J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Sudden Fear: Joan Crawford and Jack Palance in Romantic San Francisco

Myra Hudson is a hit Broadway playwright by day and a wealthy San Francisco heiress-socialite by night—or vice versa. Lester Blaine is a talented stage actor, but he makes better dough as a smooth-talking adventurer. Hudson fires Blaine from her next box office triumph because she does not believe he is seductive enough, but then falls hopelessly under his spell. However, when Hudson discovers her husband’s true nature things get classically noir in David Miller’s digitally restored Sudden Fear (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Hudson is used to getting her way, so she pulls her playwright’s prerogative and cans Blaine during rehearsals. Blaine is used to having his way, so he seduces Hudson when they both happen to find themselves on the same train bound Frisco. At first, they seem like a happy couple, despite their awkward history and vintage early 1950s separate sleeping quarters. However, when Blaine’s femme fatale ex Irene Neves shows up, she threatens to destabilize everything. They have some rather scandalous personal and professional history together, but the worst part is Blaine is still hung up on her.

Neves has been toying with Junior Kearney, the son and junior partner of Myra Blaine nee Hudson’s attorney and has discovered some very alarming news about her will. Ironically, she intended to add codicils that would do right by Mr. Blaine, but the two fortune hunters never haear about that. However, thanks to the heiress-playwright’s automatic dictation machine, she knows they intend to kill her over the weekend, before she can sign on the dotted line on Monday. Cat-and-mouse business duly commences.

It seems a bit strange Sudden Fear is not more widely remembered, because it is a nifty little thriller that earned Joan Crawford an Oscar nomination for a classically overwrought (in a good way) Joan Crawford performance. Let’s just say she does not handle the discovery of Blaine’s betrayal well at all. Of course, it is great fun to watch her segue from twitchy meltdown to stone cold resolve.

Yet, Jack Palance (also Oscar nominated for what was only his third film role) is an equally big screen presence as Blaine. He is lunky and sinister, but there is also something sympathetically vulnerable about him. In contrast, Gloria Grahame’s Neves is just pure unadulterated bad news. A young Mike Connors is serviceable enough playing as Junior Kearney, while he was still billed as “Touch Connors” (MST3K fans will remember that unfortunate stage name from Swamp Diamonds, with Beverly Garland). For extra added footnote interest, the senior Kearney is played by Bruce Bennett (a.k.a. Herman Brix), an Olympic shot put silver medalist, who was originally slated to play Tarzan in the Weissmuller-MGM franchise and would assume the role in a dodgy independent production loosely affiliated with Edgar Rice Burroughs. He’s fine too.

Crawford and Palance both do their thing, which guarantees Sudden Fear will be good back-stabbing fun. Miller was something of a studio journeyman, but he shows flashes of stylish inspiration throughout the 1952 film. He also shrewdly capitalizes on the San Francisco-Northern California locales, sometimes giving the audience flashbacks (or rather flashforwards) to Hitchcock’s 1958 classic, Vertigo. It is a juicy dark thriller that deserves a second lease on critical life. Highly recommended, Sudden Fear opens this Friday (8/12) in New York, at Film Forum.

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