Noir-Inflected ‘Sudden Fear’ Is an Underseen Classic Waiting to Be Rediscovered


Like many underrecognized treasures, David Miller’s Sudden Fear fits into and defies different genres, its convention-scrambling partly the result of the fact that the film looks both forward and back.

This story about an actor’s sick revenge and a woman dreadfully duped was released in 1952, not quite a decade after the James M. Cain adaptations from the mid-1940s it recalls — noir paragons like Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, the star of which, Joan Crawford, also headlines here. With its felicitously chosen San Francisco locations (including the Legion of Honor), Sudden Fear anticipates the more hallucinatory Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterwork of love and its derangements in the City by the Bay, which premiered six years later.

Thick with pleasingly baroque incident, Sudden Fear opens with heiress/playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) axing Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) from her latest Broadway production. The dismissed thespian just so happens to have booked passage on the same SF-bound train as the successful dramatist, wooing her completely by the time they reach the dining car. They soon wed — and Lester’s pose as besotted husband is quickly revealed when his mercenary ex, Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame), shows up at a party held at Myra’s Pacific Heights mansion.

With the arrival of Grahame, then in the ascendant phase of her career, the pleasures of Sudden Fear multiply further as a study of contrasting approaches to Golden Age screen acting. In the words of unimpeachable critic and Grahame acolyte Boyd McDonald, the actress had “the sullen, bored walk and talk of someone who can’t be shocked, isn’t afraid, and just doesn’t give a shit.”

Watching Crawford, however, we are transfixed by the intensity of her labor (and that of the five people credited with overseeing her hair, makeup, and costuming): In several reaction shots, her face becomes a gutting tableau of horror, hurt, and humiliation.  

Sudden Fear
Directed by David Miller

Cohen Film Collection

August 12–18, Film Forum