Thursday, June 06, 2019

Suddenly (1954)

This is an excellent -- and offbeat -- crime drama. I had been looking for a movie to watch and was browsing through the selection on the Film Noir Central app on Roku late last Saturday night. I came across SUDDENLY, which is a film I've been meaning to see for quite a while, intrigued by the casting of Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden (who I'd actually forgotten was in the film until the opening credits rolled). It was made at the height of Hayden's career as a leading man in such great Film Noir pictures as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) and THE KILLING (1956), and of course, Sinatra was coming right off his Oscar win for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), so this seemed like a unique chance to see two great stars working together at the top of their game.

This is one of those public domain movies that turns up on countless collections of Film Noir and crime dramas, and because of its stars, is also a familiar title on numerous Hollywood Classic collections of PD films, the kinds of collections that permeated the discount sections at stores like Best Buy or Walmart during the golden age of DVD.

Now, many of these titles have jumped over to streaming, and I'm beginning to catch up with quite a few that I'd just never gotten around to watching before on those giant DVD collections. So when SUDDENLY popped up in the queue, I decided it was time to check it out. I was in the mood for a dark thriller and something not too long, given how late I was starting the movie -- so this film, with its tight 75 minute running time, fit the bill perfectly.

Kim Charney as Peter Benson III and Sterling Hayden as Sheriff Tod Shaw
in SUDDENLY (1954)

Sterling Hayden stars as the sheriff, Tod Shaw, of a small town called Suddenly. It's the type of town where the sheriff knows everybody, and keeps an eye out for any suspicious strangers passing through. Shaw is romantically interested in Ellen Benson, a young widow living with her son Peter, and her father, a retired secret service agent (played with just the right touch by that great character actor James Gleason). Peter takes a liking to the sheriff, whom he sees as a father figure, but Ellen is resistant to Tod's advances, and admonishes him for buying her son a toy gun, which she doesn't want him playing with.

It seems like a pretty ordinary day in Suddenly, when the word comes over the wire that the town is due for an unexpected visit by a most extraordinary guest -- the President of the United States. But there is no time for celebration. The notice is given confidentially that Shaw must work with his local law enforcement as well as members of the Secret Service to ensure that the area surrounding the train station is secure.

Meanwhile, at the Benson home up on the hill overlooking the station, three men including John Baron (Sinatra) show up and introduce themselves as members of the FBI, alerting the family to the news of the President's pending visit, and -- because of the house's direct proximity to the station -- put the house on security lockdown until the visit is over.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the men are not who they say they are. Baron is, in fact, a psychotic war vet who has been trained as a killing machine, and now intends to put his training to use on taking out the President. Any hopes of Shaw and the Secret Service agent foiling the plot are dashed when both men come to the house as part of their security routine, and are taken hostage along with the family.

Over the course of the film, the tension builds greatly as the hour of the President's visit draws near. Adding to the dramatic effect is the exploration of Baron's twisted psychological state, and how he views this job just like any other hit that he has been paid to carry out. Ellen Benson comes to recognize Shaw's true bravery and heroic qualities, and young Peter learns the great responsibility and power that come with using a firearm. The recurring use of the clock, counting down the time until the arrival of the train and the expected showdown, reminded me of HIGH NOON (1952), in which the ever-present clocks reminded us of Sheriff Gary Cooper's pending confrontation with the outlaws who are coming in to town by train. SUDDENLY uses the element of time to create a similarly tense and suspenseful mood throughout.

I could watch Sterling Hayden in just about anything -- he's one of those great stars who is always fascinating to watch. Here, he is in the unique position of not being given a great deal of action or dialogue, but his strong screen presence keeps him central to the viewer's attention throughout.

The real standout, though, is Sinatra. He proves once again what a truly great actor he was. This is the kind of role that, in many ways, is a difficult one to play -- especially for a star of his magnitude and popularity -- because it is an almost entirely unsympathetic one. Even though the psychological aspects of his character are explored, we're never asked to pity Baron -- it's made clear that he has been transformed into a heartless, cold-blooded killer who views murder as a job. It's a bold role for a pop music star and recent Oscar winner like Sinatra to take, but it also demonstrates his versatility and talent in taking on challenging new roles, rather than resting on his laurels.

Frank Sinatra as John Baron in SUDDENLY (1954)

The curious thing about SUDDENLY is that -- for the top-tier talent involved -- it appears to have a been a pretty low-budget production. It was produced by a company called Libra Productions, and released by United Artists. The action is confined largely to the Benson house, with some location exteriors of the train station and town grocery store. The film's director, Lewis Allen, worked primarily in television, which is evident in his economic choice of shots and staging here. The music score is by David Raksin, one of the top film score composers of this era, especially with the hit theme song from the 1944 Film Noir classic LAURA.

The explosive subject matter of SUDDENLY proved, tragically, to be a little too prescient, and the film was withdrawn from circulation following the Kennedy assassination in 1963, which also resulted in its eventually slipping into the public domain (a similar fate befell Sinatra's later film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, dealing with the same subject, but that film remained under copyright and was re-released to great acclaim in the late 1980s, while SUDDENLY has remained relatively obscure). As with many films in the public domain, its lack of copyright status has meant that it often circulates in inferior copies and has not benefited from the care and preservation that it deserves. The upside to this situation is that SUDDENLY can be freely shown and, as mentioned above, it frequently turns up in collections of classic films, waiting to be discovered by new generations of movie fans.

There's so much to recommend SUDDENLY, from its tense script and gripping suspense, to its great acting turns by stars Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden. It packs a lot in to its 75 minute running time and is a great example of lean, economic but powerfully effective film making.