August 24, 2009

Suddenly (1954)

IN THE YEARS BETWEEN the end of World War II and his Oscar-winning role in From Here To Eternity, Frank Sinatra was in a slump. Women didn’t need to fawn over him now that their boys were back home from overseas.

Perhaps desperate to try anything – and maybe not knowing the comeback he’d enjoy from Eternity – Sinatra played against type as a villain in Suddenly.

• The town of Suddenly, California is a quiet, small place where not much happens (“They’re thinking of changing the town to Gradually,” jokes a cop to an out-of-towner). But today is special: The President is arriving by train at 5pm.
• In town, sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) pines for Ellen (Nancy Gates), who lost her husband Pete in “the war” three years ago (I’m guessing Korea, since it’s 1954). She’s overprotective in raising her scrappy (and mouthy) 8-year-old son Pidge (Kim Charney) while sharing her hilltop home with her father-in-law (James Gleason).
• That afternoon, a trio of sharp-dressed men (led by Sinatra) visit Ellen’s home, announcing themselves as Secret Servicemen who need to inspect the house because of its direct view of the train station in the town below.
• During their “inspection,” Tod shows up with the real head of the Secret Service (Willis Bouchey). Sinatra’s crew opens fire, killing the Secret Serviceman and wounding Tod. It’s here we learn that Sinatra’s character, John Baron, is a hitman hired to assassinate the President for half a million dollars. He and his team hold Ellen, Tod, Pidge, Pop, and an unsuspecting TV repairman (James Lilburn) hostage. Baron’s rules are simple: Anybody tries to stop him, and he kills Pidge.


Director Lewis Allen plays out the events of Suddenly within a four-hour span (and a taut 75-minute film) with very little musical score, providing a relatable level of realism – and an atmosphere of tension, helplessness, and fear. The script by Richard Sale (The White Buffalo) offers clever tricks and turns, as well as many memorable lines of dialogue. (Ellen: “Haven’t you any feelings at all?” Baron: “No, I haven’t, lady, they were taken outta me by experts.”)

It’s intriguing and entertaining to see cinematic “good guy” Sinatra and film noir heavy Hayden both play against type. Sinatra is terrific as Baron, an unbalanced killer who tries a bit too hard to prove his toughness. He’s a villain that's easy to despise – a scrawny weasel who assaults kids, menaces women, and kicks people in their bullet wounds. (It’s a shame he didn’t take more chances like this.) And Hayden does a great job of using Sale’s dialogue to “get” to Sinatra’s Baron in an attempt to throw him off his game.

Contrary to popular belief, Sinatra did not try to have prints of Suddenly removed from the marketplace following John F. Kennedy’s assassination; Sinatra’s family has gone to great lengths over the years to debunk this popular rumor.

Suddenly is an edgy, grim thriller for its era. Get past the dated, hokey intro and you’ll be rewarded for your time.

Where to watch Suddenly:
Suddenly fell into the public domain years ago and now exists in many ultra-cheap versions of poor quality. However, a newly restored version of Suddenly was released this summer, featuring the original black and white film and a colorized version (see below).
• You can also view or download Suddenly free from

On a side note…I requested interviews from two of the surviving stars of Suddenly, Nancy Gates and Kim Charney. I never heard back from Gates, and Charney (who’s now a surgeon) declined my request.

Rating: 4.5 stars
(out of 5)

Will your kids want to watch it?
Teens might find Suddenly entertaining if they give it a chance, but I can’t imagine young kids wanting to watch it – unless they’ve got some kind of early fascination with black-and-white crime dramas. And while there’s no actual bloodshed in Suddenly, it has plenty of gunplay (including several shooting deaths and one injury), plus a rather nasty electrocution.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I don’t know how your FilmMother feels about classic movies; my wife admittedly has trouble staying awake for black and white films. But if your other half has a thing for film noir or Ol’ Blue Eyes, she’ll enjoy Suddenly.

A man so powerful, he owned the world's first invisible cigar.

• Director: Lewis Allen
• Screenwriter: Richard Sale
• Stars: Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, James Gleason, James Lilburn
• MPAA Rating: N/A

Buy Suddenly for less at >


James (SeattleDad) said...

Always looking for a good classic. And I love Sinatra so this one goes on my list. Thanks.

Gemma said...

How DO you find these treasures? I am sold, and am heading to the DVR right now to program it. Thx for the heads-up, and great writing as usual! said...

great blog keep up the good work

joe said...

Boy Frankie's looking pretty sinister in that top pic... just by looking at they guy you can tell he's up to no good.

Gemma said...

Dutifully recorded this movie, and watched it this evening. Took a little while to get into it, but then we were hooked. Really enjoyed watching a movie as they looked when we were only 8 yrs. old. Good grief! Thx.

mr. nichols said...

i'm really feeling this blog. although i'm not a father yet, i will be soon (and when i say soon the plan is three years from now) but i love movies so i look forward to digging into this blog and following along.

Keith said...

Great review. This is a Sinatra film I've never seen. It was neat to learn more about it.

KeegsMom said...

Oh excellent! We're big Sinatra fans ... look forward to this. Nice find!


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