As time passes and the list of all the films ever made continues to grow, it’s unavoidable that a few gems will fall out of the public’s eye. For anyone interested in outstanding cinematography, Sudden Fear is one of them. During a time in which posting videos on Youtube can land any moron ‘legendary’ status, Charles Lang, ASC’s work reminds us of the true meaning of the term. Nominated for an Academy Award on eighteen occasions (including this film) over a forty seven year career (with one win), his stature among the all-time greats in the profession is indisputable. Hopefully, this post will ignite your curiosity and help reawaken awareness of his incredible achievements.
Directed by dependable journeyman David Miller, the film displays every quirk that would turn off most of today’s viewers. It’s in black and white, it’s slow, it’s literate and there are no pyrotechnics or superheroes. Jack Palance – great actor that he was – is an odd choice for the leading man. Joan Crawford, on the other hand, is at the top of her game. And though she certainly earned the Oscar she was given for her performance, a great deal of credit must also go to Lang for the way he shot her.
In a lifetime of watching movies – most of them very closely – I have never seen an actress so perfectly photographed as Crawford was in Sudden Fear. Throughout the entire 110 minute running time, there isn’t a single instance that doesn’t show her at her very best. While this was hardly unusual back in the day, Lang avoids the trap of stylizing or romanticizing his star as most of his contemporaries were wont to do. Instead, she appears as she was…with good make up and hair, of course, but naturally radiant and perfectly sculpted by the light at every angle.
Evidence of the attention Lang lavished upon Crawford is found in the single source he used as his key. Pay attention to her close ups and you’ll notice the lone spot in her eyes – every time. No fill light! And while there’s the finest hint of diffusion at the lens, it never calls attention to itself and blends easily with everything it cuts against. Lang’s technique is not hard to maintain for a few shots here and there but when spread across the entirety of a film it suggests a whole new realm of expertise.
An interesting moment occurs during a scene between Crawford and Palance on a moving train. Clearly shot on stage with rear projection of the passing countryside, Palance’s close ups employ the old trick of waving some shadows across his face so as to suggest the train’s motion. Crawford’s complimentary shots are – no surprise – spared this indignity. The funny thing is, because you’re so riveted on the way she looks you don’t notice the absence. Until seeing Sudden Fear I was never much a fan of Crawford’s looks. It makes sense that it took a cinematographer to turn my head around on that account.
Lang’s amazing accomplishments don’t end there, however. At a time when double shadows on set walls were as common as a dusty car in Texas, you can’t find them anywhere in this movie. He also turns in some incredible matching of foreground lighting to rear projection. Granted, that was easier to achieve in black and white than in color work, but just think about all the times you’ve seen process shots ruined by the slightest discrepancy. His attention to detail must’ve been extraordinary.
So, search this movie out (I caught it on Amazon) and be sure to give it its due. Don’t expect Lang’s work to jump out at you or be showy in any way. It requires a deeper understanding of cinematography to truly appreciate its riches, all of them rooted in what was essentially a very simple approach.
And against every thing I’ve said so far, that might be the highest compliment of all!