Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board certainly had a long and varied career, beginning as a bobby-sox teen idol in the Big Band Era, then a movie star at glamorous MGM. Hitting a slump in the early 50s, Sinatra came back strong with his Academy Award winning role as Maggio in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. His follow up film was the unheralded but effective noir thriller SUDDENLY.
The title refers to the sleepy little California town where the film takes place. Suddenly was once a wild and wooly Gold Rush settlement, now just a peaceful suburb. Sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is a stand-up guy, in love with local girl Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), a war widow with a son, Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen’s not ready to stop grieving her husband’s death, and to further matters she abhors guns. Her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), a retired Secret Service agent, gets exasperated at the way Ellen overprotects Pidge and keeps turning Todd away.
Todd receives some major news through the wires: The President of the United States will be arriving by train at 5:00pm for a stopover. The news is top secret, and Secret Service agents, led by Carney (Willis Bouchey), descend on Suddenly to secure the area. State police are summoned, streets blocked off, and shops are closed so the disembarkment will go off without a hitch. Three men arrive at the Benson home, which sits on a hill overlooking the train depot. John Baron (Sinatra) and two others (Paul Frees, Christopher Dark) claim to be FBI agents sent to protect the president. They set up shop at the Benson house, but Pop has some suspicions about the whole thing.
Everything’s been secured except the house on the hill. When Carney finds out his old boss Pop Benson lives there, he goes up with Todd to say hello. They’re met at the door by Baron and his men, who gun down Carney and wound Todd. The truth is now revealed: Baron is a hit man assigned to assassinate the president! Todd and the Bensons are held captive while they wait for the train to arrive so ex-Army sniper and Silver Star winner Baron can do the dirty deed. Baron exerts his will over them all by threatening to kill Pidge first if anyone tries to stop him from his murderous task.
The tension is unrelenting in SUDDENLY, and the ingenious ending will have you cheering the good guys on (I know I did). The role of John Baron is a total departure for Sinatra, and he pulls it off superbly. Baron is cool, calm, and collected one minute, a raging psycho the next. He’s completely lacking in empathy, his motto is “ace, deuce, craps, it don’t matter”. The only thing Baron’s ever been good at is killing, and he enjoys the power it gives him. A sociopath with no redeeming qualities, Baron brags about his kill rate in the war, and doesn’t hesitate to use violence to get his way. Sinatra nails the role of Baron like he did his many songs, and though he’s a real rat, it’s among his finest performances.
Director Lewis Allen does a good job here. Allen made his feature debut with 1944’s ghostly THE UNINVITED, followed by a semi-sequel, THE UNSEEN. After making the 1951 bomb of a biopic VALENTINO, his career was up and down. SUDDENLY gives Allen a good showcase, but the rest of his filmography is uninspired. He ended in TV, including episodes of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and THE INVADERS. Screenwriter Richard Sale got his start in the pulps, and wrote such varied film fare as MR. BELVEDERE GOES TO COLLEGE, GENTLEMEN MARRY BRUNETTES (which he also directed), and the Charles Bronson starrer THE WHITE BUFFALO. His screenplay for SUDDENLY seems to have inspired another Sinatra film, 1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, with Frank as the hero and Lawrence Harvey the psycho-shooter. SUDDENLY was allegedly remade in 2013 by Uwe Boll. I’ve never seen any of Boll’s films and from what I understand, I’m not missing anything. I’ll stick to the original with this one.
Frank Sinatra was always a saloon singer at heart, and my contribution to his 100th birthday bash wouldn’t be complete without a song. Here’s Ol’ Blue Eyes at his mid-60s peak doing one of my personal favorites. “That’s Life”. Cheers, Frankie!