Suddenly (1954)

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.

Suddenly2I’ve read on various websites that Sinatra had the movie withdrawn from circulation after the assassination of JFK because it was reported that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the film just days before carrying out the killing.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.

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The hostages being held in the family home

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.

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Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden and Nancy Gates

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.

SuddenlyposterApart 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.

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18 thoughts on “Suddenly (1954)

  1. Judy – Interesting to stop by and see this review today… as just this morning I set my DVR to record this movie when it comes on TCM here in the States this week. I’ve never seen this one but I’m looking forward to it, particularly after reading your excellent piece here. I’ll stop back in with more thoughts after I finally have watched it!

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    • Hi Dave, quite a coincidence that the movie is on in your neck of the woods this week. I hope you enjoy it and will be interested to hear your further thoughts after you have watched it. Thanks very much for the encouraging comments. I’ve fallen a bit behind with following your countdown at your blog after a frantic couple of weeks, but will be back very soon to catch up!

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  2. Judy, I saw this a year or so ago, and I think your post was a very accurate assessment of the film. I also found it and Sinatra’s performance better than I had expected. Sinatra seemed to give a number of intense and focused performances in the mid-50s, from “From Here to Eternity” to “Some Came Running” (even though he wasn’t ideally cast as a non-conformist intellectual in the latter). For me only his performance made “The Man with the Golden Arm” worth watching. The comparison to “The Desperate Hours” was an apposite one. And I also really liked James Gleason here. Like you, I found Sterling Hayden (who could be a very good actor in the right role) to be the weakest element of the film. Maybe it was the writing, but I found his performance too stiff-necked and sententious, almost a parody of uprightness.

    I just saw “Barbary Coast” a few nights ago and went back to read your review of it. Again, you really nailed all the essentials about the movie. Hopkins was delightfully amoral. Robinson played a variation of his Rico-like stock character. McCrea, an actor I like very much in later pictures, did what he could with an impossible role. Your comparison of the opening to “Only Angels Have Wings” was nicely observed. And Walter Brennan stole every scene he was in, but then it was clear that Hawks let him–probably encouraged him–to do it. Good posts on both movies.

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    • R.D, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on this movie. It means a lot to have writers like you and Dave reading and commenting on my reviews. I especially like your description of Sterling Hayden’s performance – “almost a parody of uprightness” sounds just right.

      I have also found James Gleason very good in other films – and was interested to realise that he was a writer as well as an actor. I’ve heard a radio adaptation of a stage play/farce he wrote, ‘Is Zat So?’, starring James Cagney, which I liked -a silly plot but full of painful class consciousness – there was a silent movie of it too but I haven’t seen that one. Thanks also for the encouraging comments about my review of ‘Barbary Coast’ – and I’m sure you’re right that Hawks wanted Brennan to steal all those scenes, as he does in later movies too!

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  3. Judy – a really fine review. I have not seen this film in many years but remember liking it. I agree with R.D. that Sinatra in the 1950’s really did some nice work as an actor, and actually some of his best albums were made during this period too. When he was motivated by the material, he was very good.

    A funny incident with this film involved the colorization of black and white films. As you mention the film is in the public domain and one of the first companies to colorized black and white film made this film in color only they changes Sinatra famous “ole blue eyes” to brown! Have to give credit to Wikipedia for this.

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    • Thanks, John. How funny about his blue eyes turning brown – you’d think they would have known better! I’ll hope to see more of his work as an actor in the future. He must have been very busy at this time with both singing and acting.

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    • Thanks, Ellen – it’s interesting to think about how actors used aspects of their own lives and personalities in their work. I am hoping to see more of Sinatra as an actor… though there are so many movies I want to see! Judy

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  4. I thought a little more about this: the real interesting thing is the distraught behavior is just about always the result of Sinatra having his lack of macho-male masculinity exposed. He ends up humiliated and derided in some way or other — I’ve seen a number of the (few) movies he was in on Million Dollar Movies.

    Which gets me to my second point. He stopped acting. He didn’t carry on. The aspect of his personalty that was pulled out exposed him — and I suspect he became wary. This sheds light on why he became a matinee idol when young too — what is underlying psychological baggage was. But he couldn’t cut the kind of upper class ideal that could carry such a thing (say Dirk Bogarde) and he was not gay at all.

    Now movies where people are costumed in contemporary clothes and show this are in a way more significant potentially than the same sort of thing in costume. So Sinatra’s kinds of roles are one justification for studying these classic movies seriously.

    Ellen

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  5. I’ve been meaning to pick up the recent Legend Films releases of the film on DVD, which purportedly has a sharp print of the original black and white version in addition to the (unwanted) color version. Yes, Judy, I had also read those reports about Sinatra pulling the film from circulation after he discovered Oswald had watched it prior to November 22. The proposition on this thread that Sinatra’s best work was in th e50’s (acting and singing both) is a sound one. And while his turns in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (the latter of which SUDDENLY has a more than uncanny resemblance to in th eobvious ways) will always be his most popular and famous, I dare say he’s as fine in SUDDENLY as he’s ever been. (a point you bring out persuasively in this excellent review.

    It does also contain of of Sterling Hayden’s best performances as well, but there’s an actor who’s certainly in his element here.

    But SUDDENLY’S strongest element is what you rightly site here in this fecund passage:

    “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.”

    Indeed, Judy.

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    • Thank you very much for the encouragement, Sam, and for sharing your thoughts on the film – it sounds as if you liked Sterling Hayden’s performance better than I did.

      I’m interested to hear that the new DVD has a sharper print, although I don’t know why they feel the need to bulk out such releases by including colourised versions – it would be much better to have a featurette or an extra movie! I haven’t seen ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ as yet but will hope to do so.

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  9. Very underrated movie. FS is utterly chilling as the humourless John Baron, he is so
    menacing, it beggars belief that he was once known as “Swoonatra” for his former
    romantic roles. Try to find a decent copy, as the film appears on many public domain
    DVD labels where the quality can be dismal. A certain QT stole the line “Let’s go to work.”
    for “Reservoir Dogs” from this little known gem.

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