The “Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made” Blogathon: Sudden Fear
Sudden Fear (1952) is one of my most loved Joan Crawford films – and for me, a diehard Crawford fan, that’s saying something! It’s got a lot going for it – a unique and solid film noir story, superb performances from the principal players, and suspenseful, edge-of-your seat directing that would do Alfred Hitchcock proud. (It’s also one of the few classic films that I’ve seen in a movie theater, which gives it an edge in the “my favorite films” arena.)
The film was directed by David Miller, who wasn’t exactly known for his Hitchcock-like output – most of his films were comedies like Love Happy (1949) or dramas including The Story of Esther Costello (1957) and Back Street (1961). He did offer up a couple of thrillers featuring a woman-in-peril theme — Twist of Fate (1954), with Ginger Rogers, and Midnight Lace (1960), starring Doris Day – but for my money, his best film, by far, was Sudden Fear.
Before I dive into the oooey, gooey, suspenseful goodness that is at the center of Sudden Fear, let me make it clear that SPOILERS ABOUND. I tried and tried to come up with a way to discuss this film without giving away important plot points, but I found myself spending interminable blocks of time either (1) staring at my computer screen with my fingers suspended motionless in the air, or (2) typing a couple of lines and then pounding furiously on the backspace key. After several days of this, and with my deadline looming, I finally gave up and gave in – and climbed onto the spoiler train. So. You’ve been warned. All aboard!
Released in 1952, Sudden Fear stars, in addition to Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Bruce Bennett, and Touch Conners (better known as the name he used a bit later in his career – Mike Connors – also known as TV’s Mannix). The film is about a woman who finds out that her husband and his lover plan to kill her. It’s also about what she does when she finds out.
But let’s begin at the beginning.
As our story opens, playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) is observing early rehearsals for her latest Broadway production, which features actor Lester Blaine (Palance) as the romantic lead. While Myra acknowledges Blaine’s acting talent, she insists that he doesn’t have the right look for the role and has him replaced – which, understandably, does not sit well with Blaine. Incidentally, in addition to being a successful playwright, Myra is also stinking rich – she’s an heiress who doesn’t have to lift a finger if she chooses not to, but she is determined to work because of, in her words, “a desire to achieve, to earn my keep, to stand on my own two feet instead of my father’s fortune. And to make my own place in the world.” (So noble, this Myra.)
Myra’s play opens to rave reviews about a month later – with another actor in the starring role – and we meet up with her as she is boarding a train for a triumphant return to her home in San Francisco. Coincidentally, it so happens that the previously discarded actor, Lester Blaine, is aboard the same train. When Myra spots him, she invites him to a share a drink, the drink extends to a game of cards, then dinner, then an outing in Chicago during a layover, and finally onward to San Francisco . . . together.
Once the two are in San Francisco, though, we see that Lester is not all that Myra believes him to be. In fact, while it’s obvious that Myra has fallen head over heels for this budding thespian, we also see that Lester is a grade-A, gold-digging heel. Not only did he secretly change his train ticket (which was originally taking him to Chicago) in order to tag along with Myra to San Francisco, but after he is certain of Myra’s affections, he makes her believe that he is leaving town because he “doesn’t belong in [her] world” and has “no proper place in [her] life.” Myra falls for this subterfuge, hook, line and bank account, and before you can say Bob’s Your Uncle, the two are husband and wife.
And this brings us to our first instance of what I like to call the LH (“Like Hitchcock”) Factor.
LH Factor #1:
According to Hitchcock, one of the keys to the suspense he elicited in his films was to show the audience what the characters don’t see. This is illustrated in Sudden Fear when the audience realizes Lester’s true colors before Myra does – as a result, we look at Lester differently, suspect his every move, anticipate certain danger, dread what’s coming next.
Speaking of dread, Lester doesn’t wait long to give us something else to hang our suspicious hats on – at the party celebrating their wedding, one of the guests is Junior Kearney (Touch Conners), the brother of Myra’s lawyer, Steve (Bruce Bennett) . Junior has brought a date, Irene Nieves (Gloria Grahame), who, as it turns out, is Lester’s old flame and followed him to San Francisco when she learned of his marriage. Lester and Irene don’t waste any time rekindling their romance – which provides more information that is shared with the audience but, for now, is kept from Myra.
(Incidentally, Gloria Grahame’s character, Irene Nieves, is downright delicious – a self-centered, completely unscrupulous femme. When Lester shows up at her apartment and tries manhandling her, she boldly jerks away from his grasp, continuing to remove her white gloves as she unflinchingly instructs him to take his hands off of her. When Lester threatens her with bodily harm and brutally pushes her onto her couch, Irene calmly lights a cigarette, reclines on the sofa and stops Lester dead in his tracks by purring: “Thanks. Thanks a lot . . . for still loving me.” During a rendezvous on another occasion, Lester asks Irene why she accepted another date with Junior Kearney and she responds: “Because you haven’t called me in eight days. Because the rent’s due. And because I’d rather eat dinner than starve.” You gotta love this dame.)
