Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Classic Tuesdays: Suddenly (1954)
“The first men they shoot to the moon in a rocket will take pains, too - ’cause that’s never been done before. Neither has this.”
So says Frank Sinatra as Johnny Baron in the 1954 film Suddenly, presaging two events that would actually occur in the next decade. Sinatra was never one to shy away from a controversial role - the actor would even go on to revisit political assassinations later in the more famous The Manchurian Candidate. With Suddenly, however, Sinatra’s character isn’t trying to prevent an assassination - he is the assassin.
The movie gets its title after the town it takes place in, a quietly unexciting Smalltown USA called Suddenly, California. The local sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is the type who takes the time to watch after young boys while their mothers are grocery shopping - especially for the recently-widowed Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), who he tries to woo by driving her to church each and every Sunday. The town is shaken up when the news comes over the wire that the President of the United States will be making an unannounced detour, throwing everyone and everything off their schedules. Every precaution is taken, as secret service men survey the entire town and squads of state troopers are called in to help secure the area. Also called in are FBI agents Johnny Baron and his two cohorts, who immediately head for Ellen’s house, which is apparently the #1 security threat, as it provides a perfect vantage point for the train station where the President will arrive. Ellen lives with her son and father-in-law Pop Benson (James Gleason), who conveniently enough used to be in the secret service himself. The only trouble is Baron and his men aren’t with the FBI, and what follows is a tense thriller where Tod, Ellen and her family are held hostage by a group of men out to assassinate the most powerful man in the world.
The film starts off a little stiff - really none of the main cast is all that interesting, acting ability or otherwise. Hayden comes across as especially bland, there to say his lines and hit his marks and little else. The Benson family is even worse, although they are livened up a bit by James Gleason’s wry portrayal of the father-in-law. The movie threatens to become a footnote, a cheaply-made thriller lost amidst the litany of B-movies and one-reelers released at the same time and now largely forgotten, save as public domain DVD’s in the dollar bin. But everything changes once Ol’ Blue Eyes comes into the picture, and from then on out the film is a master class in nail-biting suspense and ratcheting tension.
It’s kind of amazing how one actor can change the entire course of a film with a singular great performance. Sinatra here saves the movie through his virtuoso turn as Baron, a WWII veteran who’s lost his faith (and possibly his marbles) and has a vendetta against the country he used to serve. Sinatra alternates between his usual charming self and terrifying homicidal maniac - he‘s twitchy, paranoid and neurotic, all of it is barely contained by a wink and a smirk. Baron is a great character, one who we see slowly deteriorate as the film rushes towards its heated climax. He constantly taunts the family with stories of how he killed 27 “Jerrys” during the war and received the Silver Star - reiterating constantly that it was Uncle Sam putting a gun in his hand that turned him from a nobody into a somebody, something he had to continue after the war by becoming a killer-for-hire.
Director Lewis Allen is playing at something larger with the gun in symbolic terms. Ellen’s son at the beginning of the film begs his mother for a cap gun, which she promptly scolds him about. His father was killed by a gun while serving in the Army, and she doesn’t want any her son to have any part of it. And it’s easy to see why: for Sinatra’s character, possessing a gun is equal to being God - he gets off on holding a person’s life or death in his own hands. The film tries to turn it back into a more jingoistic theme before the movie ends, but it’s hard not to watch the events of the film unfold and believe that was the filmmakers’ original intent. It’s clear that Johnny Baron had issues before ever going to war, but the statement the film makes on how warfare warps young men’s minds is too prominent to be ignored by the patriotism-friendly ending.
Although the cast surrounding Sinatra is well beneath his talents, Suddenly proves that a captivating movie can still be made as long as you have at least one great performance.