Imagine, for a moment, what it is like to be a director of motion pictures. Imagine having all that creative control while you gradually mould your Jason Statham-starring cinematic masterpiece / cash cow over a number of months (or years). It must be a very odd feeling when you eventually release your film to the great unwashed, as that is surely the point where any directorial influence ends and the life of the film is open to several unexpected and unplanned twists and turns. Imagine having all that control, and like that … *poof!* … it’s gone. Directors are pretty much powerless to alter the life of the film after it is passed on to the public for their consideration. It must be like giving birth but then being forbidden from acting out the role of a parent.
Witness Lewis Allen’s 1954 thriller Suddenly, by way of example. This film deals with an attempted presidential assassination, and was widely believed to have been watched by a certain Lee Harvey Oswald a month or so before he assassinated JFK. (OK. So I know I’m presuming here that Oswald did the deed, despite all the arguments to the contrary. I’ve tried to sit through Oliver Stone’s JFK twice and I’ve fallen asleep both times halfway through. I’m not 100% sure why, but it’s probably something to do with monotonous Kevin Costner’s monotonous portrayal of a monotonous man trying to monotonously uncover the truth, monotonously.) It was definitely shown on television in October 1963, and the common links between the film and Kennedy’s death are fairly strong. Some argue against this, and believe that Oswald had in fact been to see another presidential assassination film, We Were Strangers, twice in one weekend a month before Kennedy was murdered. Still, either way, no-one really fancied re-running Suddenly in movie theatres or on TV in the ensuing years.
One man who almost certainly did see Suddenly, though, was former Hollywood press agent-turned-novelist Richard Condon. Condon wrote The Manchurian Candidate and included a remarkably similar ending and a disgruntled, mentally-troubled former war hero in his plot. Coincidentally, both Suddenly and the film version of The Manchurian Candidate star Frank Sinatra. In The Manchurian Candidate Sinatra plays a character trying to stop the President’s assassination; in Suddenly he plays the mercenary hitman attempting to end the top dog’s life. According to rumour, Sinatra removed The Manchurian Candidate from distribution shortly after Kennedy’s death, and also attempted to destroy the master tapes of Suddenly, though he always denied both of these accusations and his estate still denies them today. Either way, by the early 1970s Sinatra had definitely bought the rights to The Manchurian Candidate and it was unavailable to view until the late 1980s.
After slipping into semi-obscurity, Lewis Allen’s film fell victim to the colourization scandal of the 1980s, whereby old black and white films were colourized to make them more appealing to the growing home video market. Hal Roach Studios were to blame for that particularly arrogant and ridiculous process, as they were for colourized versions of several Laurel and Hardy films, It’s a Wonderful Life and Night of the Living Dead. Unfortunately, someone failed to realise that Ol’ Blue Eyes was called Ol’ Blue Eyes for a reason, and for some bizarre reason decided to colour Sinatra’s eyes brown (which basically sums up the level of care and thought that went into the process). Suddenly was re-colourized later that decade, and thankfully the correct eye colour was used the second time around.
But wait … that’s not all! Just when you’d expect the film to settle down into a retirement age of occasional rentals and TV daytime re-runs, something else interesting happened to it. The copyright on Suddenly was not renewed, and the film fell into the public domain. Nowadays it’s widely available to view for free or download, legally, on the web. In fact why not go and see for yourself? Allen, who directed close to 20 films, but perhaps achieved more success in TV (he worked on Bonanza, Perry Mason, Little House on the Prairie, The Fugitive, Burke’s Law and – for six years – Mission Impossible), could never have foreseen all of this when he uttered the words “It’s a wrap!” after a four-week shoot back in 1954.
Sinatra plays John Baron, who turns up in Suddenly, California posing as an FBI agent on the day the President is due to pay a flying visit. It’s the archetypal sleepy small town (very early on deputy sheriff Slim Adams (Paul Wexler) quips to a passer-by that the town should actually be called ‘Gradually’), where nothing much ever happens and the local police force are more concerned with the freshness of the local donuts than any kind of criminal activity. The lawman overseeing the town’s non-events is Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden), an ex-soldier with designs on local widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates). Benson lives in a house with her son and elderly ex-secret service father-in-law that overlooks the town’s station, which will play host briefly to the President later that day. You see where this is going, right?
Baron – along with a couple of disposable hoodlums who really ought to walk around with ‘Kill Me’ signs held up in the air – manages to kill Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey), a secret service agent overseeing the safety of the President’s arrival, and subsequently captures the Benson family (including the annoyingly gobby eight-year-old son, Pidge) as well as a wounded Shaw and an unfortunate passing TV repairman. The hitmen set up a sniper camp in the Benson’s house and wait for the President’s arrival. The rest of the film plays out like a bizarre cross between Leave It To Beaver and 24.
Allen successfully keeps the tension rising throughout the film, though you can’t help but wonder what a master like Hitchcock would have done with the same subject matter and the ticking clock that counts down to the President’s arrival. Hitchcock made the grander, more sprawling assassination story The Man Who Knew Too Much a couple of years later, but Suddenly compares favourably with a lot of crime dramas from the period. One of the main reasons for this is Sinatra’s performance, which turns what would otherwise be a fairly average film into a half-decent one. He is excellent as the slightly jittery, talkative and ruthless hoodlum that cares little about anything except for money and his own impending notoriety. While there are more celebrated performances by Ol’ Brown Eyes in films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Man With The Golden Arm and From Here To Eternity (not to mention the cruelly-overlooked turn as ‘Frank’ in The Cannonball Run II), he’s on great form here.
If only the same could be said for the rest of the cast. Some are fine, but there’s too much dismal, wooden acting scattered throughout the film (unfortunately the scenes with Paul Wexler’s Deputy Slim are so bad I breathed a sigh of relief when the character is gunned down at around the 40-minute mark). Most seem to raise their game in their scenes with Sinatra, and James Gleason is also pretty good value as the cantankerous, stubborn patriarch Pop Benson, but overall the standard is poor.
The film definitely benefits from its short, 72 minute running time, which by today’s standards is more like an extended TV show. It feels quite sleek as a result, with the scene established early on and nothing allowed to get in the way of the plot, aside perhaps from a couple of unconvincing romantic moments between Shaw and Gates. There’s even a kiss at the end of the film which seems like an afterthought and is one of the least convincing I’ve ever witnessed.
Lewis Allen presumably never dreamed of the events that would either happen to his film after its release or – debatably – would happen in reality because of it. He died in 2000, but the film’s life carries on regardless: it is currently being remade as a Ray Liotta vehicle, due to be released later this year. Sometimes things just happen gradually.
Directed by: Lewis Allen
Written by: Richard Sale
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates
Running Time: 72 minutes