process, the record slips out of her hands and falls to the floor, shattered.

The evidence is gone; without it, Myra has no way of convincing the police or anybody else that her devoted husband is plotting to kill her.

What I liked about this film:

The story: taut, tense, and with a good deal of suspense. I liked, too, the fact that Myra isn’t the usual damsel in distress, who must turn to a male friend for help; this is an intelligent woman, and she uses her intelligence. And how well Joan Crawford plays her. The smart, confident and successful writer; the wealthy socialite; the woman deeply in love, she almost comes across as intoxicated by it. And then, the shock. The terror, the subsequent way she reins it in and sets about finding a solution: all is brilliantly done. Both Jack Palance as well as Joan Crawford got Oscar nominations for their roles in Sudden Fear; neither of them won, but I do feel Crawford deserved an award for this role.

What I didn’t like:

The odd coincidence on which the climax hinges. Or is it coincidence? A character’s very deliberate action right at the end seems to suggest, perhaps, that it wasn’t a coincidence, but premeditated. On the other hand, how could something like that have been premeditated? There is no way that coincidence could have been planned… or could it?

I don’t like wondering about something like that, and a coincidence that so completely solves the problem is something I don’t like, either.

But, other than that, a very good film.

Sudden Fear is available online for viewing: you can watch it here, on YouTube.

10 thoughts on “Sudden Fear (1952)

  1. Ooh, I love Joan Crawford. And I haven’t heard of/watched this film. And you left me at a cliffhanger – bad woman! I mean, I know it will end okay-ish, but now I’m keen to know how it all pans out. WDIGTT?

  2. This movie was a new one to me. Jack Palance was a familiar face to me but Joan was not so. As usual, you have made us feel that this is a film that promises to be entertaining for those who love noir cinema. Will surely watch it one of these days. Thanks Madhuji.
    K B Patil

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