‘Suddenly’ is not only thrilling but an insightful look into a crucial chapter of American history

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Written by Richard Sale
Directed by Alan Lewis
USA, 1954

An often amusing and enlightening result of a film buff’s tendency to explore movies of the past is discovering how differently people behaved and understood the world and the shifting circumstances around them. After all, common sense and zeitgeists are known to change with the times. The more years and decades elapse, the more or less people can grow accustomed to major or minor world events. In 2013, rumour and threats of presidential assassinations, in the United States or abroad, are sadly more common than was the case in 1954, the year Lewis Allen’s Suddenly was released, at least so far as can be assessed by how some of its characters react.

The quiet town of Suddenly, snuggly ensconced in what looks to be Anywhere, U.S.A., is on the verge of having its tiny world turned upside down. Police sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) receives information from the feds via telegraph that the president is to make a brief pit stop by train at 5 in the afternoon. Security agents and state police arrive early to inspect the premises, as do a trio of similarly dressed men, led by John Baron (Frank Sinatra), when they arrive at the home of Pete Benson (James Gleason), his daughter in law Ellen (Nancy Gates) and her son ‘Pidge’ (Kim Charney). Their lovely house sports a terrific view of the train station from atop a gentle hill, perfect for a skilled marksman to fire from, exactly what Frank, a hired killer, has in mind.

Lewis Allen’s Suddenly is a thoroughly compelling potboiler that earns some of its most important credentials for different reasons through modern eyes than must have been the case back upon its initial theatrical release in 1954. The incredulity expressed by some of the hostages when told of the plan to murder the president is borne out of a now long-forgotten sense of wholesome innocence that once was a hallmark of the American identity. They cannot fathom how anyone would acquiesce to such a scheme, regardless of the monetary compensation. They claim treachery, with the same astonishment children demonstrate when learning of harsh topics like pain and death for the very first time. No one would dare argue that modern times have hardened people’s attitudes to the extent that one would not bat an eye at the prospect of a political assassination, yet it is also futile to deny that in 2013, people perceive the world with a few more ounces of cynicism. In Suddenly, the mere fact that an American would carry out the dire deed is sufficient grounds for utter perplexity. Unfeasible. Unthinkable. Un-American.

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The level of obfuscation shown towards violence by certain characters juxtaposed against the acceptance and even relish of others is a succinct manifestation of the country’s changing identity in the years following World War II. The experiences of those who directly participated in combat and the stories that travelled back to the home front either by said combatants or the media were a harbinger for how society would be altered with each successive generation from that point on. The clash between civility and barbarism has always existed since the inception of civilization, the period depicted in Suddenly being but a single, brief chapter in the ongoing evolution of a society. Perhaps due to its proximity to present day, there is an understandable  fascination with this episode in American history. This age of innocence, as often cited by those who lived it in the 1950s and early 1960s, would slowly be nibbled at by a brooding undercurrent. It would eventually face its greatest threat in the form of the Vietnam War, an event that had radical ramifications on the populace’s perception of their country and the world at large. If the attitudes of the characters like Ellen and the television repairman seem antiquated, it is only because they represent the bubble of American goodness that enjoyed temporary reign, whereas people like Tod and John have already left said bubble via wartime experience and Frank is the force that shall burst it altogether. Violence is not a mere means to an end in Suddenly, but an instigating philosophy that sent a nation from one era to the next.

Suddenly has many more tricks up its sleeve than to shock and awe audiences with Frank’s villainous intentions. For one, there is the actor playing the part: Frank Sinatra. The ultimate crooner, one of the indelible faces of the Rat Pack, plays a cold, calculating assassin. As he introduces himself to the unsuspecting residents, he exudes an aura of professionalism, calm yet alert. Once this façade melts away upon Tom’s arrival with a fellow security agent (Willis Bouchey) for a casual inspection, in its place is a furious steadfastness, an intensity that towers over almost everyone in the room, save Sterling Hayden. What begins as a slow dance in which two strong-willed characters figure each other out grows increasingly tempestuous, ultimately exploding in a climax with an astonishing amount of gunplay and death. Sinatra eschews any cool factor he built his reputation on, favouring a bloodthirsty determination as his character tries to methodically escape with the $500,000 his mysterious clients promised. Whether by design or otherwise, his motivations are not entirely clear. He does not appear to harbor any political ill will towards his target, reminding his hostages that the hefty bounty is what drives him. Then again, as Tod pries some additional insight into John, the viewers comes to understand that he earned a medal for his wartime efforts, followed by a dishonourable discharge and is frighteningly proud of his proficiency at killing. The film never hampers on any angle more than another, making John something of an ambiguous construct. It may not be terribly focused, but Sinatra’s performance makes it fascinating and unnerving to watch.

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Sinatra receives top billing for obvious reasons, but there are a couple of cast members who equal the former in terms of screen presence. Hayden does not exactly play against type in the case of Suddenly, although seeing him trying to woo Nancy Gates is certainly a change of pace, much like John Wayne getting cozy with Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo. To put it mildly, Hayden does not fit the mold of a romantic lead and the opening scene at the general store is a bit rough around the edges. Suddenly quickly shifts gears once the word concerning the president’s stint is received at the police station, from which point on Hayden finds his comfort zone. A Hayden-Sinatra standoff is not the first that comes to mind when thinking of potentially great battles of wits and personalities, but Allen gets great performances out of both. However different they are, in the end, their styles prove complementary. James Gleason is another actor who gives much more to his role, as the home’s elder patriarchal figure, than otherwise might have been the case: funny and charming but also deceptively perceptive.

Lewis Allen smartly directs this robust little thriller that, with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, has plenty simmering just beneath the surface than what the plot has to offer. Pieces of fiction described as ‘time capsules’ are frequently undervalued. Just because something is considered dated does entail that it is valueless. Suddenly proves that very point.

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-Edgar Chaput

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