Hollywood never knew what to do with Gloria Grahame. When Grahame’s movie career stalled in the early 1960s, she had only been in the business for fifteen years. In that short time, she had appeared in a string of box office hits, including The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B DeMille, 1952), The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952) and Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955). She had worked for three of the major studios (MGM, RKO and Twentieth Century-Fox) and one of the minors (Columbia), and she had collaborated with some of the most gifted directors of the era – Vincente Minnelli, Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray among them. Despite all this, the phone quit ringing after her small but memorable role in the antiracist noir Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959). There are likely several reasons why. Grahame developed a reputation as a ‘difficult’ actress as her star rose. Her repeated attempts to improve her looks through cosmetic surgery led to a loss of feeling in her upper lip, making it tricky for her to speak clearly. Her 1960 marriage to Anthony Ray, the son of her former husband Nicholas Ray, scandalized Hollywood. But there was also something unconventional, even subversive, about Grahame’s image that seemed to spook the studios.  

Although she’s mainly remembered as a screen siren, a femme fatale of film noir, her performances are richer and stranger than her reputation would suggest. Compared with her fellow “sisters under the mink” – to borrow a line of Grahame’s from The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) – she’s “darker, smarter, more glamorous and sullen.”1 With her girlish lisp and knowing manner, she projects a blend of innocence and experience that’s paradoxical, disturbing. Even more potently, she specialized in playing women who chafe at the impossible expectations and limitations placed on mid-20th-century femininity. Her performances capture these women – hungry, calculating, on the make – with a live-wire intensity and bone-deep empathy that represent nothing less than a challenge to the patriarchal status quo. I would submit that it was this facet of Grahame’s screen persona, as much as anything, that led Hollywood to stop calling when she was at the height of her career, and that it is perhaps nowhere on more vivid display than in Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952).

The moody, stylish Sudden Fear is often categorized as a noir, but it might be better classed as an example of what Andrea S. Walsh calls the “women’s film of suspicion and distrust.”2 In these melodramatic thrillers, wealthy heiresses are menaced in their own homes by their scheming husbands, who will stop at nothing – including murder – to acquire their fortunes. The genre experienced a surge in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s on the heels of such hits as Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941), Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948). Like other types of ‘women’s films’ – the maternal melodrama and the career woman comedy, for example – they were aimed squarely at female viewers and anchored by lead performances from iconic female stars. Sudden Fear features the indomitable Joan Crawford as Myra Hudson, an independently wealthy playwright who impulsively marries the struggling actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) after a whirlwind courtship. When Myra discovers that Lester is plotting with an old flame, Irene Neves (Grahame), to murder her for her money and make it look like an accident, she resolves to turn the tables on them by engineering their demise. 

In many ways, the movie belongs to Crawford. As its uncredited executive producer, she handpicked the Edna Sherry novel upon which the film is based and had it fashioned it into a star vehicle designed to revive her flagging career. The book’s haughty but plain heroine was transformed into a glamorous socialite (note that an entire card in the opening credits is devoted to Crawford’s wardrobe) and its third act was altered to allow her a happy ending after she forgoes her carefully planned revenge and her would-be murderers die in an accident instead (in the novel, Myra exacts her revenge only to perish herself from an injury she sustains in the process). As the film’s star, Crawford is on screen for virtually its entire length and makes an absolute meal of moments like the one in which Myra learns of Lester’s treachery from a Dictaphone recording that has captured him and Irene plotting her death. As the recording plays over the course of this astonishing five-minute scene, Crawford wordlessly cycles through shock, disbelief, horror, and fear until she’s finally violently ill. It’s an aria of despair fully worthy of the silent film diva she once was. And never one to share the spotlight willingly with anyone – especially younger female co-stars – she did everything she could to ensure that she wasn’t upstaged by Grahame. She had Grahame’s character (Irma Neves, in the book) demoted from Myra’s protégé to Lester’s ex, eliminating many of her scenes in the process. She insisted on Grahame wearing clothing off the rack rather than a bespoke wardrobe. When she found out that Grahame was having an affair with leading man Jack Palance (on whom Crawford had designs), she even had Grahame banned from the set except on the days she was scheduled to shoot.

