When wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) turns down Lester Blane (Jack Palance) as a prospective leading man for her new script, he later manages to seduce his way into her heart and, after a whirlwind romance, marries her. Unfortunately, sinister intentions belie Lester’s affection as he and his scheming mistress Irene (Gloria Grahame) hatch a terrible plot to murder Myra and inherit her money -- but in a crucial moment of error, they are unwittingly found out. Sudden Fear ultimately focusses on a spurned Myra’s campaign for revenge.

Unsurprisingly, the film belongs to La Crawford and her one skillful scene of histrionics. When her happiness is utterly shattered by the discovery of her husband’s deception, Crawford serves a set text of how to emote using only the face; her eyes glide over heartbreak, revulsion and panic with quivering ease. Later, in a forced embrace with Lester, she ambiguously mumbles to her husband, “I was wondering what I’d done to deserve you” before dissolving into sheer disgust as she walks away. But there’s also a strong moral core to Myra’s own devious rebuttal and therein also lies the complexity of Crawford’s performance.

Sudden Fear bolsters its leading grand dame with two key supporting players in Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame. Truthfully, Palance generates more natural chemistry with Grahame and together their scenes crackle with delicious villainy. Grahame in particular adorns an unwavering sense of smugness as the conniving femme fatale; it’s a pity that she and Crawford share so little scenes together.

Suspense is woven masterfully with superlative shadow and light effects as the vice closes in during the cat-and-mouse games between Myra and Lester: the tense mood bubbles nicely, especially when a windup toy threatens to expose Myra’s presence in an apartment she has snuck into. The film also redeems itself from a seemingly predictable narrative twist with a highly dramatic conclusion.

Sudden Fear was the birth of another experimentation period in Joan Crawford’s choice of material. It would be over another decade, however, that she would follow the success of this definitive woman-in-distress phase when she united with archenemy Bette Davis to star in the popular What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?