Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Noir/ Crawford Watch: Sudden Fear (1952)

We're watching the new FX series, Feud: Bette and Joan (highly recommended), and it reminded me I'd been meaning to watch Sudden Fear (1952), a noirish potboiler starring Ms. Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame.

Just the casting alone was enough to raise an eyebrow.  Of course I've seen a number of Grahame's pictures, a handful of Crawford's, but when it comes to Jack Palance, I've seen Batman, Shane and, sigh, his pair of 80's City Slickers comedies.*  And to see him in a movie where he has to act like a basically normal, functioning human was almost bizarre.  Because by the time I was a kid, even in real life Jack Palance was acting like a cartoon weirdo.

It's a strong, taught thriller with some great cinematography, tremendous use of sound and Crawford putting it all out there as she does a large amount of her acting completely alone.

Crawford plays a playwright who has already made a huge name for herself (her name is on the marquee above the title of her latest production).  She's so successful, in fact, that she doesn't really touch her inherited family fortune and she has rights to casting, etc...  for her own shows.  She's not exactly a young girl on the verge of womanhood - she was in her mid-40's when this came out - and the plot doesn't ever state her age, but as subtext, it's one of the main drivers of the film.

The film opens with her asking the director to fire Palance who has been cast as the juvenile romantic lead in her newest play.  He's delivering the lines just fine, in his way, but he's not the sweet-faced guy she had in mind.  He's @#$%ing Jack Palance, who looked like a stone statue even as a young guy.

On a train back to her native San Francisco, she runs into Palance again, and the two strike up a cross-country friendship that blossoms into romance.  Why Crawford was not previously married isn't covered, but one can imagine her career might have sidelined romance, both in her drive and in intimidating potential suitors.  But when love seemed like a concept she wasn't going to have much personal luck with, she gets her chance.

Enter Gloria Grahame, romantically entangled with Palance from New York.  And Palance's mask starts to slip.

It likely sounds like the plot of a hundred Lifetime movies, and as a "woman's picture", it is sort of ground zero for where the genre can probably find it's origination point.  Luckily for us, the execution is fantastic.  As always, mid-century San Francisco at night provides the ideal backdrop of skewed angles and black shadows for our characters to inhabit, and is wonderfully photographed in the few exterior bits of the movie.

Sound is key as Crawford spends so much time listening in the film, from recorded voices to the ticking of her own clock - it's the sort of thing that should be cliche or overwhelming, but instead just ratchets up the tension, in no small part because of Crawford's solo work - including the scene where she realized what is happening.  In one long scene, completely alone, she moves from utterly satisfied and wonderfully happy to both emotionally devastated and utterly terrified.  It's a master class, and I couldn't help but remember that Crawford got her start in the silent era, when they had faces.

Palance doesn't play the cool, measured villain of Shane, and there's an interesting character there - not a mustache twirling matinee bad guy, but he certainly is a better actor than anyone in the film or those of us watching the film probably wanted to give him credit for.

All in all, I can't say it's a movie for everyone.  But, hell, I liked it well enough.  It's darker in its way than I expected, with so much said and done in subtext and dropping the snappy patter for those performances.  Certainly worth a view as a Crawford or noir fan, and to see that ending shot.

*I'm afraid I have a hard time watching them these days

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