It seems that the first impressions are really the most lasting. No matter how seriously we take that into account, a slightly similar conclusion could arise at the encounter of a playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) with an actor she auditions. Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) does not appear to be HER idea of a romantic leading man, "he just looks romantic but does not sound so." What is more, his notion about an oil painting of Casanova leaves confusing riddle within her mind and yet...she will soon stand before the dilemma to make up her mind and stick to it no matter what price she is going to pay.
Like Joan Crawford did not, initially, prefer Jack Palance as her leading man in the motion picture, Myra Hudson did not fancy Lester. Changing her mind, however, occurs inevitable. Myra soon utters romantically "Without you I have nothing!" And yet, is the truth about him disguised behind a romantic smile? Will sudden fear occur to disillusion Myra and rescue her from sudden murder?
When I have recently viewed this wonderful film noir, I felt it was the right time because I had already got to know the greatest films of the genre, not superior ones but similar ones. What I mean by that are the films directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. When seeing SUDDEN FEAR, you had better be acquainted with some of Hitchcock's best films because then, you may realize that SUDDEN FEAR has so much in common with the gem of noir. It's Hitchcock's fertile theme and Miller's stylish bravura. From the characters, objects, undertones, certain details, doom-filled atmosphere to the unique charm of San Francisco and the utterance that seems to be the core of Hitchcock's suspense: "This place is so perfect for an accident." Let me broaden some aspects of David Miller's picture which make us see it as one of the greatest representatives of its genre in the purest form.
The TORMENTED LEADING CHARACTER, Myra Hudson played brilliantly by Joan Crawford, highlights something truly ahead of its time. As an executive producer of SUDDEN FEAR, Ms Crawford allows viewers to get into her inner psyche and provokes a progressive approach: we psychoanalyze her as a character! Nothing like a linear storytelling, forget it! Yet, something that talks about a psychological world. We psychoanalyze her 'professional eye' in the theater scene, her coldness melted on a train at the match game that becomes as mysterious as the manipulative flirts, her 'blind confidence' in wedding Lester, the seeds of doubt that are being slowly planted from the moment he does not answer her phone. As a matter of fact, this is a purely genius scene when viewers-observers, unlike Myra herself, are granted a signal: "something is wrong about him." As a result, we differ from Myra, we feel suspicion earlier than her and, consequently, wait for her disillusion. When the unbelievable shock comes in her library and she confronts the reality, her behavior is utterly unpredictable: she does not resort to a state of blending fantasy with reality but remains cold and disguised both to us and to the people around her. In that respect, isn't she a typical Hitchcock's leading lady? Apart from one difference - she is not a blonde. Nominated for Oscar, Joan Crawford offers us a pure masterwork of acting.
JACK PALANCE, who replaces Ms Crawford's initial wish of casting Marlon Brando or Clark Gable, is truly surprising as a leading man. The fact we are not used to him in such a highlighted performance that combines a doe-eyed romanticist with a secret fox makes the effect even more memorable. An important fact here to state is that Lester is equally appealing in the psychoanalyzing approach as Myra. His pretense at the beginning, his patronizing behavior on the train, his look at hands, and his gradual 'promotion' in Myra's eyes beautifully depict an ambitious type. Later, his vitality and efforts are, somehow, focused on two women: Myra and Irene. When Myra begins to be his object of wealth's desire, Irene becomes his object of lust's desire. She is a 'blonde of lust.' Their scheme is a realization of their sexuality - something very Hitchcock-like where crime goes with sex. "Kiss me hard..." Note the love scene at the fireplace in the summerhouse and the way it is shot. Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Jack Palance appears to give a performance beyond our expectations.
Another great aspect that makes the genre so engrossing and absorbing is the use of objects that manipulate our perceptions and the cinematography that builds the atmosphere. Staircase scenes that purely recall STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and many great noir genres. And the objects including the clock that reveals heartbeat, the phone that disturbs the chain of emotions and rises fear, and, above all, the DICTATING MACHINE that becomes, in a way, another character of the story. The nightmarish fantasy seems to recall SPELLBOUND. The atmosphere is immensely powerful as the secret is partly revealed by the dictating machine ("I know a way") and Myra's reaction being one of the most natural and daring we can encounter. Mind you the realism (she vomits and we deduce it). Charles Lang's cinematography reaches the climax in the shots of interiors where everything seems to be overwhelmed by torments: images are combined with various sounds from the clock ticking to screaming and morose silence.
For a number of reasons, SUDDEN FEAR is a surprisingly modern entertainment, its age makes it a unique achievement on its own and the one that will never be duplicated thanks to top rate performances, haunting cinematography, plenty of daring ideas. A really ambitious and insightful production. One and only in its riveting entertainment!