Suddnely (1954): Noir Melodrama, Prophetic about Attempt to Assassinate the US President, Starring Frank Sinatra as Psychopath Killer

The social and moral order of a small Californian town, curiously named Suddenly, are shattered when the train of the US President is scheduled to pass through, motivating a hired assassin and his henchmen take over a home as the site for their assassination plot.

Claiming to be checking up on security prior to his arrival, a group of FBI agents arrive at the Bensons home, on top of a hill that looks down upon the station where the presidential train is scheduled to stop.

They turn out to be assassins led by the ruthless John Baron (Sinatra), who takes over the house and holds hostage the members of the Benson family, which consist of a widow, her son and her father.

Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) arrives with Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) a Secret Service agent in charge of the president’s security, and in a confrontation, Baron and his band shoot and kill Carney and  fire a bullet that fractures Shaw’s arm.

Baron sends a henchman to check on the president’s schedule but he is killed in a shootout with the police. Jud (James O’Hara), a television repairman, shows up at the house and also becomes a hostage.

When son Pidge (Kim Charney) goes to his grandfather’s dresser to get some medication, he notices fully loaded revolver which he replaces with his toy cap gun.

In the film’s first scene, the boy argues with his mother about guns–wishing to own one, as his father (a dead war hero) had.

Baron is confronted by the sheriff on the meaning of killing the President, but Baron is a psychopath who could not care less.  He shoots and kills Jud, disconnects the electrical hook-up and aims the rifle as the President’s train arrives at the station, but to his surprise it passes straight through after the stop is cancelled.

In the end, it’s the widow mother, Ellen (Nancy Gates), who is forced to shoot Baron in the stomach, before Shaw finishes the job.

Sinatra, cast in atypical part, projects menace into a psycho character, mostly through firm voice and threatening gestures.  Sterling Hayden, as the sheriff, plays a less showy role but handles it skillfully.

Lewis Allen’s direction is taut, overcoming the problem of an overly talky noir melodrama—written by Richard Sale–which is essentially based on one idea.

The low-budget, black-and white movie is prophetic in its theme and message.  In 1959, five years after the release of Suddenly, a novel with a similar theme, Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” was published. His book features a mentally troubled and brainwashed former war hero who, at the climax, intends to shoot at a presidential candidate.

The Manchurian Candidate was made into a major movie in 1962 by Richard Fleischer, this time around starring Sinatra as the patriotic agent struggling to prevent an assassination planned by Laurence Harvey.

When the copyright of Suddenly expired, it fell into the public domain.  Reportedly, Sinatra had asked United Artists to withdraw the film from circulation after he had discovered that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched it prior to shooting President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

End Note:

An unsuccessful remake of Suddenly was made in 2013, starring Dominic Purcell and directed by Uwe Boll.

 

 

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