Not much happens in the small town of Suddenly. Once named after its hustle and bustle atmosphere, it has since settled into your typical, sleepy, average American burg. It’s the kind of place where beat cop Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) knows everyone, and any strange face passing through stands out. But in the space of a few hours, over a single afternoon, the lives of a handful of people will change dramatically thanks to one determined, deranged man. While it might not be the flashiest B-movie of the era, Lewis Allen’s “Suddenly” is a tight, extraordinarly lean little thriller that succeeds far beyond what you would expect of its modest production.
Essentially, the film is one long ticking clock. Tod is informed that the President of the United States may be passing through town, and soon the Secret Service arrive to coordinate efforts to confirm that nothing is amiss in ensuring the safety of the Commander Of Chief. It turns out there has been a threat on his life, and that’s represented by John Baron (Frank Sinatra) and his couple of hoods. The set up is pretty simple. John makes his way to the house on top of a hill that has the best vantage point with which to shoot the President from a safe distance, takes the residents hostage, and then Tod as well when he comes to the house as part of his rounds in securing the town. And then, as the few hours count down until the President arrives, a psychological game of cat-and-mouse emerges between Tod and John.
One thing in particular make this film stand out: Frank Sinatra, whose presence and perfomance elevates an otherwise cheap and not particularly well-made (or acted) programmer. His only reason to kill the President is simply that he’s getting paid to do something he’s good at. He’s back from World War II with a Silver Star — something he brags about throughout the picture — and a newfound skill to kill. This gig will give him a payoff that will likely ensure he’ll never have to work again, so why not? Sinatra, who took on the role right after earning an Academy Award nomination for “From Here to Eternity,” has great command here. It’s a part that could easily be over the top, but he shows a fine subtlety. John is confident and arrogant, but also as charming as he is diabolically smarmy. He goads his hostages with glee and remains colorfully morally bankrupt. But the performance never goes near camp, and thus his menace mainstains that the stakes remain high and real.
And good thing too, because everything else around Sinatra is rather flat and uninspired. Hayden’s good guy cop is a rather one-note character, and his love interest and fellow hostage Ellen, played by Nancy Gates, is even more faceless and forgetable. Kim Charney as her son Pidge is as bit more spirited, but like everyone else, is merely a puzzle piece for Sinatra to dance around. Allen, who spent most of his career in television, doesn’t bring much behind camera. Though saddled with a story that mostly takes place in one location, it still doesn’t excuse the unimaginative visual approach, which aims for claustrophobic but lands on boxy and flat. And we’re not even going to get into the pro-gun slant of the story that never quite makes sense or is committed to (Ellen hates guns, but one hidden in her house by her father winds up helping to save the day — yet at least a couple of innocent lives throughout the picture are also taken by guns). But, Allen does keep the fat off, which means the 75-minute film never stops moving, right down to the finale in which the bullets fly. And with Sinatra at the center of most it, delivering the goods, it’s about as sharp and taut as these kind of B-movie thrillers get.
Extras: Thanks to copyrights that expired, the film has long been available in cheap, shoddy public domain dupes. But Image Entertainment has gorgeously restored the film from a 35mm studio fine grain master, and on Blu-ray, the picture is fantastic: sharp, detailed with just the right amount of grain to keep it looking like celluloid (images via DVDBeaver). The film comes with two commentary tracks — by Frank Sinatra Jr. and Dr. Drew Casper, a professor at UCLA — and an image gallery, but perhaps most interesting of all is the 1957 short “N.Y. N.Y.: A Day In New York” by Francis Thompson. The rumor is that it took twenty years just to make the lenses for this beautifully kaledoscopic journey through 24 hours in the big city, from dawn to dark, loosely following one person through their day. It truly is unlike anything of the time — or even now — and it’s truly a surprise.