Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Suddenly (1954)


Suddenly (1954) poster


"There's cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can't make believe they aren't there." - Pop Benson

Suddenly is a strange name for what seems like a sleepy little town. It’s a throwback from the old days when things used to happen quite suddenly there. The Gold rush, road agents, gamblers and gunfighters all became part of the town’s history. But much hasn’t happened in Suddenly for a long time. That is until now.

Directed by Lewis Allen and based on a shot story by Richard Sales, who also adapted it for screen, Suddenly (1954) is a taught crime thriller with elements of Film Noir. It’s an independent film from Libra Productions and distributed by United Artists starring Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason and Nancy Grace.

Sheriff Tod Shaw is beloved by the community he takes care of. He’s in love with a beautiful widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) and befriends her son Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen is reluctant to pursue a relationship with Tod because she’s struggling with the death of her husband in the Korean War. She shelters her son from the harsh realities of life but little does she know true danger is just around the corner.

One day the local train depot receives an important message. The president of the United States is making a pit stop in town and the Secret Service is calling upon the Sheriff to escort him safely out of town and to his final destination. Willis Bouchey plays Dan Carney, the chief of the Presidential staff, who is overseeing the security for the president's arrival. Upon chatting with the Sheriff he learns that his old Secret Service boss Pop Benson (James Gleason) lives in town. He lives with his daughter-in-law Ellen and grandson Pidge. Their home is situated by the train depot and has the perfect view of the station. Perhaps a bit too perfect.

Frank Sinatra is John Baron, the head of a trio including thugs Bart (Christopher Dark) and Benny (Paul Frees) know about that. They pretend to be FBI agents to get access to the Benson home and hold them hostage in their own home as the plot to shoot the president with a clear vantage point from inside the home. They're on assignment from a mystery employer: a half million to kill the president. The trio hold Pop, Ellen and Pidge hostage and soon Sheriff Tod and local electrician Jud (James O'Hara) join the trapped family. The situation seems hopeless. Can they get the word out to the Secret Service about the assassins in time to save the president?

"[Suddenly] marked the start of Sinatra's dramatic career on film as a leading man; there was no Lancaster or Montgomery Clift in sight now. This was the Frank Sinatra show, pure and simple, a feature film that turned into a one-man showcase the second he appeared onscreen." 
- Tom Santopietro, Sinatra in Hollywood


Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, Sterling Hayden and Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)
Suddenly (1954) was Frank Sinatra's first role after From Here to Eternity (1953), the film that put Sinatra on the map again. Sinatra biographer James Kaplan notes, "[Frank Sinatra] had been interested in Richard Sale's pulpy yet propulsive script from the moment he saw it." It’s a good role for Sinatra. We’re mesmerized by the sadistic John Baron who got a taste for killing during his stint in WWII. He’s twitchy, trigger happy and enjoys making others suffer. As we reach the climax of the story the camera focuses more and more on Baron and having watched many Sinatra films, I've never seen one showcase Sinatra's scar quite as much as this one. James Kaplen says, "Suddenly's cinematographer, Charles G. Clarke, often shot Frank [Sinatra] in tight, unnerving close-ups and amazingly frequently on his bad side -- the left side of his face, the side deformed around the ear and neck by a forceps delivery at birth and a childhood mastoid operation." It adds to the many sinister qualities of Sinatra’s character.

"You're wrong about God and the gun, Sheriff. Without the gun, you would have never have spit at me. You would never have even noticed me. But because of the gun, you will remember me as you as you will live." - John Baron

Upon first viewing audiences will be caught up in the tension of the drama. On second viewing they might notice the overarching themes of patriotism and gun control. Ellen is scared of guns because of how they relate to her husband's death at war. Pidge is fascinated with toy guns because he wants to be like a Sheriff like Tod. His mother discourages him but both the Sheriff and his grandfather Pop Benson encourage him. For Suddenly's Sheriff, guns are a necessary part of keeping the town safe. For John Baron his sophisticated sniper rifle is a political tool for terrorism. The hostages see Baron as more than just a killer; he’s worse, he’s a traitor. After serving in WWII (and perhaps being dishonorably discharged), he turns his attentions to the pleasure of killing for the sake of killing and for money. The president is just another target for him. The Secret Service is tipped off to the trio of thugs when a dying stool pigeon’s deathbed confession reveals the assassination plot. His legacy is that last moment of patriotism. We also see Ellen admonished for her negative feelings about the Korean War and the sense of pride Pop Benson feels for having served his country in WWI and as President Coolidge’s bodyguard.

The film has a strange history. According to James Kaplan, Sinatra "won critical raves for Suddenly, by no means a big film, but the picture had died at the box office." It’s rumored that Lee Harvey Oswald watched the film at one time with the suggestion that it might have influenced his actions.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Suddenly (1954) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), another Sinatra film dealing with an assassination plot, were pulled from circulation.  Or so they say. It's unclear what really happened but both films were unavailable for a long time. Some sources say Sinatra, who at one point was close friends with JFK, bought the rights for the films and pulled them. Other sources say it was an agreement among several parties at United Artists. Another theory is that both films were still available but were screened on rare occasions because few people wanted to be reminded of JFK's death. Out of the two films, Suddenly (1954) fell into the public domain when the copyright was not renewed.

Lou Lumenick, formerly of The New York Post writes, "A lawyer for United Artists told me they pulled the film from circulation in 1966 because they were unable to locate the heirs of producer Robert Bassler to renew the TV rights. Suddenly appeared on the public domain market very soon after its copyright failed to be renewed in 1982."



Public domain films are often neglected with bad copies in circulation online and on DVD. Lucky for us Suddenly (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective (distributed by Allied Vaughn), restored from the original 35mm film elements, presented in the original aspect ratio and including a restored soundtrack. There are no extras but it does include closed captioning.

The Film Detective's restoration of Suddenly (1954) is beautiful and this Blu-Ray is a must for your film library. I had seen this movie on TCM when Sinatra was Star of the Month back in December and was happy for an opportunity to see it again all polished up. There are some fine performances by Hayden and Gleason and Sinatra is simply terrifying in the role of John Baron. You can pair this  with either Cry Terror! (1958) or The Manchurian Candidate (1962) for an excellent double bill.

The film was shot in Saugus, a neighborhood of Santa Clarita, California. Robby of Dear Old Hollywood has a fun post about filming locations for Suddenly


Sources and links:
Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan
The Washington Post
TCMDB article on Suddenly

Thank you to The Film Detective for sending me a copy to review.

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