Saturday Night Cinema: Sudden Fear


Tonight’s Saturday Night cinema classic is Sudden Fear, starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance. Joan Crawford won her third and last Oscar nomination for this tense noir thriller, featuring the underrated Jack Palance in a particularly scary performance.

Joan Crawford portrays a successful, independently wealthy playwright who fires struggling actor Jack Palance from her latest production. Eventually she and Palance kiss and kiss and kiss and make up, which leads to marriage. One day, Crawford turns on her dictaphone, only to hear the voice of Palance plotting her murder with tartish Gloria Grahame. But Crawford isn’t a celebrated playwright for nothing; she takes to her typewriter and concocts a scenario that will hoist Palance on his own petard.

(1952, David Miller) Sure Jack Palance is steamed when heiress/playwright Joan Crawford cans him from the leading role in her latest drama. But after its triumphant premiere, who’s her surprise fellow passenger on her train trip back to San Francisco? Looks like it’s smooth sailing for a whirlwind romance, but then the twists start coming: the cliffside getaway with that twisting, railing-less path; Joan’s lawyer’s big brainstorm, a new will; the voice-activated recording system; and conniving ex-girlfriend Gloria Grahame (see In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat August 24 in our Double Features festival) – but then Joan’s got a plot of her own. Four Oscar nominations, for: Sheila O’Brien’s costume design; Charles Lang’s photography (see One-Eyed Jacks, playing October 17-20), with highly-atmospheric San Francisco location shooting; Crawford, switching from no-nonsense star dramatist to swooning romantic to knuckle-chewing hysteric to hard-eyed revenge-seeker; and Palance, in only his third film (see also: Contempt, playing Aug. 20), exuding both charm and menace, never more resembling a creepily smiling frog – his gunfighter killer in Shane was next. DCP restoration from 35mm elements held at the BFI. Approx. 110 mins.


“AN UNDERSEEN CLASSIC WAITING TO BE REDISCOVERED! Like many underrecognized treasures, David Miller’s Sudden Fear fits into and defies different genres, its convention-scrambling partly the result of the fact that the film looks both forward and back…With its felicitously chosen San Francisco locations (including the Legion of Honor), Sudden Fear anticipates the more hallucinatory Vertigo…With the arrival of [co-star Gloria] Grahame, then in the ascendant phase of her career, the pleasures of Sudden Fear multiply further as a study of contrasting approaches to Golden Age screen acting. In the words of unimpeachable critic and Grahame acolyte Boyd McDonald, the actress had ‘the sullen, bored walk and talk of someone who can’t be shocked, isn’t afraid, and just doesn’t give a shit.’ Watching Crawford, however, we are transfixed by the intensity of her labor (and that of the five people credited with overseeing her hair, makeup, and costuming): In several reaction shots, her face becomes a gutting tableau of horror, hurt, and humiliation.”
– Melissa Anderson, The Village Voice

“Sudden Fear was always a film that required you to surrender to its high pitch, even around the time of its release. When François Truffaut saw it, he wrote: ‘If the audience laughs when it is not suitable to do so, I take that as a sign of daring, of finish. The public has lost the habit of intensity.’ His review rambles over his entire philosophy of cinema, but when he circles back to Sudden Fear, Truffaut says that outside of two dream sequences, ‘there is not a shot in this film that isn’t necessary to its dramatic progression. Not a shot, either, that isn’t fascinating and doesn’t make us think it’s a masterpiece of cinema.’ Crawford, he adds, is “a question of taste.’ For my taste, she’s brilliant, and so is Sudden Fear.”
– Farran Smith Nehme, Film Comment

“Great location work, some expressionist interludes that capture the Crawford character’s mental state and an ingeniously convoluted climax.”
– Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times

“VISUAL VERVE! Crawford’s overall appearance, and performance, shifts into darkness, boasting the chops that transcend camp.”
– Max Kyburz, Brooklyn Magazine

“MAGNIFICENT AND NIGHTMARISH! ONE OF CRAWFORD’S FINEST PERFORMANCES…A TOUR DE FORCE! None of [Crawford’s performance] is ‘over-the-top.’ None of this is ‘campy.’ It is world-class acting, period.”
– Sheila O’Malley,

“ONE OF THE UNSUNG GLORIES OF GOLDEN AGE HOLLYWOOD…THE BEST, THE PUREST FILM NOIR I’VE EVER SEEN. A taut, ingeniously-plotted woman-in-jeopardy, beat-the-clock thriller and a drop-dead star vehicle for Oscar-nominated Crawford. Her sculpted face is a Kabuki mask, and her reaction shots recall her origins in silent movies. San Francisco never looked more menacing.”
– Foster Hirsch, author of The Dark of the Screen: Film Noir

– Time Out New York

“A viewer not entirely a slave to Miss Crawford’s brand of histrionics might argue that an excessive amount of footage is given to close-ups of the lady in the throes of mental traumas and other emotional disturbances. In general, however, she behaves in a convincing manner since, after all, she is involved with a homicidal husband.”
– The New York Times

“A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE! HUGELY ENJOYABLE! Suspense screwed way beyond the sticking point, superb camerawork from Charles Lang, and Crawford in nerve-janglingly extravagant form.”
– Tom Milne, Time Out (London)

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