Film noir narratives rarely relied on sympathetic female protagonists, typically resigning them to either an innocent supporting character or a devious femme fatale. While there is a femme fatale in the 1952 noir, Sudden Fear, the main character is unusual enough just being a woman, but also has the added distinction of ending in a place of moral superiority. Star Joan Crawford had previously bent this male-driven movement of post-war cinema by blending the woman’s picture (now referred to as melodrama) and the film noir with the 1945 classic, Mildred Pierce.
Sudden Fear begins with a rejection, and one that any actor should be familiar with. Crawford stars as successful playwright Myra Hudson, who decides to replace her lead actor when he doesn’t live up to her expectations. Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) leaves the theater bitter and angry, but this resentment seems to have dissipated by the next time the actor runs into Myra. They share a train ride together across country, and inevitably become romantically involved. This leads to marriage, and that is when Myra finally discovers Lester’s ulterior motives.
Even with a relatable female protagonist, apparently a devious woman is still necessary to the plot of a noir, and in this film that is Gloria Grahame. Grahame plays the mistress and co-conspirator of Lester, helping in the plan to kill the playwright in a way that appears accidental, so as to inherit her fortune. The fact that Grahame and Crawford had a notoriously tumultuous relationship on set (including reports that the rivalry came to blows during one scene) just adds to the animosity between the two characters on film.
In a typical film noir Grahame would still be the femme fatale, but Palance’s Lester would likely be the protagonist. Instead of following Lester’s path, we stay with Myra as she accidentally discovers her husband’s murder plot. Myra then begins her own plans to counter her husband’s, giving the film all of the twists of a typical noir along with a protagonist we can root for. There may even be a bit too much of an effort to make Myra sympathetic, to the point that she is often in danger of appearing weak in her morality. But even with a slightly contrived conclusion, Sudden Fear is a wonderful forgotten gem for fans of film noir and Crawford alike.
The new 2K restoration of the film looks and sounds great, especially considering the films many shadowy scenes. On top of a fantastic new restoration, the DVD also comes with an optional commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold, as well as the re-release trailer.
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7.5/10
Historical Significance: 6/10
Special Features: 5/10