Say what you will, but no one could play a victimized, melodramatic heroine like Joan Crawford. Her talents in this area are certainly on conspicuous display in the 1952 film Sudden Fear, in which she plays a popular and successful playwright Myra, who falls for a moderately talented actor Lester (Jack Palance), only to discover that he, along with his former lover Irene (Gloria Grahame) have hatched a plot to kill her. Fortunately, she’s quite a bit brighter than they are, and so she manages to escape from them. In the end, Lester runs over Irene in the mistaken belief that she is Myra (they are wearing a similar scarf), killing both himself and her.
One of the most compelling things about this film is the way in which it plays with voice. It is due to the inadvertent recording of his plot by a dictaphone that Lester and Irene utilize to hatch their scheme. The disembodied voice continues haunts Myra, an ethereal reminder of the fact that the man she has (admittedly foolishly) fallen in love with has decided that she is to be dispensed with in favor of his own desire for wealth.
There is something intensely, almost viscerally satisfying, about the fact that Lester, in his desire to kill his well-meaning and benevolent wife, ends up killing both himself and his conspirator. Myra may be somewhat of a foolish and impulsive heroine, falling in love with a man that she barely knows and rendering herself vulnerable by attempting to leave her money and wealth to him. However, it is precisely her generousness of spirit that makes Lester’s betrayal of her all the more despicable. What’s more, he is absolutely ruthless in his attempts to kill her, chasing her relentlessly through the streets of San Francisco, his face and eyes becoming increasingly crazed as she continues to elude him. Not surprisingly, we in the audience continue to cheer her on, and we feel vindicated at the poetic justice of his own destruction.
Crawford and Palance make for a compelling and somewhat unusual screen couple. Palance was not the most handsome of movie stars, and his near-skeletal features always rendered him more appropriate for villainous roles. He manages here to tap into a powerful male rage, one engendered in both the film’s diegesis and the broader culture by the ever-present male fear of not being able to provide or earn a living on his own. You can practically see it seething beneath the surface, those deep-set eyes betraying the fury ever-ready to burst into the world. Crawford offers a nice balance to him, a woman who has built her own successful career as a writer and who possesses a fundamental strength of character that allows her to survive the attempts to kill her. However, she also exudes a certain measure of vulnerability, a willingness to believe, however foolishly, that she can also have love and completion with the man (seemingly) of her dreams.
In many ways, this film feels a bit out of its time, combining as it does the heightened emotions and victimized womanhood of the women’s films of the 1930s and the darkness of the film noirs of the 1940s. Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these elements together into a compelling film, and that final image of Myra/Crawford striding into the camera, head flung back in triumph, really brings it all together. It is a stunning and uplifting reminder of the power of the Crawford star persona. Even decades after her death, this persona manages to combine female strength and vulnerability in one indelible image that retains its power.