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Savant Blu-ray Review

Image Entertainment / Blackhawk
1954 / B&W / 1:33 flat open matte (should be 1:85) / 76 min. / Street Date December 4, 2012 / 19.98
Starring Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction Frank Sylos
Film Editor John F. Schreyer
Original Music David Raksin
Written by Richard Sale
Produced by Robert Bassler
Directed by Lewis Allen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

We're told that Hollywood's blacklist-era anti-commie films like Big Jim McClain and I Married a Communist were mostly duds at the box office and ineffectual as propaganda. The 1954 thriller Suddenly, a showcase starring vehicle for Frank Sinatra, registers the Cold War backlash a little differently. Ordinary Americans are terrorized by a maniac killer intent on murdering the President of the United States. The next year's The Desperate Hours is a similar but more reasoned reaction to the perceived threat that was worrying the American family. This exercise in hysteria wants us to think that murderous communists are everywhere and that all of us must be cold warriors in our own living rooms.

The story plays out almost in real time. "Suddenly" is a rural railroad stop of a town in Central California. With two confederates, psychotic assassin John Baron (Frank Sinatra) takes over the household of retired G-Man Pop Benson (James Gleason), forcing his daughter Ellen (Nancy Gates) and her son Pidge (Kim Charney) to watch as they prepare to ambush the President of the United States at the whistle-stop station below. Ellen's suitor, Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) helps the secret service prepare for the visit, and brings agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) up the hill to visit his old pal Pop. They fall right into the lap of the determined, brutal killers.

Suddenly doesn't have a hidden agenda but is instead a simplistic condemnation of pacifism aimed specifically at women. The entire first reel criticizes young mother Ellen Benson, who lost her husband in Korea (fighting Reds) and now forbids her son Pidge to play with toy guns. She thinks that she's trying to subdue his fighting instincts, but her father-in-law Pop undermines her judgment with the argument that Pidge must be raised to be a fighter in future wars, not to mention life in general. Ellen's beau Sheriff Tod also feels it's his prerogative to override Ellen and buys Pidge a cap gun behind her back. Mom just doesn't get it -- she doesn't understand that the world is a dangerous place and that men have to prepare for battle. Those freedoms we enjoy require constant vigilance and struggle, you know.

Pop thinks he's through fighting, having been forced to retire early after taking a bullet defending the President. All of the Bensons are put on the spot when the deranged John Baron commandeers their picture window to shoot the President (presumably, Eisenhower). Pop and Tod conspire to counteract the swaggering, ruthless Baron while Ellen mostly worries unhelpfully in a corner. The immature Pidge "threatens" Baron with his cap gun, but he clearly has the right stuff. He's later tested when the toy proves useful in confusing the bad guys.

What kind of cold-blooded ruthless killer is Sinatra's John Baron? The kind that needs to talk. Instead of gagging and hog-tying his hostages on the floor or even more logically, killing them, John Baron allows them to roam freely and chit-chat. John Baron brags that he's the best in his business but as soon as Sheriff Tod gets him talking his neuroses and complexes spill out in time-proven '50s psychodrama style. He's little more than a hateful and selfish liar who likes to push people around for profit. Baron is hired muscle for the presumed Commies that want our president killed, a gangster doing the job of an assassin-spy. We know this is so because Baron and Tod have a discussion about how cautious Baron will have to be when the job is done -- his foreign puppet masters will be anxious to cover their tracks.

Fairly well directed, Suddenly's built-in suspense factor makes it hard to resist, which is why I won't go into the wild shenanigans that occur in the last few minutes before the President's train arrives. The ruthless logic of the opening slackens somewhat when the story settles into what would seem to be a one-act TV play format. John Baron foolishly tells his entire plan to the Bensons, potential witnesses all. He allows a trained Secret Service agent and a tough (albeit wounded) ex- G.I. to sit just a few feet away while he prepares his assassination plan.

Things look pretty bad for the hostages. Pop and Tod gird themselves to make a suicidal gesture, the kind that Real Men Must Make. As for Ellen, the screenplay seemingly faults her for wanting to survive. The impression is that molly-coddling mothers are the biggest problem facing America, as they might prevent young boys from growing up macho and joining the battle against Communist Evil. The film is in truth a subdued version of what the Hitler Youth are shown going through in the Disney Docu Education for Death on the disc set Disney Treasures The War Years on the Front Lines. Along with every patriotic little boy in the audience, Pidge is being indoctrinated as a warrior.

Just like Grace Kelly in High Noon, Ellen eventually picks up a gun. "Your dead husband would want you to," says fast-talking Tod when he insists that Pidge be allowed to play with guns. The message is that Ellen ought to start conforming, fighting Commies and sleeping with Tod right away. Don't worry, the Bensons are good people -- everybody but Grandpa gets their moment behind a gun trigger. The ending comes in a flurry of action, and a farfetched trick using a broken television set and Pidge's cap pistol.

