Myra Hudson is a woman in control of her life. As a successful playwright, and an heiress to a significant fortune that she doesn’t particularly want or need, her life seems to be perfect. She knows how to confidently assert her opinions, she doesn’t back down—and people listen. This confidence causes problems for her though, when she dismisses the lead actor from her newest play, setting off a chain of events with devastating consequences.
Sudden Fear (1952), directed by David Miller, written by Leonore Coffee and Robert Smith from the book by Edna Sherry, stars Joan Crawford as Myra. As with many of Crawford’s best performances—this one garnered her a third Oscar nomination—the elements of her own personality and career that seem to seep in make it an appealing performance to watch. In addition to the self-assuredness on display, her speech on ambition and the desire to achieve one’s own place in the world seems particularly telling.
Much of the film’s dramatic tension relies on Crawford’s ability to express a wide range of emotions. The narratively important presence of the dictaphone, in several central scenes, requires her to essentially act against nothing—as audience, we depend on her expression to interpret what we are hearing. In one long take, we follow her on a journey of neutrality to suspicion to horror. Similarly, later scenes place us within her subjective, paranoid mental state, making good use of repeated close ups of Crawford. By the script, the character oscillates somewhat recklessly between helpless damsel and plotting impresario—no surprise that the latter depiction was my favorite—but that may be more a reflection of the era… the audience needed to see her at her lowest, most in-need-of-protection state, to justify the questionable actions she later attempts.
Jack Palance, as the dismissed actor Lester Blaine, is interestingly-but-well cast. Myra’s reason for letting him go is that he doesn’t look like a romantic lead—as she phrases it, he isn’t immediately charming enough to make the women in the audience go “mm-mmm.” That sounds about right in describing Palance, especially looking back now from his career of grizzled antagonists. Though Lester tries to prove her wrong over a cross-country train ride, she ultimately turns out to be right, having recognized him as a villain all along. Myra knew the simple truth that anyone with cheekbones that sharp must be up to no good.
Several scenes lag a bit due to repeated doubling throughout the film. For instance, Myra uses a dictaphone for her playwriting; the doubled scene here seems to be at least partially a result of making sure the audience thoroughly understood the technology. The scene essentially plays out twice, as the dictaphone plays back the dialogue that has just occurred. While a bit slow for a modern viewer, this scene does also bring Myra and Lester together, nicely highlighting the themes of double-crossing and two-facedness that will later emerge.
Other almost-doublings occur as Myra imagines different scenarios and sets out to either prevent them, or to make them happen. Sometimes, she’s a step ahead of the audience—performing curious actions that only reveal her intentions when she wants to reveal them. These types of scenes tend to be shown only once. However, other times, we know what she’s trying to do because we’ve already seen it—and of course, those are the times when her plans doesn’t turn out that way. Despite Myra’s desires, life doesn’t always replicate her plots as easily as her dictaphone does.
For how dependent most of the movie is on close ups of Crawford, I appreciated that at the moment of her greatest emotional pain, she turns away from the camera for several long moments, leaving us to imagine her face rather than showing it. The hesitation in showing her face did also caused me to wonder—by film’s end, how truly out of control was she… or was this all a part of her scripted plan?
- [Lester to Myra, ushering her to the ladies’ room upon arriving in Chicago]: “You’ll want to put on your Chicago lipstick.”
- [Lester to Myra, after waking up together]: “I like to look at you at this hour… anybody can see you in the afternoon.”
- At the height of Myra’s fear/paranoia state, a mental montage of ways she thinks she might die (pushed off a skyscraper, brakes cut, smothered by pillow)
- A chase scene significantly impeded by the difficulty in maneuvering a giant ’50s car around twisty San Francisco streets