In 1962, Frank Sinatra starred in The Manchurian Candidate, portraying a character who tries to prevent the assassination of a presidential candidate. The film regarded is as an all-time classic and one of the greatest thrillers ever made, but it wound up being pulled from circulation for over 25 years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated only one year after the movie’s release. However, what many people don’t realize is that eight years before The Manchurian Candidate, Frank Sinatra starred in another thriller about an attempt to assassinate the President of the United States. The film in question was called Suddenly and this time, Sinatra himself portrayed the assassin. Sinatra had just come off of winning an Academy Award for his performance in From Here to Eternity and was offered the lead role of Terry Malloy in another all-time classic, On the Waterfront. However, Malloy turned that role down and instead chose to star in a much more small-scale project, Suddenly. Like The Manchurian Candidate, Suddenly was withdrawn from circulation for several years because of its uncomfortable parallels with the JFK assassination. Because of this, the film’s copyright expired and Suddenly is currently in the public domain. However, it is a very tense, well-constructed thriller which is greatly elevated by Sinatra’s strong performance.
The title, Suddenly, just happens to be the name of the film’s location, a very small rural town in California. Suddenly is a very quiet place where nothing exciting ever happens until the local sheriff, Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden), receives word that a train containing the President of the United States is going to be arriving in town later that day. The Secret Service soon arrives to scout the place, but express concern about a potential security risk: a house which rests atop a hill overlooking the train station. Ironically enough, the house just happens to be owned by a retired Secret Service agent named Pop Benson (James Gleason), who lives there with his widowed daughter-in-law, Ellen (Nancy Gates) and her son, Pidge (Kim Charney). However, before the Secret Service agent can secure the house, an impostor FBI agent named John Baron (Frank Sinatra) and his two henchmen arrive. Since Sheriff Tod just happens to be romantically interested in Ellen, he shows up at the house to check things out, but it isn’t long before he and the Benson family are taken hostage by Baron and his goons. It turns out the three villains are involved in a plot to assassinate the President and that Baron is planning to use a sniper’s rifle to shoot him from the house’s window after he arrives in town.
Suddenly was shot in four weeks on a relatively low budget and runs a lean 75 minutes. Even at that running time, the film does have a few tedious spots, particularly during the first act. The character of Pidge is your typically annoying precocious little kid who seemed to pop up in every film and television show during the 1950s, and the portrayal of his mother, Ellen, isn’t much better. Even though she saves the day in the end, Ellen often comes across as a very shrill and weak heroine, as she faints at the first sign of trouble and becomes the brunt of a lot of 1950s sexism (at one point, her father-in-law literally says to her: “Ellen, stop being a woman”). However, once the character of John Baron finally shows up onscreen, Suddenly kicks into high gear and makes great use of its limited settings. A large chunk of the film takes within the claustrophobic confines at the house and director Lewis Allen does a good job of building up tension as the hostages attempt to figure out a way to avert the assassination. In many ways, Suddenly resembles the 1952 western classic, High Noon, as the story almost seems to progress in real time as the President’s arrival grows nearer. However, Suddenly’s biggest strength is Frank Sinatra’s performance, which may be the greatest of his career. Sinatra brings a lot of depth to his unhinged character and makes Baron into a wonderfully complex and fascinating villain. We learn that Baron was a decorated sniper who won the Silver Star for heroism during World War II, but he also seems to be addicted to killing.
One of the prime reasons Suddenly was withdrawn by circulation is because of a rumour that Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly watched and studied the film only days before the assassination of President Kennedy. Whether Suddenly gave Oswald any ideas is unknown, but it’s easy to see how it might have made people uneasy at the time. The film makes reference to the previous assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, but at the time, the idea of assassinating a President from a distance with a sniper’s rifle was a new one. While The Manchurian Candidate garnered a lot of renewed interest when it was brought back into circulation in the late 1980s and is now looked upon as a classic, Suddenly was pretty much forgotten about. This is why the film lapsed into the public domain and can easily be found for viewing on Youtube. Let’s put it this way: when The Manchurian Candidate was remade in 2004, it was a high-quality Hollywood production starring the likes of Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep and was directed by Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme. Last year, a straight-to-video remake of Suddenly was released starring Dominic Purcell and Ray Liotta and it happened to be directed by… Uwe Boll?! No, I’m not kidding! But don’t let the fact that Uwe Boll got his hands on it dissuade you from watching Suddenly. It’s a very solid, well-made production which is one of the more underrated thrillers of the 1950s and considering the nature of its material, you could also say it was years ahead of its time.