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Release Date(s)1954 (2012)
Studio(s)Libra Productions/United Artists (Image Entertainment)
When Frank Sinatra stepped in front of the camera to star in the 1954 thriller Suddenly, the actor-singer was literally at a crossroads. His film career was newly revitalized with an Academy Award-winning performance in the previous year’s From Here to Eternity, while he was rewriting the book on American popular music with Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy!, his first two albums for Capitol Records. Suddenly was one of two pictures Sinatra filmed shortly after Eternity; the other was the rather different Young at Heart, opposite Doris Day. His bold and unflinching performance makes the little-known film well worth revisiting today in a splendid new Blu-ray edition from Image Entertainment.
The low-budget film’s noir-ish story is a simple if potent one. The tranquility of the small town of Suddenly is interrupted by the arrival of John Baron (Sinatra), a troubled war veteran with an unlikely but carefully-conceived plot to kill the President of the United States when the Commander-in-Chief’s train stops in town. To carry out his plan, Baron and his thugs invade the home of the widowed Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) where she resides with her father-in-law (James Gleason) and son (Kim Charney). Baron takes the family and the visiting Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) hostage to carry out his plans. The film, written by Richard Sale and directed by Lewis Allen, unfolds in the claustrophobic setting of the Benson household, masterfully building and sustaining tension for the taut film (just 76 minutes in length).
If the casual fan knows Suddenly at all, it’s likely from a poor print. The film’s copyright was not initially renewed and so the film fell into the public domain, victim of countless shoddy home video releases including one that turned Ol’ Blue Eyes into Ol’ Brown Eyes! Image’s “definitive Collector’s Edition” follows another 2012 BD release from HD Cinema Classics, but Image’s is the more lavish release, with the participation of Sinatra’s son Frank Sinatra Jr. in one of its two commentaries. The main attraction for most, though, will be the print “transferred from original 35mm studio fine grain master print,” as the artwork states. The 1080p presentation indeed reflects what appears to be a truly clean source, with the only major gaffe a brief jump as a result of missing frames at around 22 minutes, and some blemishes near the 30-minute mark. The black-and-white images are crisp, detailed and with plenty of contrast. The film is presented in a 1:38:1 aspect ratio (identified as 1:33:1 on the case).
The film’s black-and-white lends itself to the slightly unsettling atmosphere as we enter the town. Standing in for the fictional burg of Suddenly was Saugus, California, and its streets were filled with imagery that is still familiar today: Kiwanis and Lions clubs, Ford automobiles, Coca-Cola, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, the local movie house. Also adding to the film’s relevance are the questions it raises about a topic that can’t be avoided in any kind of topical discussion in 2013. Early on, Ellen’s young son Pidge pleads for a gun which his mother is uncomfortable buying him. Her close friend Tod sees things differently: “The boy’s gotta learn that guns aren’t necessarily bad – depends on who uses them.” The presence of guns in the Benson household will soon lead to violence…and the end of violence. Viewed through the prism of current events, the melodramatic Suddenly is surprisingly provocative.
Richard Sale’s script is filled with foreshadowing that borders on the obvious and a fair amount of declamatory acting, though Sinatra’s performance is a naturalistic triumph. (As the stalwart father-in-law, James Gleason is also sympathetic and winning.) At his best, Sinatra brought the same effortless ease to his film roles as he did to his recordings, and he fully embodies the tormented yet driven Baron. Baron smirks, swaggers and seethes, determined to make his mark (and a fair amount of money) by assassinating the President. Rage boils just under the surface in his masterful performance as “just a guy makin’ a living.” Baron and his cronies (among them animation voice artist Paul Frees) bring a palpable sense of menace to the Benson residence, and the tension and suspense are consistently high even as the movie unfolds in broad daylight in the comfortable settings of home.
Lewis Allen’s efficient direction keeps the cannily-crafted and frequently claustrophobic thriller moving at a relentless pace, and Allen allows Sinatra’s Baron, filled with both contempt and wounded pride, to directly address the camera’s eye for any number of chilling sequences. Allen also cannily stages the moments in which the square-jawed sheriff towers over the diminutive Baron who still holds the power of life and death in his hands.
Much of the mystique that surrounds Suddenly today is peripheral to the movie itself. Five years after the release of Suddenly, a novel was published that also centered around the assassination of a President: Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. In one of cinema’s great coincidences, Frank Sinatra also starred in its film adaptation, this time trying to prevent a fellow veteran (Laurence Harvey) from committing the murder. The name of Harvey’s character: Sgt. Shaw, the same surname as the sheriff in Suddenly! In a chilling connection, it’s been alleged that President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was aware of Suddenly and may have even seen the movie. The subject matter of Suddenly and The Manchurian Candidate eventually led to both films all but disappearing for a time. Thankfully, the commentary tracks here shed light on this once-“lost” motion picture. In his entertainingly candid, casual commentary, Frank Sinatra Jr. mostly sticks to the careers of his father and his cast members. (The younger Sinatra spent time on set during the filming.) A second commentary from knowledgeable USC professor Dr. Drew Casper is invaluable, as well. Though (naturally) less personal than the younger Sinatra’s, it’s filled with insights about the film’s themes and production.
Complementing the high-quality video is Image’s audio presentation. The soundtrack is heard in DTS-HD Master Audio Mono. The dialogue and sound effects are heard with a minimum of background noise, and David Raksin’s ominous, highly dramatic score is presented effectively. English SDH subtitles are included. The two commentaries are the major bonuses on the new BD. The most bizarre supplement is a 1957 short film, N.Y., N.Y.: A Day in New York, directed by Francis Thompson with a score by Gene Forrell. This color short, shot with a kaleidoscope lens, has no relation to the feature presentation. It presents distorted and often disquieting images of New York City, set to a score that veers from the sinister to the jazzy.
It’s hardly happened suddenly, but the long-awaited rescue of Suddenly from the clutches of mediocre public domain releases has paid off handsomely with this new Blu-ray presentation.
- Joe Marchese