A film noir blockbuster in every sense of the word, David Miller’s 1952 classic SUDDEN FEAR arrives on DVD in a stunning new 2K restoration, courtesy of the noiristas at Kino-Lorber, in sinister conspiracy with The Cohen Media Group/The Cohen Film Collection.
The movie as a stand-alone noir scenario is a triumph in and of itself. The extra trappings, being the genre pedigree cast (and, specifically, its lead) make it a must-see and now, must-own item; it’s no accident that FEAR is included on many Movies I Need to See Before I Die (or reasonable facsimile) lists.
Star Joan Crawford wasn’t merely an extremely talented actress; she was one savvy businesswoman. By the early 1950s, there were less and less vehicles for female stars hovering south of age 40. What ever happened to Bette Davis with All About Eve, in 1950, didn’t elude Mildred Pierce. It proved jezebel still had legs; the Mankiewicz picture was a critical and box-office smash. In retaliation, Crawford, taking on the additional role of coproducer, wisely sought out a narrative with a similar background (the New York theater scene), but not similar enough to be a copycat (shortly after the pic’s fade-in, comprising a brutal verbal thrashing during a Broadway audition, SUDDEN FEAR veers sharply west, to California, and takes a dark, creepy and terrifying turn). She correctly figured that the tense novel by Edna Sherry would be perfect for her trademark flashing eyes, and postwar neurotic twitching persona (remember Possessed, the 1947 one?) The script by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith additionally proved her right.
The star portrays famed playwright/producer (and millionaire heiress) Myra Hudson, whose penchant for knocking out hits has made her legendary on both coasts. While casting the male lead for her latest Broadway piece, she is pointed toward Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), a promising actor hampered only by his severe, foreboding looks. Hudson’s vicious comments (that no woman would/could seriously believe him to be a romantic lead) effectively emasculates him, after he delivers an otherwise excellent soliloquy. Blaine lashes back at his critic, and leaves the audition. Hudson justifies her actions with the old chestnut about show business being rough.
It’s about to get rougher.
En route home to San Francisco, she runs into Blaine, who is likewise headed west on the same train. She apologizes, he sloughs it off; they become dining companions, and then more. Turns out, Lester is quite the romantic lead.
Before you can say “rooster in the hen house,” he’s moved in with Myra, at her luxurious super 1952 ultra-modern mansion (an important factor, as technology is an integral part of the plot). Surprising her close friends, the pair soon wed. And all seems fine.
The arrival of New York firecracker Irene Neves (the great Gloria Grahame) tilts the tale into a downward spiral. Has this been a vengeful payback plan? Is she a spurned lover? Is the too-good-to-be-true Blaine a ruthless psychopath? Or is Hudson herself spinning out of control into a neurotic abyss?
All of these are questions are answered with an overabundance of goosebumps.
SUDDEN FEAR is one of the scariest noirs ever filmed; indeed, it practically overlaps into horror. I defy anyone not to be on freaky edge for the last reel or two (Prefiguring Scream by thirty years, I recall once asking my parents’ friends what the most frightening movie they had ever seen was. The startling answer was almost unanimously SUDDEN FEAR; startling for me, as I had never heard of it (it was an independent movie, distributed by RKO, so it was kinda in lingo for quite a while). When I finally did catch up with it – nearly twenty years later – I could see what they meant (my mom’s BF told me that she was screaming out loud along with the rest of the audience at the RKO Coliseum back in 1952).
The three leads are perfect; I mean, come on: Crawford, Palance, Grahame – a true movie fan needs no other reason to see this flick. That said, there’s some great support, including Bruce Bennett, Virginia Huston, Mike Connors (still billed as “Touch” Connors), Selmer Jackson, Arthur Space and Amzie Strickland.
The director David Miller was an interesting choice for this title, no doubt, being reasonably priced (remember, padded shoulder suit Crawford was no fool). Miller began at MGM, directing Pete Smith Specialties (including a series on Nostradamus), then graduated to definitely strange, uneven works (check out his “merry” 1949 Bing Crosby musical, Top o’the Morning, which evolves into an almost Lewton-esque horror vehicle; certainly, a stark pre-cursor of this movie). Later works, like Twist of Fate and Midnight Lace reflect the marriages from Hell theme, but SUDDEN FEAR remains his greatest and most memorable flick.
The atmospheric black-and-white camerawork (much of it on-location, in Belvedere, CA) by Charles Lang, too, is stunning (Lang, along with Crawford and Palance received Oscar nominations; ditto costume designer Sheila O’Brien). If one needed anymore impetus there’s a truly spine-tingling score by none other than Elmer Bernstein (one of his earliest credits). Even the poster, Crawford, hands to face in terrified splendor, remains one of the iconic one-sheets of the 1950s.
The picture exceeded everyone’s expectations when it was released in August, 1952. The rave reviews paled next to preview word-of-mouth that gave way to lines around the box-office for months. It was one of the biggest hits of the year, and easily RKO’s top 1952 grosser.
The new Kino/Cohen Media DVD is the best quality I’ve ever seen on this title. While I wish it would have been Blu-Ray, I really can’t complain, as this rendition looks and sounds terrific. Extras include audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold and a re-issue trailer.
A bona fide screen thriller-chiller-diller, SUDDEN FEAR still packs a wallop after nearly 70 years, and I have my wife’s fingernail indentations in my arm to prove it.
SUDDEN FEAR. Black-and-white. Full frame [1.37:1]. 2.0 mono audio. Kino-Lorber/Cohen Media Group/Cohen Film Collection. CAT # CMG-DVD-25249. SRP: $19.95.