Political terror scenarios were a bit simpler in the 1950s, and movies about them fairly rare. Frank Sinatra gives a strong performance as the villain John Baron, in a tense tale of presidential assassination by high-powered rifle.
The Film Detective
1954 / B&W / 1.75 widescreen / 75 min. / Street Date October 25, 2016 / 14.99
Starring Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Willis Bouchey,
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction Frank Sylos
Film Editor John F. Schreyer
Original Music David Raksin
Written by Richard Sale
Produced by Robert Bassler
Directed by Lewis Allen
Some disc companies do well by refurbishing movies in the Public Domain, using various methods to bring what were once bargain-bin eyesores nearer the level of releases made from prime source material in studio vaults. As I’ve reported with efforts by HD Cinema Classics and VCI, the results vary dramatically — did the company do a professional job, or did they just process a previous video master with desktop software? We’re definitely not against Public Domain releases when the studio that holds original film elements can’t or won’t release a picture. Back in 2003, MGM marketed a terrific DVD of the great film noir He Walked by Night, only to see everybody with a disc burner steal the superior transfer and put out their own copies. The Film Detective just released a Blu-ray of Rod Serling’s Patterns. It’s not perfect, but it’s awfully good. MGM shows no sign of utilizing its original film elements for a disc release; the movie doesn’t even look very good on TCM cable.
Lewis Allen’s proto-paranoid Cold War assassination thriller Suddenly once looked weak and ragged on cheap DVDs, until Image and Blackhawk came out with a good Blu-ray in 2012. But that disc has a problem — a flat open-matte transfer. Suddenly is a widescreen movie, officially listed as shot with 1:75 matting in mind. More on this below.
As for the movie itself, 1954’s Suddenly is a fascinating suspense thriller with a theme that reveals some very strange ideas floating around in ‘fifties America. We’re told that Hollywood’s blacklist-era anti-commie films like Big Jim McClain and I Married a Communist were mostly duds at the box office and ineffectual as propaganda. A showcase starring vehicle for Frank Sinatra, Suddenly registers the Cold War backlash a little differently. A small group of rural citizens is terrorized by a maniac killer intent on murdering the President of the United States. The film’s operating assumption is that we’re all at war and should be on the alert for anti-American terror, From any direction, at any time. The next year’s The Desperate Hours is less political but almost as critical of our culture of permissiveness and complacency. This exercise in hysteria wants us to think that murderous communists are everywhere and that we need to be cold warriors in our own living rooms.
The story plays out almost in real time. “Suddenly” is a rural railroad stop town in Central California. With two confederates, psychotic assassin John Baron (Frank Sinatra) invades the household of retired G-Man Pop Benson (James Gleason), forcing his daughter Ellen (Nancy Gates) and her son Pidge (Kim Charney) to witness their preparations to ambush the President of the United States at the whistle-stop railroad station, visible from the Bensons’ living-room window. Unaware of the drama playing out just up the hill, Ellen’s suitor Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) helps the secret service prepare for the visit. He brings agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) up the hill to visit his old pal Pop. They fall right into the lap of the determined, brutal killers.
Writer Richard Sale had a definite affinity for weird thrillers. He wrote the original book for the odd religious allegory Strange Cargo, and his seagoing thrillers Abandon Ship! and Torpedo Run both involve unthinkable decisions of life and death. The only religion in this show is the gospel that every American needs to be battle-ready, now, to stave off communist killers and their hired-gun allies.
With no hidden agenda, Suddenly promotes a simplistic condemnation of pacifism, aimed specifically at women. NRA types will love this, whereas some liberals and feminists may be offended. The entire first reel criticizes young mother Ellen Benson, who lost her husband in Korea (fighting Reds), because she now forbids her son Pidge to play with toy guns. She thinks that she can subdue Pidge’s fighting instincts in this way. Father-in-law Pop undermines Ellen’s judgment with the argument that his grandson must be raised to be a fighter, in life in general if not in future wars. America doesn’t need ‘sensitive’ sons and progressive mothers are making them into sissies. Nobody respects Ellen’s wishes or her authority to decide what’s best for her own son. Sheriff Tod feels it’s his prerogative to ignore Ellen’s explicit wishes, and buy Pidge a cap gun behind her back. Mom just doesn’t get it — she doesn’t understand that the world is a dangerous place and that men have to prepare for battle. Those freedoms we enjoy require constant vigilance and struggle, you know.
But wait, the argument is stacked even higher on the side of hysterical fear mongering armed patriotism. Pop thinks he’s through fighting America’s enemies, having been forced to retire early after taking a bullet defending the President. All of the Bensons are put on the spot when the deranged John Baron commandeers their picture window to plug the President long distance. Given the year, the President in mind is presumably Eisenhower. Pop and Tod conspire to counteract the swaggering, ruthless Baron while Ellen mostly wrings her hands unhelpfully in a corner. The immature Pidge clearly has the Right Stuff when he ‘threatens’ Baron with his cap gun. Pidge later proves himself to be genuine Junior G-Man material.
Sinatra’s John Baron is the kind of ruthless cold-blooded killer that needs to talk. A lot. He doesn’t gag and hog-tie his hostages on the floor, or, more logically, kill them. Baron instead allows them to roam freely and chitchat. He brags that he’s the best in his business, but the moment Sheriff Tod gets him talking, his neuroses and complexes spill out in time-proven ‘fifties psychodrama style. He’s little more than a hateful and selfish liar who likes to push people around for profit. Baron is hired muscle for the villains (presumed to be Commies) that want our president killed, a gangster doing the job of an assassin-spy. We know this is so because Baron tells Tod how cautious he will need to be when the job is done — his foreign puppet masters will be anxious to cover their tracks.
