One of the more remarkable films from the 1950s, we think, is a gritty black-and-white indie thriller that clocks in at 77 minutes.
The film, Suddenly (1954), is about an assassination attempt of an American president. Specifically, it centres on a house overlooking a train station where the president – for security reasons – will disembark from an unscheduled train and continue his journey by vehicle.
This town is Suddenly, California, so named because its history is pockmarked with sudden, unpleasant events, e.g. robberies, gun fights, etc. But now Suddenly is quiet and unassuming – until the day the president secretly rolls into town where hired gunmen are waiting.
There are many exceptional things about this film, starting with its structure. The story takes place during a four-hour period on a lazy Saturday afternoon while characters wait for the 5:00 train. It feels like events are transpiring in real time, and whenever we’re shown a closeup of a clock we think, It’s that time already?
Because time is short (figuratively and actually), we meet all the characters – and their motivations – during the first few minutes, then we see how they react in a time of violent crisis.
The film is Tense. Although we suspect – this being a film from the 1950s – that the president will not be killed, we’re unsure of who might survive the afternoon.
Because of the sparse, economic framework here, you need credible actors who establish an immediate connection with audiences. That’s why the role of the lead assassin is a brilliant choice. He is played by crooner and actor Frank Sinatra.
Before he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for From Here to Eternity (1953), Frank Sinatra was a popular singer; in fact, he is still one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.
He was also a very good actor, and his performance in Suddenly is the one we respect the most.
Sinatra stars as a WWII veteran who was awarded the Silver Star Medal for bravery during the war. He’s savvy and tough, and he can muster charm when necessary.
But he’s callous. When he and his accomplices enter the house overlooking the train station, he takes the family hostage, along with the town sheriff (Sterling Hayden). He tells the grandfather (James Gleason) to make sure his grandson behaves. “One sound from the kid, Pop, and he’s dead,” he says, as though suggesting a Time Out.
His scene-stealing interactions with Hayden are fascinating. He pings his lines off Hayden like he’s shooting elastic bands. “Sheriff, if you think I have any qualms about killing this kid, you couldn’t be more wrong,” he smirks. “The thing about killing [anyone in the house] is that I wouldn’t be getting paid for it. And I don’t like giving anything away for free.”
Suddenly has a smart script that never talks down to the audience, and Sinatra’s performance makes it even better. He convinces us he’s responding to a Calling, like others might be drawn to public service or a religious order.
He believes he’s no hypocrite and that he has the right to kill. “In the war you do a lot of chopping and you get a medal for it,” he says. “You come back and do the same thing, and they fry you for it.”
Sinatra delivers these words in a businesslike manner and the effect is chilling.
Now, you may be thinking this isn’t the only film Frank Sinatra made about an attempted assassination of a high-ranking American political figure, and you’d be right. Sinatra also starred in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a film pulled from theatres after the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
They say the only time Sinatra played a villain was in Suddenly, and if you’ve not yet seen it, we implore you to do so. Because it’s in the public domain, there are a lot of sub-quality versions, but even then the script and Sinatra’s performance are riveting.
This post is part of The POP STARS MOONLIGHTING Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews.
Suddenly: starring Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason. Directed by Lewis Allen. Written by Richard Sale. Libra Productions, 1954, B&W, 77 mins.