SUDDEN FEAR Joan Crawford: Queen of the volatile eyebrows with a life all their own. Her vulcanized eyebrows frame her austere gaze.
In Sudden Fear, the tale of Myra Hudson, a wealthy San Fransisco Heiress and playwright whose new play Halfway To Heaven is about to become another smashing success. At first, we see a very empowered woman who doesn’t like to be referred to as an heiress. She’s independent and obviously is well-guarded in terms of her emotions. Here she is an iconic figure of the woman as an upper or middle-class protagonist, perhaps unconsciously inviting in something ominous into her safe environment. She’s unaware of being provocative yet allowing this intruder into her normal life.
This is a stylish noir – melodrama with a villain lying in wait for the innocent, vulnerable bystander to give way to the intrusion. A secret desire perhaps to shake up the ordinary world they usually inhabit.
Lester Blaine is played by Jack Palance*, the imposing and saturnine actor whose appearance generates that of a Minotaur rather than a leading man. (Palance’s appearance fated him to play the villain in more than one Noir film in its prime. His jawline conveys menace, his dark and brooding deep-set eyes betray a sinister inner prayer for self-satisfaction and malice.)
Lester has failed to land the lead in the play. Myra, watching from the theater seats while auditioning him, says “he sounds romantic enough, he just doesn’t look romantic enough”
Once Blaine finds out that he hasn’t landed the part in Myra’s play he bursts forth onto the stage and delivers a diatribe about a famous painting of Casanova that she should really visit. “He’s got big ears and a scar, and looks just like me.”
Is he genuinely hurt or is he contriving to get close to Myra? At this point, we are unsure of his motivations, yet we do see a glimpse of something unsavory, sinister in his unctuous mannerism.
Now Myra is on a train from New York headed back to San Francisco, where she sees Blaine from her compartment window and calls out to him. Miraculously Blaine is boarding the same train. After a few awkward moments, Myra trying to justify not picking him for the lead actor in the play, the ice is broken and Blaine begins to romance her. We sense that his charm, his parlor tricks of affectionate gestures are lures for the bait. His oily, silken tone, wiling her into his gaze and out of her safety zone. To us, he has a sadist’s air, but Myra has already started to loosen her grip on her formality. She has given in. They ride through to Chicago, where he takes her to an acting school for wrestlers, we’re told. Back on the train, he asks her why she works. “The desire to achieve, to stand on my own two feet, instead of my father’s fortune, make a place in the world.” Here again, we are reminded that Myra was a very strong-minded and independent femme inoffensif.
Now that the Minotaur is lurking, and the romance has been kindled, Crawford’s face is softening with each frame as she accepts him into her soul’s stoic citadel. They share quotes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and then their hands mesh, his fingers baring a ring, she asks if it’s a wedding ring, he says it’s his mother’s.
The trap is set. She is caught. She brings him home to her apartment in San Francisco where he meets her two friends, her lawyer Steve Kearney – played by the innocuous Bruce Bennett, the ever-vigilant and devoted attorney/friend. She then takes him up to her study where “plays are born” She shows him her dictaphone where she records everything, scene descriptions, and the bequests for her last will and testament. And they drink milk. A virtuous drink. The drink of lily white modesty. He begins a soliloquy from one of her plays. ” It’s flattering to be quoted. Another move closer, piercing her tough heart seed. He moves towards her and now they kiss.
We are taken along through scenes of sightseeing the great points of the lookout for San Francisco; the Trolley, the Bridge, and Muir Woods. The music tells us the mood is that of metropolitan musings. The bustle of car horns and trumpet hollers. The city is now fresh with a new love for Myra and Lester Blaine.
The celebratory, outdoor frames end and suddenly relinquish themselves into a frantic moody setting at Myra’s apartment. Guests downstairs at a party she’s thrown in honor of Lester. She’s frantically ringing his room. We see her black glassy shoes pacing in the room. She lights a cigarette. Her friends Steve and Ann come in to see if she’s coming back down to the party.
Now we see Blaine pacing. His shoes are the vantage point with which we understand the fervor of his first inscrutable stratagem set forth to weaken Myra’s self-possession. She relentlessly rings his phone. He’s lying on top of his bed, smoking a cigarette allowing her to become more diminished with every dead silence.
She tells her friends to “Tell the guests anything”. She is now a desperate woman, something must have happened to him. She goes to his room. We see him at the top of the stairs with his bags packed. He looms like a great menacing presence. Stairs in Noir films are often a symbol, a mechanism to facilitate the atmosphere of the ascent toward danger and insecurity. He tells her that he doesn’t belong in her world. She tells him she has nothing without him. His ruse has worked. They are married.
At her summer house, they awaken from their marriage bed, and greet the new day, by walking out onto the balcony near the stairs leading down towards the ocean. It’s very steep and rocky with no guardrail. Treacherous if you were to lose your balance. I wondered, will he try to push her down this rocky tor? What Myra calls the precipice. Blaine feigns concern for her safety and she quotes Nietzsche’s ‘Live dangerously” a foreshadowing of the pact she has inadvertently signed with the devil.
At the reception of Mr and Mrs Lester Blaine, the dubious Irene Neves played by the sweltering Gloria Grahame comes walking in on the arm of Steve’s brother Jr. (Mike Connor) The sultry vulpine blond unwraps her white head scarf and everything changes from here.