Suddenly is fairly well directed. Its built-in suspense factor makes it hard to resist, which is why I won’t go into the wild shenanigans that occur in the last few minutes before the President’s train arrives. The ruthless logic of the opening slackens somewhat when the story settles into what would seem to be a one-act TV play format. John Baron foolishly tells his entire plan to the Bensons, potential witnesses all. He allows a trained Secret Service agent and a tough (albeit wounded) ex- G.I. to sit just a few feet away while he prepares his assassination plan.
Things look pretty bad for the hostages. Pop and Tod gird themselves to make a suicidal gesture, the kind that Real Men Must Make. As for Ellen, the screenplay seemingly faults her for wanting to survive. The impression is that molly-coddling mothers are the biggest problem facing America, as they might prevent young boys from growing up macho and joining the battle against Communist Evil. A more liberal viewpoint will recognize the film as a subdued, benign version of what the Hitler Youth are shown going through in the animated wartime Disney short subject Education for Death. Along with every patriotic little boy in the audience, Pidge is being indoctrinated as a warrior.
Just like Grace Kelly in High Noon, Ellen eventually picks up a gun. “Your dead husband would want you to,” says fast-talking Tod when he insists that Pidge be allowed to play with guns. The message is that Ellen ought to start conforming, fighting Commies and sleeping with Tod right away. Don’t worry, the Bensons are good people — everybody but Grandpa gets their moment behind a gun trigger. The ending makes use of a newfangled piece of ’50s household technology — a TV set!
This is a good picture for Frank Sinatra, who still has the lean, hungry look of his earlier career days. The short haircut reveals the scars behind his ears, reportedly sustained from a rough birth delivery. Put together as a quick follow-up to Sinatra’s breakthrough picture From Here to Eternity, by today’s standard Suddenly allows John Baron to chew the scenery too much. Baron repeatedly walks into big close-ups to deliver ponderous speeches directly to the camera. The relatively inexpensive show opens up what is really a one-set stage drama, and pages of stagey dialogue could have been dropped from the screenplay. The rest of the casting is fine, if a little obvious. Dependable pro Sterling Hayden has a way with lines that would be wooden in less charismatic hands. Nancy Gates (Comanche Station, Some Came Running) is excellent as usual, almost selling the author’s thesis about meddling females. James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) and Willis Bouchey are true blue agents, and Sinatra’s number one henchman is Paul Frees, the king of the narrators.
Movies about attempts on the life of a serving President weren’t many, and Suddenly may actually be the first. The Tall Target starred Dick Powell as an 1860s G-Man trying to protect Lincoln, but that had ninety years of history as a buffer. Suddenly imagines a conservative Republican president put in the crosshairs by unnamed foreign enemies. The all-too-real 1960s Kennedy assassinations were of the opposite persuasion — domestic killers hitting liberal Democrats.
Sinatra continued into similar thematic territory with 1962’s paranoid conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, in which foreign Commies attempt to put their own operative in the White House. Urban legend has it that Sinatra, feeling somehow responsible for his friend Kennedy’s assassination, voluntarily removed The Manchurian Candidate from circulation. It was also rumored that Suddenly was pulled as well. To set the record straight, Manchuria was withheld by producer Sinatra for financial reasons, because of problems he saw in his deal with United Artists. Suddenly never really went away, it was just semi-abandoned to infrequent TV airings. As further argument against the ‘contrite Sinatra’ theory, in 1967 he starred in yet another movie about an assassin with a high-powered rifle, Sidney J. Furie’s The Naked Runner. When spies kidnap his son, Sinatra’s businessman is forced to carry out a killing on the German autobahn (shades of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse). The point is that Sinatra wasn’t morally opposed to stories exploiting deadly snipers, before or after the JFK assassination.
All the ad art for Suddenly uses an exclamation point on the main title, but the film itself does not. The film’s message is that we’d better watch out, or a subversive conspiracy could ‘suddenly’ pop up anywhere, even in the smallest of small towns. Bring back toy guns for kids!
The announcement of The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of Suddenly was welcomed here at DVD Savant because I’m a fan of widescreen aspect ratios, even if I sometimes make mistakes and am corrected by people like Bob Furmanek and Gary Teetzel. Playing back in a confirmed correct AR of 1.75:1, the framing for this edition is just fine. The key action is no longer confined to a stripe across the center of the frame, with the top and bottom revealing expanses of ceiling-less walls and empty floors.
The problem is with the encoding, which is not as good as the company’s earlier Patterns. The show begins with an odd motion error on the opening fade-up, which makes a car chatter roughly across the frame. It’s the only error of that kind, yet it’s a big mistake. The main complaint is the presence of a coarse granularity on the image, more than one would expect. It appears equally distributed on both light and dark areas of the frame; it appears artificial and noisy, not like typical film grain. If you have a monitor smaller than forty inches it may not even be apparent, but with a set that size Blu-ray resolution isn’t really needed. On a larger display (mine is 65″) I found this grain texture distracting. At that size, occasional highlights dance like a fine powdering of swarming bees.
Were I watching Suddenly for the first time the quality would NOT be a problem. And if the only alternative were one of those old P.D. discs, I’d happily choose this Blu-ray. But for more discerning fans, the much cleaner 2012 Image / Blackhawk disc will be the better way to go, even with its undesirable flat aspect ratio.
Considering how inexpensive the disc is, Frank Sinatra fans may want to buy it and make their own comparison. My last remark is a complaint about what has happened to the words ‘film restoration.’ Film restoration is done by studios, museums and archives, taking original film elements that are old or damaged and creating new preservation elements that can be used to make new film prints. The new and old elements are then safely archived so that the film won’t be lost. Finding a useable video or film element and buffing it up for a video release is not film restoration, and it dilutes the definition.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Fair but an A+ for aspect ratio
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 6, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson