Suddenly (Blu-ray Review)6 Feb, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, Nancy Gates, James Gleason.
The movie closest to unique in Frank Sinatra’s career has been available in public domain editions for so many years (and even decades) that it was the first movie I wrote about when beginning my nearly 25-year tenure as USA Today’s home entertainment columnist. Print quality has been predictably all over the place, including one knee-slapping debacle of such enormity that it even made one of the network news shows: the colorized version on which the presumably 22-year-old doofus in charge of the lab work gave Ol’ Blue Eyes a pair of brown ones. But this release is a little different: Image Entertainment went back to the original negative for a super-crisp presentation, and one of the two voiceover commentaries here is by the late Frank Sinatra Jr., who not only knew some Suddenly family lore but was actually present on the set.
By casting Frank Sr. as a sociopathic-or-worse hit man who’s been hired (with flunkies) to assassinate the president, the result marked the only movie in which the onetime male lead of MGM’s The Kissing Bandit ever played an all-out villain. And though the picture has some of the limitations associated with ‘B’-movies (which Suddenly all but was), Sinatra is spectacularly good here in ways that we rarely got to see on the screen, given his disinclination to put out in movies the way he did in the recording studio or in concert. There’s an interesting production chronology: Suddenly started shooting in early spring of 1954, just after Sinatra’s March 25 supporting Oscar for From Here to Eternity — which means that his participation must have been contractually sealed after the buzz about his ’53 Eternity performance became part of common knowledge but before Oscar made his much celebrated comeback fully complete. Suddenly would be the only Sinatra movie of 1954 until Young at Heart played a few cities for the Christmas trade before going out into wide release in January 1955. So this was, it goes without saying, his first movie after Eternity.
It’s set in a small town named Suddenly, which is one of the cornball components that writer Richard Sale eventually allows to creep into a generally taut script that serves a movie that runs only 76 minutes. Even at this, we don’t get our first sight of Sinatra until give-take 20 — which allows us to get grounded in the burg’s overall sleepiness atop a plot-germane domestic situation. This one finds an attractive widow played by Nancy Gates a) not wanting her grade school boy to play with toy guns (odd for the ’50s, albeit perhaps a sentiment ahead of its time); and b) rejecting the advances of the town sheriff (Sterling Hayden), possibly in part because he packs a rod for his job. She and the kid live with her father-in-law (James Gleason), a retired Secret Service agent whose inability to repair the family TV (back in the picture-tube days) will also figure in the story.
Sinatra and his hired cronies take over the household, set up a rifle to take advantage of the home’s perfect vantage point — whereupon its isn’t too long before serious violence ensues. Injured Hayden then does a pretty fair job of goading Sinatra into revealing his twisted character, which has likely been damaged by his wartime experiences (something that may play like a more significant story point now than it did then). Sinatra Jr. claims that his father took on the role to challenge naysayers who were claiming the Eternity performance was a fluke, and it is absolutely true, as the younger Sinatra says, that there are facial expressions and body language here that you never see from the Maggio characterization in Fred Zinnemann’s best picture Oscar winner.
The other Blu-ray commentary is by frequent voiceover commentator and standout USC film prof Drew Casper — who is usually full of himself (though here not as much), albeit in dynamic ways. Though I’d never characterize 1944’s The Uninvited as a ‘B’-picture when discussing the career of somewhat underrated Suddenly director Lewis Allen (as Casper does here), he’s good at discussing the distribution mechanisms for low-budget indies after the studio system largely collapsed. As mentioned, Suddenly straddled the gap between A-and-B pictures, and in my town, it played a huge movie palace (called the Palace) atop Richard Egan in the unpromising Khyber Patrol, which means that Frank Sr. was being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting at the box office. By the late ’50s, the picture was already on TV, where I first saw it as a grade-schooler in 1959 — a much more constructive era for formative viewing minus all that MPAA nonsense. I’ve seen some literature that brags of this current release being in the “correct” aspect ratio (1.33), but at least one previous home release has had it in 1.75, which is certainly how Suddenly would have been shown in theaters by September 1954. Still, this is one sharp print.
Frank Jr. doesn’t specifically address the efforts of his father to suppress the movie’s showing after the JFK assassination (which he definitely did with The Manchurian Candidate because he was one of its producers). But he does say the old man chided ABC-TV in a letter when a network or affiliate exec allegedly tried to air Suddenly just a couple weeks after Dallas — a bit of cheekiness that’s hard to believe but maybe so. I do remember hearing my high school economics/sociology teacher claim a couple years later in class (I don’t personally recall this transgression) that our local ABC affiliate — when all the stations canceled regular programming for the entire assassination weekend —elected to air its popular “Bowling for Dollars” camp fest on Saturday night, which I believe aired at 10:30 pm. To quote Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain: “Dignity, always dignity.”