We see Lester leering at Irene curiously. Do they have a past relationship?
After the reception Irene, once again climbing a set of stairs to her apartment, puts the key in the door, and is startled by Lester who comes at her from behind. She screams as he pushes her into the apartment with brutal compulsion. Sounding furious he asks ” What are you doing in San Francisco?” she replies so cooly “An old friend of mine married a San Francisco girl.” Throwing a newspaper at him she follows up with “Here I’ll show you it was in all the newspapers.” He slaps it out of her hands and says “Don’t be cute.”
Now we understand that we have a pair of anti-social opportunists who not only know each other but have never severed the relationship. Lester gets furious at the thought of Irene dating Jr. and wants to know what she’s done to impress him. He warns Irene, if she ever does, she’ll need a new face! Blaine’s violent potency has manifested in full force now for us to see.
Amidst several diversionary tactics, like asking Steve, Myra’s trusted friend and lawyer to help him find work because he would never live off his wife’s money. Lester and Irene meet in secret. He asks why she’s still dating Jr. “Cause the rents are due, and I’d rather eat dinner than starve.” These two ruthless people begin to plot Myra’s demise. They must be careful. It must look like an accident.
Steve suggests to Myra that she makes a sensible change in terms of the will. She is about to inherit her father’s entire fortune soon. But Myra says she won’t hang onto any man she loves from the grave nor from this side of the grave either. For the first time, she feels poor because all she has to give is her love to Lester. And for the first time, she feels rich because she is getting so much back from him in return. She wants to share all her worldly goods with this reptilian deceiver she’s fallen in love with. She bequeaths her entire estate onto the Dictaphone, in her study. That night there is a party, and people are playing poker, Lester and Irene slip away into Myra’s study and begin to conspire and embrace.
The next day, the secretary tells Myra that she left the dictaphone on. Myra disagrees but lets the issue drop. Once in the study, she listens to the bequest “For the happiness he’s given me…” then a sudden skip in the recording and now we hear Lester and Irene who had inadvertently recorded themselves scheming.
And now the veil of deception has been lifted. She has been so naive, so fragile for once. She is horrified, the look on her face bears her devastation and betrayal. She hears how he’s never loved her. How it makes his skin crawl to tell her he loves her. She weeps, as she hears them read the will that Steve intended for Lester. ”She doesn’t sign the Will until Monday, and can’t get the old man’s money ’til then, suppose something happens between now and Monday?” They have to make it look like an accident. They’ve got 3 days. The record starts to skip. And Gloria Grahame’s razor-edged voice, drones on and on ” I know a way… I know a way”. Myra runs to the bathroom and gets sick. She realizes that she’s got proof of their plot to murder her, but in her frenzy to hide the recording she accidentally breaks it.
This scene is one of the most powerfully driven slow burning revelations– the gestalt of this dark story. The droning voice of Irene, she’s defenseless, staring at her marriage bed, where lies were perpetrated upon her. The incessant violation, “It’ll have to look like an accident.” She clasps her ears. She begins to dream, the dreams sow the seed of nightmares. All the ways she could die. Being pushed from the tallest window. Being smothered by unseen hands pushing a pillow over her face. Suddenly she is woken up by Blaine who has broken through the door, acting concerned. She flinches, afraid of him. We see the shift in her now. Her gaze has shifted to abject fear of this man. Then her fear seems to turn to scorn. A little sign of her durability comes back to her complexion.
Instead of going to her friend Steve who would have readily believed her story, she contrives to undermine Lester and Irene by laying the groundwork for her own strategy, to set them both up. The film begins to unwind into a dark forest of shadowy contours and murkiness. Scenes of Crawford’s machinations through the lens of her extraordinary eyes. The shadow of the clock’s pendulum oscillates on her face, over her heart, while she envisions her plan enacted. There are a variety of scenes with clocks. The use of the clock in this film is emblematic of Myra’s living on borrowed time. Of time running out for all the players. There’s also a very gripping and inventive scene with a little wind-up toy dog that escalates the atmosphere of agitation and tautness. The shadows that frame the figures are like contoured walls of darkness. Crawford’s eyes convey much of the rest of the narrative.
You’ll have to see the film yourself, I will not spoil the way the rest of this film plays out. It doesn’t unbend at the final frame but rather awakens from the shadows, the noir landscape, the sound of high heels fleeing on cobblestone streets no more. Wet down in bleak and dreary puddles of rain. The sun comes up slowly mounting on the back of the morning sky, ascending renewal. The end of sudden fear.
Sudden Fear features a screenplay by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith from the novel by Edna Sherry and was directed by David Miller and the director of photography was Charles Lang Jr. (Some Like It Hot, How The West Was Won, The Magnificent Seven, Charade, and Wait Until Dark.)
The film’s evocative score is by the prolific composer Elmer Bernstein.
* Several years ago I had the great privilege of sitting at a neighboring table across from the great Jack Palance, at a very quaint Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. Although I had been such a huge fan of his for years, I did not want to insinuate myself into his dinner conversation. He had been sketching with crayons on the tablecloth something for someone who appeared to be a director. They were obviously discussing the details of some project. I felt so special to be seated near him. In person, he seemed as gentle as a labrador retriever. Not the imposing gargoyle of a man that he came across in most of his films. I consider that meal, a very special moment in time.