Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sudden Fear


I’ll admit to some prejudice here: I find Joan Crawford and Jack Palance to be two of the least appealing movie stars in classic Hollywood. It’s easy to see why someone might dislike Palance. He played some of the nastiest, scariest roles ever, including the one here. He might have been a perfectly nice guy in real life. I really don’t know. For some reason I never liked Crawford at all, and that was before Mommie Dearest. I try not to let stories like that influence my opinion of someone’s acting, but the fact is that every time I see her now I think of wire coat hangers.

This film is classified as a psychological noir thriller, and some have compared it to Hitchcock. I guess it’s in that neighborhood. The plot is okay, as a very bad man marries a very rich playwright with the intention of getting all her money. When he finds out she is leaving him only $10,000 a year (he is wrong, not knowing that she has changed her will that very day to leave him everything) he plots with Gloria Grahame, who for some reason usually seemed to play floozies, to kill her. Crawford finds out about it, and sets out to turn the tables on them.

Aside from a bit of eye-rolling overacting by Crawford when she learns of the plot, it is well told. There are long stretches with no dialogue, just letting the camera tell the story, as Hitchcock liked to do. When she is plotting the murder she makes a list, and we move in on her eyes as we go down the list, and superimposed on that is the way she expects it all to go down. Eleven o’clock, Hubby arrives at apartment. Check. Like that. It’s a device borrowed from the great Preston Sturges in Unfaithfully Yours, where Rex Harrison’s cunning and complex plot to kill his wife unfolds perfectly in his mind, and is a comedy of errors when he puts it into action. There’s no comedy here, but of course her planning is too complicated, as it always is when someone sets to commit (in fiction) the “perfect crime.”

I found the ending to be unsatisfying, but I understand it had to be that way because in 1952 it still wasn’t possible for a good person to commit cold-blooded murder and get away with it. It also wasn’t possible for the cheating husband and his floozy to escape, either. But it was a damn shame. I wish she would have plugged the sucker, as she had planned. Oops. I hope I didn’t give too much away there, but really, you know how it all comes out. The only question is how.