Suddenly, Sinatra Matters Again

“The gun gives you the power of life or death. It’s a funny sort of thing to have control over life and death. You must have had it during the war. You could miss a man if you had a mind to, or you could kill him dead in his tracks, and that made you kind of God. And I liked it. Without the gun, I’m nothing.”

You can be certain that two things happened in the immediate aftermath of the January 8 shootings in Tucson, Arizona. First, all of Hollywood braced itself to rise in the defense of any films about to be implicated in the crime, had they the misfortune of being recently watched/liked/obsessed over in public forums by the psychotic gunman. Second—more unnerving, but no less certain—writers and producers put on their thinking caps to figure out how and when they’d be making a theatrical film/movie-of-the-week/groundbreaking cable documentary inspired by, derived from, or otherwise remarkably similar to the horrible events.

It’s a little surprising, too, that we haven’t heard very much talk about the 1954 suspense thriller Suddenly, starring Frank Sinatra as a hired assassin who takes a houseful of innocents hostage while plotting to murder the President of the United States. Ol’ Blue Eyes is really playing against type in this one, over and over again threatening to cut the throat of a young boy should anyone decide to get heroic on him. Not exactly the Frank we’re used to seeing at the Sands with Count Basie.

If studio development heads searching for a way to tap the zeitgeist find themselves a little cash-poor or understaffed during this unfriendly economy, they won’t even have to hire a scribe to pen an original screenplay. Just get the Remake Machine in motion and dust off the script for this film, a white-knuckle chamber thriller that has it all in terms of character and suspense, giving voice to multiple hot-button controversies surrounding not only the recent shootings but some of the most popular rhetoric currently deployed—virtually unchanged in over five decades—by the nation’s loudest red-vs.-blue media combatants.

The film sets up a very specific (some would say nostalgic) world quickly, spelling out that the sleepy California town with the ironic moniker “Suddenly” is a place where nothing very exciting ever happens. We’re then introduced to Sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden), an upright law enforcement officer taking young Peter (Kim Charney)—referred to by the oddly-emasculating nickname of “Pidge” throughout the picture—under his wing. And by taking the boy “under his wing,” I mean persuading the impressionable Pidge that it’s unnatural for his mother Ellen (Nancy Gates) to shy away from the child playing with toy pistols because she’s still sick with grief over the combat-related death of her husband, the child’s father:

“The boy’s gotta learn sometime that guns aren’t necessarily bad. Depends on who uses ‘em.”

Todd involves himself in the boy’s upbringing not just because he’s concerned with America’s future (and I want to be careful here not to imply that he, or others like him, aren’t), but because he’s interested in romancing Ellen. And he’s not just “interested”—he’s awfully pushy about it, it seems to me. So pushy, in fact, that the pretty widow dismisses him curtly and refuses to meet him for church that Sunday after he buys her son the plastic firearm.

It’s just as well, since Todd soon finds out he’s got more to worry about than tending to his manly desires. Because the president is about to make a hastily-scheduled stop in the town, Secret Service chief Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) requires Todd’s cooperation in locking down the area surrounding the train station, which sits directly across from the hilltop home Ellen shares with her son and her late husband’s father, Pop Benson (James Gleason), himself an ex-Treasury officer.

Pop is what they used to call an “old coot,” and gives Ellen another lesson in red-white-and-blue-blooded patriotism after she arrives home. We might blanch at how tough he is with his still-mourning daughter-in-law when he chastises her over her refusal to let Pidge pack toy shop heat, but it’s clearly upsetting to him to think she might be teaching the child that the boy’s father was wrong to embrace the necessity of violence in defense of country.

This bickering group is soon tested in the extreme when Sinatra and his two goons roll into town. Posing as FBI agents, they gain entry into the Benson home, planning to use its clear view of the station platform to carry out the cold-blooded murder of the Commander-in-Chief. It doesn’t take long for their con to be unmasked, and after a shocking outburst of bloodshed, the Chairman of the Board takes everyone in the house hostage, determined to carry out his fatal assignment with the guarantee of a huge payday after the president is killed.

While the script sometimes tacks to the obvious when it comes to telegraphing twists in the action, it’s doggedly satisfying as each plot point comes to pass. Made on a modest budget, Suddenly is a true precursor to films like Dog Day Afternoon, In the Line of Fire, Panic Room, and, of course, The Manchurian Candidate (where The Voice is positioned much more comfortingly on the side of good). Lewis Allen’s direction is sturdy if unspectacular in style, but visual flair is unnecessary when anchored by an ensemble cast of this caliber. Sinatra is a revelation in the movie, playing the crazy with just enough gusto to electrify the room without chewing the scenery. Hayden has the harder job of delivering the hero role, but is just as successful at understatement here as he would be at taking the traits of the “patriotic uh-MER-cun” and exaggerating them to lunatic heights as Brigadier General Jack Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s divine satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The rest of the cast is equally exemplary—even young Charney’s performance feels natural and of the moment.

I’ve said that the absence of Suddenly from contemporary discussion seems curious to me. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider how the events in Tucson couldn’t help but spur a new round of debate regarding gun policy. The movie is seen as a strong condemnation of pacifism, and it contains the sort of pro-gun stance that would make the NRA proud, not to mention the “good versus evil” approach to the world’s problems that’s only gained in currency over the last decade, represented best by this line, offered up by Pop Benson:

“There’s cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world, you can’t make believe they aren’t there.”

Maybe you’ve heard those words recently. I think I just heard them on talk radio the other day. But, there’s also this backhanded defense of the American ideal of resilience that comes, curiously enough, from the mouth of the film’s madman, when Sinatra explains just how he’s pulled one over on his anonymous employers, the people who want him to pursue a “Second Amendment remedy” in their stead:

“A half a million clams, for absolutely nothing, because tonight at 5 o’clock I kill the president, and one second after five, there’s a new president. What changes? Nothing. What are they paying for? Nothing.”

And then, there’s the fact that the violence validated in the film is directed not in rebellion against a tyrannical or corrupt government, but upon a man looking to exploit others’ radical urges in order to turn a quick buck.

You know what?

Suddenly, the scarcity of this film in recent discourse makes a lot more sense.