Frank Sinatra still has the lean, hungry look from his earlier career days. The short haircut reveals the scars behind his ears, reportedly sustained from a rough birth delivery. Put together as a quick follow-up to Sinatra's breakthrough picture From Here to Eternity, Suddenly lets John Baron chew the scenery too much. John Baron repeatedly walks into big close-ups to deliver ponderous speeches directly to the camera. The relatively inexpensive show opens up what is really a one-set stage drama, and it's possible that Sinatra had a bit too much control, but the fact is that pages of stagey dialogue should have been dropped from the screenplay. The rest of the casting is fine, if a little obvious. The dependable pro Sterling Hayden has a way with lines that might be wooden in less charismatic hands. Nancy Gates (Comanche Station, Some Came Running) is excellent as usual, almost selling the author's thesis about meddling females. James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) and Willis Bouchey are obvious as the agents, and king of the narrators Paul Frees is Sinatra's number one henchman.

Movies about attempts on the life of a serving President weren't common, and Suddenly may actually be the first. The Tall Target starred Dick Powell as an 1860s G-Man trying to protect Lincoln, but that had ninety years of history as a buffer. Suddenly imagines a conservative Republican president put in the crosshairs by unnamed foreign enemies. The 1960s Kennedy assassinations were of the opposite persuasion -- domestic killers hitting liberal Democrats.

Sinatra continued into similar thematic territory with 1962's paranoid conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, in which foreign Commies put their own operative in the White House, a candidate whose conservative Red-hating personality is a sham. Legend has it that Sinatra, feeling somehow responsible for his friend Kennedy's assassination, voluntarily removed The Manchurian Candidate from circulation. It was also rumored that Suddenly was pulled as well. To set the record straight, The Manchurian Candidate was withheld by producer Sinatra for financial reasons, because of problems Sinatra saw in his deal with United Artists. Suddenly never really went away, it was just semi-abandoned to infrequent TV airings. As further argument against the "contrite Sinatra" theory, in 1967 Frank starred in yet another movie about an assassin with a high-powered rifle, Sidney J. Furie's The Naked Runner. When his son is kidnapped by spies, Sinatra's businessman is forced to carry out a killing on the autobahn (shades of Dr. Mabuse). The point is that Sinatra wasn't morally opposed to stories exploiting deadly snipers, before or after the JFK assassination.

Image/Blackhawk's Blu-ray of Suddenly is a beautiful HD transfer from what must be excellent printing elements. The image has some digs and scratches and one instance of a couple of missing frames but is otherwise flawless. A previous DVD from 2004 sourced from PAL was time compressed a full four minutes shorter. The pacing of fast scenes was ruined, with people darting too quickly around rooms. Everyone sounded shrill and staccato, especially the fast-talking Sterling Hayden. The old DVD was nearly unwatchable. As Image's new Blu-ray plays at the correct speed, it plays perfectly. Except...

� it has not been transferred at its correct aspect ratio. We can tell from the shape of the main title credit blocks that 1:85 was the original screen shape, but the master on view here is an open-matte 1:33. The top and bottom of the frame show expanses of ceiling-less walls and empty floors, and the action and dramatics aren't as focused as they should be. The open framing makes the show look more like a soap opera. If you have a BD player that allows the picture to be blown up and re-framed, this should be fixable without too much loss of quality. In these days of ubiquitous widescreen monitors, it's a shame that these incorrect flat transfers occasionally find their way to Blu-ray.

Although not the definitive collector's edition claimed on the packaging, Image's Suddenly BD has some very good extras. Frank Sinatra Jr. provides a commentary, of course discussing his father's career. Dr. Drew Casper appears on a secondary commentary to talk about the film's production and its political message. An image gallery contains the film's entire press book, that finds every possible angle to suggest that Sinatra's starring performance is award-worthy.

A special surprise is the inclusion of a GREAT artistic short subject, Francis Thompson's 1957 N.Y., N.Y.: A Day in New York, which won an award at the Cannes film festival. Using focus tricks on pieces of mirrors and multi-image lenses of his own design, Thompson reduces scenes of New York street life to fragmented abstractions. No optical tricks appear to be used. The most interesting images display parts of skyscrapers that appear to be hanging in the blue sky, like half-finished illustrations. The music score by Gene Forrell is excitingly dynamic.

All the ad art for Suddenly uses an exclamation point on the main title, but the film itself does not. The film's message is that we'd better watch out, or a subversive conspiracy could "suddenly" pop up anywhere, even in the smallest of small towns. Bring back toy guns for kids!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Suddenly Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent but Fair for incorrect aspect ratio
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English
Supplements: 2 commentaries, image gallery, short subject N.Y., N.Y.: A Day in New York
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2012

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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