Before long, fate steps in to show Myra just what kind of man she’s married to. The revelation comes courtesy of Myra’s dictating machine, which she has inadvertently left on, and which has recorded a conversation between Lester and Irene. The camera holds tight on Myra’s face as she listens to the recording of her husband sharing with Irene not only his kisses, but also the contempt that he has for his wife: “Sometimes when I’m with her it’s all I can do to keep from saying, ‘Look at yourself — wise up. Love you? I never loved you. Never for one moment.’ I’d like to see her face.” And speaking of her face, Myra’s provides a ready canvas for the shock, horror, and sorrow that she is experiencing as she listens. And her horror intensifies when the conversation turns from mere disdain to something far more sinister – acting under the mistaken impression that Myra plans to change her will in the next few days to provide a mere pittance to her husband, Lester and Irene decide that they will have to murder Myra before she can sign the papers.
And this brings us to . . .
LH Factor #2:
Hitchcock maintained that the content of each scene should engage the audience and reel them in, and that the characters should be used to tease the audience and leave them wanting more. This could not be better demonstrated than in the scene where Myra is listening to the voices of her husband and his lover. The scene works so well because in the beginning, we merely feel sympathy for Myra as we watch her find out something that we, the audience, already knew – that her husband is stepping out on her. But then, we find ourselves in the same boat as Myra as we learn together of Lester and Irene’s murderous intentions. Our sympathetic reaction as a mere onlooker is transformed, in an instant, into that of an empathetic co-conspirator.
We are reeled in even more in the next couple of scenes. When Lester arrives home later that evening, Myra is skittish and fearful – even Lester remarks that he’d “never seen [her] look like this.” She’s so overwhelmed by the information that she’s stumbled upon that she is unable to sleep all night. But the second we see her face the next morning, we know that something has changed. Myra is no longer tearful, hysterical, or afraid. Instead, her face is set with an unyielding resolve which hints that Lester has messed with the wrong dame. We hold our collective breath as she steals into Lester’s bedroom and swipes the key to Irene’s apartment, silently cheer when we see her making a copy, and then slide to the edge of our seats when Lester nearly catches Myra returning the original. And when Lester asks Myra why she’s looking at him in a particular manner, we smile along with her when she replies, “I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.”
Myra doesn’t waste any time in putting the key to use. After entering Irene’s apartment and conducting a thorough search, she emerges with several sheets of blank notepaper, a sample of Irene’s handwriting, and a gun. The following day, she invites Irene and Junior to join her and Lester for cocktails before the group leaves for a dinner party. By now, we know that Myra is up to something – but we don’t know what. Oh, we’re given little clues – we see her forging signatures and pocketing the gun and rubbing makeup on her ankle and tucking a note into a glove – but for a while, we don’t know what it’s all about. And then, at just the right moment, the entire plot is revealed, in a clever, step-by-step montage. And this scene provides a perfect example of . . .
LH Factor #3:
Hitchcock spoke about emotion – whether in the form of fear, laughter, surprise, anger, or whatever – as the ultimate goal of every scene. He stated that emotion comes directly from the actor’s eyes, and stressed the importance of controlling the intensity of emotion with close-ups, wide shots, and unusual angles. The scene where Myra’s plan is revealed provides a textbook illustration of this concept. The unfolding of each step of the plan is superimposed over a close-up of Myra’s eyes, the ticking pendulum of a clock, and Myra’s handwritten schedule of the plot. Through Myra’s eyes, we can experience, all at once, her anxiety, her excitement, her uncertainty. And, finally, her determination.
I won’t divulge the specifics of Myra’s plot, but I will reveal that, if successfully carried out, it was intended to result in Lester’s death and Irene’s conviction for his murder. And I will also share that, initially, every step of the plan ran like clockwork. There were no slip-ups, no wrong moves, no unexpected hurdles to navigate. But in the midst of the plan’s successful implementation, everything veered – as I like to say – to the left. Which sets us up for:
LH Factor #4
According to Hitchcock, once the audience has been led into gripping suspense, the plot should go in a totally unexpected direction – the rug should be pulled out from under the viewer in a surprise twist. And boy, does this happen in Sudden Fear. Just when we’ve settled ourselves down to watch Myra carry out her plan, we get thrown for a loop. And not just a loop, but a one-two punch that threatens to topple us from the edge of our seats and dump us unceremoniously onto the floor!
But I’ve said enough. I hate to leave you in suspense (ahem), but the rest you’ll have to discover on your own.
Sudden Fear is available in a stand-alone DVD issued by King Video, as well as in a box set, Film Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood. If you’ve never seen it and you like film noir, or Hitchcock, or Joan Crawford – or just good movies in general, make it your business to get your hands on a copy.
And remember, in the words of Alfred Hitchcock, there is no terror in a bang – only in the anticipation of it.
This post is part of the Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon, hosted by Dorian TB over at Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky of Classic Becky’s Brain Food, July 7th through July 13th. Pop on over and check out the many outstanding posts that are part of the blogathon! You know why . . .