Buggy-eyed & terrified, Joan Crawford overacts in the best possible way in the paranoid thriller Sudden Fear (1952) that benefited greatly from her borderline-insane performance. She's heiress, socialite, & trashy playwright Myra Hudson, who marries a younger man, Lester Blaine (Jack Palance).
Lester is an actor whom Myra had formerly assessed as of insufficient sex appeal to star in her newest Broadway play, & so got him fired as the lead. He's on the same train as Myra when she's heading home to San Francisco, during which journey he successfully seduces her to prove he's not as unsexy as all that.
After they're married, Myra can only hope to live long enough to regret both her initial assessment of his stage appeal & her lonely desire for a youthful arm-decoration.
Lester is suave, cadaverously elegant, & oh so sinister. This may well be Palance's finest early performance. For scenery-chewing, he's a perfect match for Crawford. Palace was relatively new to film acting, & this is the role that shot him to stardom, justifiably so.
Crawford's career had been on the skids as she was no longer young enough for the typical leading lady roles. She had to produce this one herself in order to have a starring vehicle, one that would luckily revitalize her career & garner multiple Oscar nominations.
As they say, even paranoids have enemies, & Myra learns of her husband's intention, in league with his old girlfriend Irene (Gloria Grahame), to kill the wealthy biddy before she can change her will to put most of her fortune into a foundation.
With a wire-recorder, Myra manages to record the callous conspirators hatching their plan, at which point the sensible thing would be to take the wire to the police & have the would-be murderers arrested at once. But then we wouldn't have this film, & Myra is just nutty enough that it's plausible she would avoid the police, preferring to work up a clever plan of her own, drawing on her plotting skills as a playwright, to design the perfect murder.
Sudden Fear is a visually powerful & top-grade San Francisco film noir. Crawford's harsh beauty & Palance's sunken-cheaked creepiness make them seem like art deco representations of a demonic lovers from a realm where love is hate & hate is pure hate. Their climactic duel on the steep city streets is heart-pounding edge-of-your-seat stuff. Sudden Fear is thoroughly entertaining suspense.
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