Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Movie Review: Suddenly (1954)


A low budget B-movie juiced with better than expected performances, Suddenly is a short and sharp assassination and hostage drama.

The small and sleepy town of Suddenly receives the exciting news that an unscheduled train carrying the President of the United States is due to make a quick stop in town. Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is the local law, and he pauses his romantic pursuit of war widow Ellen (Nancy Gates) to coordinate security with Secret Service agents led by Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey). Meanwhile, the still-grieving Ellen is trying to shield her young son Pidge (Kim Charney) from any symbols of violence.

Pop Benson (James Gleason) is Ellen's dad and a retired Secret Service agent himself. Pop's house provides a strategic vantage point over the train station. Hitman John Baron (Frank Sinatra) and two accomplices arrive in Suddenly pretending to be FBI agents. They forcefully occupy Pop's house, and hold Tod, Pop, Ellen and Pidge as hostages while they set-up a high powered sniper rifle and await the arrival of the President's train.

In the vein of movies about killers holding innocents hostage including landmarks like The Petrified Forest, Key Largo and The Desperate Hours, Suddenly occupies a curious place for a variety of reasons. After the big budget From Here To Eternity, Sinatra takes quite a left-turn to land in this tiny movie as his next project. Later, he would appear in 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, which again features a slow-burning assassination plot. After the 1963 Kennedy assassination, Sinatra attempted to have Suddenly withdrawn from circulation upon hearing that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the film before the killing.

In itself this is an intriguing film that builds and maintains a good head of steam. Director Lewis Allen demonstrates a penchant for edgy and noirish perspectives and punches the clock at a no-nonsense 77 minutes. Once the premise is established and Baron's intentions are revealed, most of the action takes place in Pop's house, the action confined to a couple of rooms as Baron awaits the train and Shaw, nursing a bullet wound in his arm, attempts to figure out a way to gain the upper hand.

The set-up opens the door to a decent psychological duel between the sheriff and the hitman. Shaw realizes that Baron is emotionally troubled and gets him talking, allowing Suddenly to venture into interesting territory related to the upbringing and training of an assassin. Frank Sinatra's intense performance as an unhinged cold-hearted killer who feels the world owes him plenty elevates the film well past its humble intentions. Hayden is adequate but quite stiff.

Given the modest budget and B-movie status, there are plot holes and inconsistencies aplenty in the Richard Sale screenplay, and of course the characters behave as the script requires to keep the drama simmering, rather than in accordance with any logic. Nancy Gates and James Gleason provide decent support behind Hayden and Sinatra, but the rest of the cast members read their lines with the awkward intensity of first rehearsal at the local high school play.

A taut countdown thriller peppered with masculine and threat-laden dialogue, Suddenly does not set any new standards in filmmaking, but it's much better than it needed to be.






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