Sudden Fear (Blu-ray Review)30 Jan, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Bruce Bennett.
Joan Crawford’s third and last Oscar nomination came for a fairly irresistible wife-in-peril thriller whose production she personally spearheaded, an indie for which she took a percentage deal in lieu of an upfront salary. Released by RKO in a pickup deal that enabled Howard Hughes’s faltering studio to fall into one of the last significant movies of its existence, 1952’s Sudden Fear and the calculated risk Crawford took enabled her to net a bunch of booty (or at least the green kind) — though apparently not so much that (much later) Trog didn’t have to be her big-screen swan song. This was also a major break for Jack Palance, who was nominated in support, and there was also Gloria Grahame in pajamas to keep blood circulation moving right along, a viewing bonus that hasn’t diminished over the decades.
My own history with the picture is an indication of its erratic home distribution. Just seven years post-release, local TV stations were already running Fear, albeit for a relatively short while; my cousin and I watched it in 1959 either just before or after I turned 12 — or, in other words, around the time I first wanted to see Gloria Grahame in pajamas. The two of us had recently seen Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man on the same late, late show (which showed movies uninterrupted by commercials at 10:30 on Saturday nights on a presentation called “Something Different”), and I remember vividly that we both thought Joan was scarier than either of those Universal Pictures franchises. Today, though, her performance seems exceptional and nomination-worthy, especially in two lengthy and bravura suspense sequences late in the picture that she has to carry almost all by herself.
Then, and for a long time, the picture fell out of release — and even when it did re-emerge on a Kino VHS, laser disc and then DVD beginning in the late 1990s, fans rightfully complained not just about the image quality but even the sound. Cohen Media’s newly touted “2K restoration” isn’t on any kind of revelatory level, but it’s dramatically superior to what we’ve seen in recent decades, and it’s now possible to see why Charles Lang Jr.’s cinematography got an Oscar nomination as well (a fourth one went to the costume design). This last aspect is no small deal because, as film historian Jeremy Arnold’s pro-job voiceover commentary points out, Crawford’s wardrobe rates its own full-screen credit here, which is then sub-divided into five parts; as he emphasizes with inevitable amusement, this may be the only movie where an actress’s lingerie gets officially trumpeted. Nothing for Grahame’s PJs, though. (There was apparently tension between the actresses on the set; in keeping with Crawford’s lack of ’50s harmony with Janice Rule on Goodbye, My Fancy and Mercedes McCambridge on Johnny Guitar; I can only imagine what she’d done had it been Greta Gerwig showing up with mauve hair.)
Adapted by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith from a wild-sounding Edna Sherry novel that commentator Arnold makes sound like a potential fun read, Fear gives us Crawford as a talented play producer above and beyond her inherited money who is courted and wed in whirlwind fashion by an actor we immediately sense is no good because it’s Palance playing him. Lore has it that the actress’s first choice for the role was Clark Gable — her frequent MGM co-star during the ’30s and a onetime lover as well. But though Gable aged interestingly, he also aged prematurely, so he wouldn’t have been anyone’s idea of an aspiring but struggling stage performer at a time when the actor had already reached his Mogambo years. Palance got the role after Fear’s producer talked Crawford into it, and it was a major career break, even above and beyond his Oscar nomination.
The storyline is ripe for spoilers after a point, so let’s go in another direction. Fear was just the third movie that Elmer Bernstein scored, and it’s a subtly efficient job without being in your face about it. It was also a big break for the recently deceased Mike Connors (billed as Conners in the opening credits) back when the actor was billed as “Touch” — something I always assumed was one of those monikers that someone like agent Henry Willson used to attach to male clients for attention-getting motives but was in actuality a real-life Connors nickname. It’s just a guess, but I’m assuming that he is the only acting Touch in The Ten Commandments.
Fear was also, arguably, the second-best-remembered film of director David Miller’s exasperatingly hard-to-peg career, which also included other imperiled women entries like Twist of Fate (terrible) and Midnight Lace (better, but mostly for people like my mother, who always went to Doris Day movies “to see the clothes”). Miller’s best picture was Kirk Douglas’s personal favorite Lonely Are the Brave, which had a Dalton Trumbo script but is also well directed. I also have childhood affection for John Wayne’s Flying Tigers, the grownup and impressively ahead-of its time Saturday’s Hero (Sidney Buchman script, just before he was politically blacklisted) and the adoption weepie Our Very Own. Also with fan bases are Captain Newman, M.D. and even The Opposite Sex, but there were also lots of clunkers, many of them weighted in late career.
Crawford was extraordinary for the number of times she had to reinvent her screen persona, and Fear did her in rep a lot of good just after she ended her run at Warner; Arnold’s commentary notes, and I did not know this, that she considered her swan song there (This Woman Is Dangerous) as the nadir of her career. He also says, and this blew me away, that George Stevens wanted Gloria Grahame for the Shelley Winters role in A Place in the Sun but that Hughes stepped into the wrong side of his Kleenex-box loafers getting out of bed (or something), messing up the deal. Wow. No knock on Winters, but that would have made for a much fairer on-screen fight with Liz Taylor over Montgomery Clift, restoring the allure balance in Josef von Sternberg’s earlier and not-all-bad screen version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. There, it was Sylvia Sidney vs. Frances Dee, back when Sidney was somewhat more alluring than she was listening to Slim Whitman in Mars Attacks!