Film noir of the week is “Sudden Fear,” starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance.
You weren’t aware of Film Noir of the Week? Yeah, that’s something I just came up with. I fully expect to forget about it over the next few days.
Anyway, “Sudden Fear” is a perfectly respectable noir, made in 1951 just before all the conventions of the genre solidified into cliches. It’s shot in black and white, in a blissfully traffic-free San Francisco, with possibly the most evil-looking leading man in history.
Jack Palance’s sharklike features and jet-black widow’s peak are a delight to behold, but they also work against the script in an unlikely way: No one could ever believe this guy would have anything but the worst of motives. Especially when he smiles.
And yet Joan Crawford’s character — a wealthy, glamorous (of course) playwright — falls in love with him, marries him, and immediately decides to revise her will to leave him everything. You know, in the unlikely event of her death. What could possibly go wrong?
If Jack Palance is the high point of the picture, I fear Joan Crawford is the low point. There came a point in her career when her signature features — those eyebrows and that lipstick — began to seem cartoonish. That point, I now submit, was in 1951 with this particular movie.
Crawford was long known as a ruthless chewer of scenery, and it’s no different here. She has four main motifs — mad, glad, sad and scared witless — and she infuses each with such melodramatic facial tics that it can be difficult to watch with a straight face in 2017.
I know, that style was considered state-of-the-art back then. Crawford and Palance were both nominated for academy awards, in fact. I just think a little restraint on Crawford’s part would have made this a much more memorable film.
It’s still memorable, in some ways: Best use of a wind-up toy doggie, most dangerous beach house, and the unexpected ways both pistol and poison are used as plot devices. For ’50s film noir, it’s just a bit above average. Dave Bob says check it out anyway.