Nevertheless, Grahame makes an indelible impression in her role. From her first scene in the film, when Irene crashes a post-wedding reception thrown by Myra and Lester, she effortlessly holds the screen. Lester can’t take his eyes off Irene, and neither can we. After the party, he follows her back to her apartment and demands to know what she’s doing in San Francisco, where he and Myra have made their home. It turns out that he left Irene high and dry back East after borrowing five thousand dollars from her to try his luck on the stage in Chicago. After reading about his marriage in the papers, she’s here to collect – with interest. She threatens to reveal their torrid history to Myra if he doesn’t come through. “You ever do, you’re gonna need a new face,” he growls, shoving her down onto a couch. As he’s on his way out the door, she lights a cigarette and settles back into the sofa, murmuring, “Thanks… for still loving me.” Needless to say, Lester stays. From that moment forward, Irene calls the shots. Lester, played by the reliably reptilian Palance, may be the designated heavy, but he’s no match for her. It’s Irene who hatches the plot to murder Myra, and Irene who relentlessly drives him to follow through with it. Tellingly, Grahame saw her as a ‘junior-size Lady Macbeth’ and played her accordingly.3 For Irene, Lester represents a rare path to wealth and power in a classist, sexist society; she has no qualms about using him to get what she wants. Indeed, in the novel, Irma plans to murder Lester as well – once Myra is out of the way, they are married, and the fortune is safely hers. Grahame fully inhabits the character Sherry describes: a “child of nature, uninhibited by any moral yardsticks… cool and unprincipled.”4 At the same time, she invests Irene with real humanity, transforming her into a kind of tragic heroine. We may not agree with her methods, but it’s difficult not to sympathize with her bid to break free of the constraints that hold her back as a woman without means. It’s for this reason that in spite of her limited screen time she haunts every scene in the film – including the one in which Myra listens in horror to the recording of Lester and Irene discussing how to do her in. As the disc ends, it begins to skip, repeating again and again a resolute line from the absent Grahame: “I know a way…”

It’s often been suggested that Grahame’s career peaked in 1952. That year, she appeared in no fewer than four films, one of which – The Bad and the Beautiful – won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. If 1952 was her annus mirabilis, then I would argue that Sudden Fear was its apogee. While Grahame’s very brief, broadly comic turn in The Bad and the Beautiful hasn’t aged particularly well, her performance in Sudden Fear feels fresh and modern. The subversive quality that spooked Hollywood at the time is precisely what recommends the film to audiences today.

Sudden Fear (1952 USA 110 mins)

Prod Co: Joseph Kaufman Productions (distributed by RKO Radio Pictures) Prod: Joseph Kaufman Dir: David Miller Scr: Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith (based on a novel by Edna Sherry) Phot: Charles B Lang Jr Ed: Leon Barsha Art Dir: Boris Leven Set Dec: Edward G Boyle Mus: Elmer Bernstein

Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Bruce Bennett, Virginia Huston, Touch Connors


  1. Vincent Curcio, Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1989), p. 64.
  2. See Women’s Film and Female Experience, 1940-1950 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1984), pp. 167-193.
  3. Robert J. Lentz, Gloria Grahame, Bad Girl of Film Noir: The Complete Career (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2011), p. 108.
  4. Edna Sherry, Sudden Fear (Eureka, CA: Stark House Press, 2023), p. 54.

About The Author

Ian Olney is a Professor of Film Studies at York College of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Zombie Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2017) and Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture (Indiana University Press, 2013), and co-editor, with Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, of The Films of Jess Franco (Wayne State University Press, 2018). His articles and essays on film have appeared in such journals as Quarterly Review of Film and Video and Film Studies, and such edited volumes as A Companion to the Horror Film (Wiley Blackwell, 2014) and Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington Books, 2014).

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