Day 28 of Noirvember: Dames Off the Beaten Path — Irene Neves in Sudden Fear (1952)
Everybody knows about those larger-than-life femmes fatales in those famous, blockbuster noirs: dames like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past. Kitty Collins in The Killers. Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Sure, we’re all familiar with these twisted sisters.
But what about the dames off the beaten path? The femmes that are just as fatal – just not as well known. For today’s celebration of Noirvember, I’m starting a new series, one that will shine the light on these lethal lovelies. For my inaugural entry in Dames Off the Beaten Path, I offer up Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) in Sudden Fear (1952).
The star of Sudden Fear is Joan Crawford, who plays Myra Hudson, a wealthy and blissfully married playwright whose world is rocked to the core when she learns that her husband, Lester (Jack Palance) is not only having an affair, but that he and his lover are plotting to kill her. Irene is the lover – and, boy, is she fun to watch.
We first meet Irene at the lavish wedding reception of Lester and Myra – and the first thing we notice is Lester’s face when he spies her on the arm of Junior Kearney (Mike “Mannix” Conners – credited in this film as “Touch” Conners, LOL). It’s plain to see that Lester wasn’t expecting Irene and isn’t exactly pleased as punch at her arrival. Junior – a friend of the bride – introduces his date to Myra and her husband. While Lester stares/glares at Irene during the entire introduction, Irene barely pays him any attention – except that when she shares the name of the residence where she’s staying, her eyes flicker over Lester in a quick, brief motion, like the tail of a whip.
When we next see Irene, she’s in front of her apartment house, deftly extricating herself from Junior’s amorous embrace – only to find when she gets to her door that Lester Blaine is waiting for her. And he – once again – is not a happy camper. But neither is Irene. Turns out that Irene and Lester had a “thing goin’ on” in New York in the not-too-distant past, but Lester disappeared, and turned up married to Myra Hudson – as Irene discovered through a notice in the New York papers. “I thought I’d come out here to see how you were getting along,” Irene says, her words fairly dripping with venom.
Irene may be a jealous woman, but she’s no shrinking violet – when Lester tries some rough stuff, you don’t see any tears or pleas for mercy. Instead, she jerks away from his grip with as much force as Lester emits, spitting at him, “Take your HANDS off me!” She explains that she traveled to San Francisco to find him, and deliberately sought out the services of the law firm employed by his wife. When Lester observes that Myra’s attorney is Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett), Junior’s brother, Irene admits, “But Junior is more impressionable.”
Cool as a cucumber, that’s Irene, as she demonstrates seconds later when Lester threatens to harm her if she tells Junior about their relationship. “You ever do, [and] you’re going to need a new face. Remember that,” he growls, before shoving her onto the sofa and heading for the exit. And what does Irene do? She nonchalantly rights herself, lights a cigarette, and thanks Lester. “Thanks for what?” he barks, his hand on the knob of the open door. Irene reclines seductively on the couch and purrs, “For still loving me.” Next thing you know, Lester is closing the door – and not behind him. If you know what I mean.
In Irene’s next scene, she steps up her game. After she doesn’t hear from Lester for more than a week, Irene gives Junior a call – on a day when Lester just happens to be in his office. Needless to say, her gesture brings Lester a’runnin’ – and, as seems to be the norm with this guy, he’s pretty pissed off. He wants to know, of course, why Irene has started seeing Junior again. “Because you haven’t called me in eight days,” Irene retorts. “Because the rent’s due. And because I’d rather eat dinner than starve.” Lester obviously finds this to be a reasonable explanation – before you know it, these two are putting their heads together and deciding that Irene should grill Junior for information on Myra’s intentions for her vast inheritance. (“I’ll turn him inside out,” Irene vows. And she does – after plying Junior with five (?!?) martinis, she learns that Myra plans to donate the bulk of her wealth to charity. (“That’s a fine, noble character you married. Ha!” Irene says when she calls Lester to relay her findings. “Why don’t you use that key I gave you and come on over? We’ve got lots to talk about.”)
If it weren’t clear by now that, in this duo, Irene is large and in charge, she proves it without question when we see her again, arriving at the Blaine/Hudson abode for a dinner party. She surreptitiously directs Lester (standing not five feet from several other people, no less) to meet with her in secret during the party. If you have any doubts that Lester made this happen, well, you just haven’t been paying attention.
We find out the same time as Myra does about the conversation that Irene and Lester had during the party – strictly by accident. I’m not going to tell you how she finds out, but it’s a humdinger of a reveal, I’ll tell you that. Suffice it to say that Lester and Irene discover – they think – that Myra has made a new will which leaves Lester an annual monetary payment, but only until he remarries. They also discover that the will has not yet been signed – it won’t be signed for another three days. And who is it that puts two and two together in this little scenario? Who else? “What if she isn’t able to sign it on Monday?” Irene queries. “Suppose something happened to her between now and Monday? Who’d get her money? . . . Three days. We’ll work it out. I know a way.”
I’m going to stop here and let you discover for yourself the rest of this awesome movie and Gloria Grahame’s first-rate portrayal of Irene. It’s available on DVD at a number of sites, including Amazon.com and JubileeDVD.com, as well as Netflix.com. Do yourself a favor and check it out!
Stay tuned for the next installment of Dames Off the Beaten Path – and join me tomorrow for Day 29 of Noirvember!