Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Overlooked Films: Frank Sinatra in Richard Sale's SUDDENLY (1954)

Suddenly caught my eye at the library because it looked like a noirish thing with Frank Sinatra. But I got REALLY interested when I saw that it was written by pulp writer and several-kinds-of-novelist Richard Sale. (For much, much more about Mr. Sale, click HERE.)

Because the credit reads “Written by Richard Sale,” I figured he wrote both the story and the screenplay, so I tried to pay extra attention to both. And both are good. I have no complaints. It’s just that neither rises to the level of, say, a Daffy Dill story or a novel like Passing Strange.

One of the most Sale-like exchanges of dialogue comes at the beginning. A passing motorist pulls to the curb and asks the deputy sheriff how far it is to the next town. Then we get this:

MOTORIST: What's town is this?
DEPUTY: Suddenly.
MOTORIST: Suddenly what?
DEPUTY: No, no, that's the name.
MOTORIST: That's a funny name for a town.
DEPUTY: Hangover from the old days. That's the way things used to happen here. Suddenly.
DEPUTY: Road agents, gamblers, gunfighters…
MOTORIST: Well, I take it things have changed.
DEPUTY: Uh-huh. Things happen so slow the town council is figuring to change the name to Gradually.

At the end of the film, the same exchange begins between a different motorist and the sheriff, played by Sterling Hayden. But when the motorist says, “That’s a funny name for a town,” Hayden rubs his chin and says, “I dunno. I dunno about that.” Because by that time, he’s learned different.

Here‘s the basic idea: Sheriff Sterling Hayden is just lazing around this Mayberry-like town, wishing the good-looking widow would allow him to escort her to church, when he gets word that the President is coming in on the five o’clock train. It’s all very hush-hush, and Hayden can’t even tell his loyal deputy what’s happening. In advance of the President’s train, the secret service shows up and starts scouring homes and businesses that might offer firing lines for a possible assassin. For at least the first half hour of the film, this heightened paranoia makes no sense, especially because this film take place circa 1954 rather than circa 1965.

Then Frank Sinatra shows up with a couple of thugs and muscles his way into a house overlooking the railroad tracks. Eventually we learn that some mysterious client (we never learn who) has promised Sinatra half a million bucks to kill the Prez, and that someone has tipped the law to the plan. The house Sinatra occupies just happens to be the residence of the good-looking widow, her eightish-year-old son and her pop. And naturally, Sterling Hayden stops by and gets caught in Sinatra’s trap.

Sinatra, as you might expect, makes a great vain and bloodthirsty killer. He’s also a bit nuts - proud of the Silver Star he got for killing 28 Germans in the war but touchy about getting a Section Eight discharge for being too fond of killing.

Sinatra’s dialogue is sprinkled with tough guy slang, a tribute to Sale’s years in the detective pulps, but lacks the punch and humor I was hoping for.

The film does have some nice touches. In the beginning, the kid is lusting after a cap gun in a store window. I was unable to read the name on the gun, but it’s clearly a Leslie-Henry product. (They made pistols bearing the names Davy Crockett and Alan Ladd, among others). And the cap gun plays an important role later in the story. At one point we see the kid reading a comic book, and when he closes it we see it’s an issue of Mighty Mouse. Whoever selected those props had mighty good taste.

At one point, Hayden says that his life, along with that of the widow and her son, don’t really count compared to that of the President’s. For some reason he thinks a President’s life is much more valuable than that of an ordinary human. That seemed like a screwy notion to me. Sinatra makes more sense when he notes that when you kill a President another one immediately takes his place, and nothing really changes. So what was Sale's opinion on that issue? Makes me wonder.

More Overlooked films at Sweet Freedom.


Todd Mason said...

This was one of two films, the other being assassination film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, that Sinatra tried his best to keep out of circulation for a while after JFK's murder. Hayden's character, unfortunately, was speaking for too many, then and now, who will value the lives of Important People over those of the rest of us...too close to the kind psychopathy that is practiced by too many governments (including some which claim to represent you and me) and by the likes of our Boston bomber...

pattinase (abbott) said...

A great film. I was knocked off my feet when I saw it for the first time a decade or so ago. Sterling Hayden can do no wrong.

Evan Lewis said...

It was weird for me to see Sterling Hayden in a police uniform. I think of him in buckskins - as Jim Bowie in The Last Command.

Ron Scheer said...

I have never watched this one all he way through. For me, Hayden is totally out of character. He was brilliant as a thug or as Gen. Jack Ripper in DR STRANGELOVE. I can listen to Sinatra sing, but on screen he seemed out of character no matter what he played.

Cap'n Bob said...

I thought Hayden could do no wrong, too, until I saw a Western he made in which he played a Swedish farmer. I wish I could remember the title. Hayden's wooden acting and a horrible accent had me cringing in my chair. It has the distinction of being the only Western in which the final showdown includes a harpoon vs a gun. And the bad guy was doing such an obvious Bogart impression he probably could have nailed Bacall on a ill-lit night.

Cap'n Bob said...

Okay, I looked it up. Terror in a Texas Town.


A president is not intrinsically more valuable than any other human being. But the president is selected democratically by his or her fellow citizens, so whoever kills him throws a monkey wrench into the democratic process. That's why the president rates an entire high-level law enforcement organization, the U.S. Secret Service, to act as his full-time bodyguards.

In the sense that the president is the embodiment of deomcratic process, Sheriff Hayden is absolutely right about the importance of keeping him alive.

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