No Sudden Fear of Joan

My top ten noir countdown list changes with my mood, but last time I made it, Sudden Fear (1952) held the #9 spot like Joan Crawford clutching at Norma Shearer’s off-screen husband in The Women (1939) … which is not a noir, exactly, but kind of.

To me, Joan Crawford is one of the most underrated actresses from the classic era. This wasn’t the case until Christina’s nasty little book (and while I know Joan (aka Billie Cassin, aka Lucille LaSeur) was an abusive parent, that still doesn’t excuse Christina from being an abusive–and profiteering–child). Unfortunately, people now relegate her to the caricature bin, thanks to Mommie Dearest and Faye Dunaway and wire-hangers and 80s excess.

This is patently unfair to Crawford’s legacy as an actress. One of the most naturally gifted performers in Hollywood, she transcended the silent era, transitioning from a minor flapper in “youth” films of the twenties to plucky working girls in early talkies like the MGM classic Grand Hotel (1932) –where she not only held her own against stagy actors like two out of the three Barrymores (John and Lionel, for the record) — but stole the spotlight.

Crawford, like the saucy Jean Harlow and the pert Ginger Rogers, epitomized the working class woman. Unlike Jean and Ginger, though, she often tapped into a dark side, portraying victims and sometimes villains (as in The Women … in which, I would argue, she again dominated. By the end of the movie, she makes the gold-digging Crystal seem sympathetic, particularly with her delivery of the exit line: “There’s a word for you ladies, but they don’t use it in polite society … outside of a kennel.”)

By the ’40s, Crawford had been written off by the studio with “more stars than there were in heaven” and found her true calling at the studio more akin to the real Lucille LaSeur–down and dirty Warner Brothers. Joan’s reemergence as a genuine noir icon was prefigured by fare such as 1941’s A Woman’s Face, in which she plays a criminal and victim of disfigurement, transformed externally–but perhaps not internally–by plastic surgery. If you don’t think Crawford was a great actress, seek out this film and see what she can do with just her voice and posture.

Joan was able to laugh in Louis B. Mayer’s face when she won the Oscar for Warner’s adaptation of Cain’s Mildred Pierce in 1945. For the rest of the ’40s and ’50s she was able to rely on a steady stream of noir, some great, some not so great, but all worth seeing because of Crawford’s abilities.

My favorite among her spate of noir films is Sudden Fear. Co-starring Jack Palance and the delectable and haunting Gloria Grahame–as well as Joan’s co-star from Mildred Pierce, Bruce Bennett, and a young Mike Conners (billed as “Touch” Conners)–the movie is suspenseful and extraordinary.

Crawford plays another working woman, this time a well-to-do playwright, Myra Hudson. Myra lives in San Francisco, but while auditioning actors for a production in New York, she rejects Lester Blaine (Palance) because, well, he looks like Palance.

On her way back home on the train, Myra encounters Blaine again, and his virile personality and dominating, take-charge attitude soon convince her that she’d made a mistake … professionally and personally. Myra marries the younger man, and soon discovers that Lester is not all that he seems.

Without giving anything away, check out the scene where Joan is listening to a record. Watch her performance, note the transitions, the hesitancy, the realization her character comes to. That’s acting.

Sudden Fear is particularly noteworthy for the ending, which for 1952, is remarkably feminist. I almost expected to see Jill Clayburgh pop out of a San Francisco alleyway.

Crawford is credited as an uncredited executive producer for this film, which was released by RKO. It’s available on DVD, so add it to your Netflix queue.

Joan Crawford was much more than the sum of Mommie Dearest and the schlock horror films she cranked out in the late ’60s … she was a consummate film actress, and a complete professional, giving every film–no matter how dreadful–her very best. Some were able to measure up to her … and #9 on my top ten list, Sudden Fear, is one of them.

No history this week (except film history) … but if you’ve got any questions or interest in ancient historical tidbits and trivia, leave a comment or question and I’ll fit it in next week. My default topic is usually noir … the stuff that dreams are made of. 🙂