Suddenly, 1954

Very suspenseful crime drama. Frank Sinatra gives a tightly-wound performance as the presidential assassin John Baron. Stirling Hayden, as the local sheriff, makes a good antagonist. The sheriff, along with his love interest Ellen (Nancy Gates) and her family, become Baron’s hostages. Hayden’s character comes to life by taunting Baron over the gangster’s seedy past. There’s plenty of tension both among the hostages and the gangsters; the pacing swiftly moves us into an action-packed denouement.

The premise is unusual–rarely do crime dramas aim higher than at a local level, even if they’re set in big cities. Here, there’s the intriguing combination of the President in danger in an otherwise nondescript small town. Suspension of disbelief is unevenly achieved, however. The surprise that the local authorities feel having to improvise for the Presidential visit, and the subsequent arrangements with state and Federal officials seems smooth and authentic. On the other hand, as others have noted, once the hostage situation develops, a bunch of unlikely stuff intrudes.

Baron leaves too many loose ends. He doesn’t seem to mind the family and sheriff looking over their shoulders; on the other hand, the police seem to wait forever to become suspicious of the sheriff’s disappearance. It’s plausible that the bad guys were able to bluff their way into the house in the first place, but they never cut the phone, or think to ask if there’s weapons in the house. Ellen has a chance to at least threaten Baron with a knife; but she waits too long. Even the Secret Service guys are easily brushed off by Ellen’s nervous attempt to tell them that she’s home alone and everything’s ok. Although the hidden gun just sits there for most of the time, it does lead to a clever sequence. The kid is able to substitute his familiar toy gun for the real one without attracting notice. But then, he can’t make use of it right away, further increasing the tension.

The electrocution set-up is also ingenious, even if a little junky on the science. These ploys point out the constant threat hanging over the gangsters, not only from without, but, despite their plan, from within as well. Both sides are unsure of themselves. It’s a good thing that Hayden’s character has so much verbal sparring with Baron; he’s pretty much a stiff with Ellen. It’s frighteningly watching Baron strut around, repeating many times his claim to have killed 27 of the enemy in the war. This boast continues after the sheriff has de-bunked Baron’s story. “You’d rather kill a man than love a woman!” he concludes.

The anti-violence message, as has been said, is selective. The forces of civilization, represented by citizens and law enforcement (the townspeople, family, sheriff, and other authorities), legitimately use violence to fight un-checked violence. Baron and his guys have no identity without the power that their guns represent. All of this is implicit in the movie’s dialogue and drama. Yet they’re not presented as completely evil; basically, the assassination is an impersonal ‘job’; at one point the idea of taking the money and running seems attractive.

Baron is ultimately frustrated by what seems like a classic film noir concept–chance can destroy anything–so the President is after all not even on the targeted train. Baron’s assassination plot self-destructs. But it’s not so clean as all that; it’s obvious and logical that the train would be rerouted, since the authorities were forewarned of the plot. That calls into question the premise itself. It might’ve been better had there not been a warning after all, but the train by-passes the town for an unrelated reason, of which there could be many plausible ones.

Suddenly works well to keep our interest level humming along. It could’ve been great with some of the plot holes patched up. 7/10.

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