I already knew Frank Sinatra was a good actor, after seeing his impressive supporting performance in From Here to Eternity. However, I didn’t realise quite how good until seeing him in this little-known noir thriller, directed by Lewis Allen, where he just burns up the screen as a hired assassin out to kill the US President.
I’ve read on various websites that Sinatra had the movie withdrawn from circulation after the assassination of JFK because it was reported that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the film just days before carrying out the killing. However, there’s a comment at the imdb saying that Sinatra in fact had nothing to do with the decision to withdraw the movie. In any case, there are one or two chilling similarities, especially in the scenes with a sniper standing at a window – and it’s easy to see why there might have been little appetite for watching the movie after the real-life tragedy.
At just 75 minutes running time, and with much of the action taking place within a couple of rooms, the film has a low-budget/B-movie feeling to it. And, as it was made not by one of the major studios but by the long-forgotten Libra Productions, I don’t suppose there was much money around.
But Sinatra’s intense performance as the murderous gangster John Baron transcends any budgetary constraints, while James Gleason – fast becoming one of my favourite character actors from classic Hollywood – is also full of class as “Pop” Benson, a retired FBI man who finds his family being held hostage.
The film is set in an isolated small town with the odd name Suddenly, a close-knit community where everybody knows everybody else’s business. The opening few minutes in particular feel quite cloying, as small boy “Pidge” (Kim Charney) pesters friendly local Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) to buy him a cap gun. Tod lets himself be persuaded, even though he knows it will upset the woman he is trying to woo – Pidge’s mum, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), who is opposed to any playing with guns after the death of her husband in the war. And he goes on to preach to her about how guns are only bad if the wrong people are holding them – something you just know this film from the Cold War era is going to bear out.
Fortunately, after this rather slow and preachy opening, the film picks up speed and power with the arrival of the President’s security men, who busily check out the town in readiness for his surprise visit. Unfortunately, a team of fake security men also arrive, headed by Baron (Sinatra) – and take over the Benson family home.
As the terrified family are told to “carry on as normal”, I was strongly reminded of a better-known film from the following year, The Desperate Hours. That movie stars Humphrey Bogart as a killer who also takes people hostage in their own home. In both films, there’s a feeling of the 1950s family being idealised at the moment it is torn apart – rather like a gunman bursting into an episode of one of those cosy 1950s family TV shows.
However, where Bogart’s character has that world-weariness which is always part of his screen persona, especially in his later films, Sinatra’s character seems to be part psycho – taking a delight in killing. He claims to be a war hero who won a “Silver Star” for killing 25 men (not sure if I’ve got that number right) in a battle.
Brave police officer Tod is also a war veteran, and there’s an odd little scene between the film’s villain and hero where they discuss how strange it is that in battle you are rewarded for killing people and in civilian life it’s a crime. Sterling Hayden gives a rather stolid performance as Tod, and is completely outshone by Sinatra – but the difference in styles actually works well, pointing up the contrast between the everyday life of Suddenly and this violent episode.
Apart from Sinatra’s performance, the best thing about this part of the film is the sharp script, written by Richard Sale, which is full of quotable hard-boiled dialogue. For instance, Ellen, upbraiding Baron for his violence, asks: “Don’t you have any feelings?” He replies: “No. They’ve been taken out of me by experts.”
After the opening, I’d expected the film to preach the virtues of gun ownership – and it does, with Ellen being forced to change her stance and reach for a gun herself to try to get rid of Baron. However, I think the whole issue comes across as rather more complicated than this, with arguments going round in circles – since Baron himself points out that it is his possession of a gun which allows him to terrorise everyone in sight.
This is a movie in the public domain, and, as a result, it seems to be available on a number of budget DVDs. I actually watched it online at a site in the UK which streams movies and TV shows legally, Blinkbox – they have some movies I’m interested in which you have to pay for, but this one was free to watch. I’m quite excited to see a site like this backed by studios, and am hoping it may give me a chance to see some films which aren’t otherwise easily available in the UK, though at the moment their stock seems quite limited.