For many (especially the younger crowd), it isn't just difficult to separate the image of Frank Sinatra, as he was later in life – subsisting almost entirely on the reputation and image he had cultivated for himself as 'The Chairman of the Board' – from the man he was while creating and maintaining his career, it's downright impossible now that the Sinatra 'Rat Pack' persona has been bizarrely co-opted by Puff Daddy and his diverse ensemble of suit and hat-wearing 'friends' who gather atop buildings to drink vodka and generally emulate a man and his equally famous associates who made being cool seem effortless. As seen in those commercials that use the late crooner's rendition of 'Luck Be a Lady,' as if to suggest some sort of passing of the torch – the Sinatra-esque concept is that of a well-off individual with friends and connections (a distinction that's important), who lives in the lap of luxury and a near-constant state of inebriation.
That, of course, is a far cry from the Frank Sinatra who began his career in the '40s and found varying levels of success in both the recording and film industries – even winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Pvt. Angelo Maggio in the 1953 picture 'From Here to Eternity.' This was the Frank Sinatra who was deeply interested in expanding the scope of the kind of pictures he was able to get roles in, the Sinatra who, in the early 1950s was still pursuing acting challenges that would separate him from being simply musical performer-turned actor, or playing the guy with the clever line, as he was in his award-winning role. And so, 'Suddenly' came along and offered Sinatra not only the chance to stretch his acting muscles, but it was also a starring role in which he wouldn't be playing the clever pal, the guy with the great voice, or even the enigmatic hero; it would instead provide him with the role of the villain, an unhinged psychopath named John Baron.
'Suddenly' is a unique noir offering from 1954, starring the aforementioned Sinatra and Sterling Hayden of 'Dr. Strangelove' and 'The Killing' fame. It was unique partially because of the way it was made; a low-budget, independent production with recognizable names in the lead, and other familiar faces such as James Gleason ('The Night of the Hunter') in important supporting roles. Beyond that, however, the film's central plot of an assassination attempt on the president was unheard of for the time period, and even sparked some controversy with the ratings board and one of the film's would-be producers before and while it was being made. In addition to the somewhat controversial plotline, the story unfolds largely in the living room of an unexceptional, middle-class suburban home, with the occasional scene taking place elsewhere to give the semblance of a sleepy little burg on the verge of becoming a dubious footnote in history.
From the way it looks, this could easily have been a stage production, with various characters engaged in menacing conversation as the clock ticks ever closer to the impending gunshot that will be heard around the world. Though the scope of the picture may sound small, or too focused to present a compelling film, it's the increasingly claustrophobic nature of and fantastic performances in 'Suddenly' that allows it to rise above the sort of one-note thriller the brief synopsis would have you believe it to be.
Having been made shortly after the Korean War, 'Suddenly' takes a surprising look at the culture of violence in the United States, the necessity and usefulness of guns, and the idea of pacifism in the latter half of a century which had seen more than its fair share of astonishing bloodshed and global conflict. At it's heart, the picture is an exploration of violence; it is by no means preachy, or didactic – although the film winds up presenting a case mostly against pacifism and in favor of responsible gun use – but Sinatra's depiction of an honored war veteran who'd developed a penchant for killing and valued nothing but money and his own proficiency at violence became another example of the kinds of potentially divisive themes director Lewis Allen was dealing with.
Given all of this, Allen still manages to craft a tightly wound, incredibly well-structured picture that relies as much on its own deft pacing as it does the performances of the actors. Frequent references to the passing of time, and the way the walls of Pop Benson's (Gleason) home seem to be closing in, and, especially, the way the Baron slowly begins to unravel as Sheriff Tod Shaw (Hayden) and his prospective love interest Ellen (Nancy Gates) peck away at his motivation and belief that he will succeed where others have failed all combine to ramp up the anxiety of the film's plot.
As good as everyone else is – Hayden and Gleason, in particular – this is most certainly Sinatra's time to shine. 'Suddenly' may not have been thought of as a powerhouse picture, and it's pot-boiler premise supports those initial reactions, but there is no denying that 'Ol' Blue Eyes' steals the show, making precise adjustments to Baron's demeanor and giving tiny glimpses into the slightly sadistic predilections of the man. At one point, Allen makes the bold decision to have one of Baron's monologues be delivered as he slowly walks toward the camera, as if he were breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. It's both unsettling and odd, but it works wonderfully.
A swift viewing experience at just 76 minutes, the story never feels too slight to suggest this isn't the type of thing for a major motion picture, but it's also not so heavy that the film doesn't forget to perfunctorily check all of the familiar thriller tropes off the list as it reaches its climax. While it doesn't carry with it the kind of acclaim 'From Here to Eternity' garnered, and it fails to plumb the depths of the human psyche like the similarly themed 'Manchurian Candidate,' 'Suddenly' is an cleverly plotted, and interesting noir thriller that's a great way to familiarize folks with the early career of Frank Sinatra.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This version of 'Suddenly' is from Image Entertainment and comes as a single Blu-ray disc packaged in the standard case. This version is touted as being "Transferred from Original 35mm Studio Fine Grain Master Print." The insert features art different from the HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray + DVD Combo version that was previously released. This Image version further differentiates itself by featuring two new commentaries as part of its supplemental features.
'Suddenly' is presented with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer of the film that has its fair share of pluses and minuses. Although the film looks quite good considering its age, there is some evidence of tinkering with the image that has removed most artifacts from the print, but dulled the appearance of textures throughout the picture. That being said, this is still a nice transfer with just the right amount of grain present that lends it a filmic quality, but never interferes with the overall image. Furthermore, contrast levels are quite high; blacks are mostly dark and consisted, though some instances they feel like they could go a shade darker to add another level of depth to the picture. Fine detail is typically good all around; Gleason's face accurately shows the actor's age, and Sinatra's craggy visage is represented well here. Still, there is the aforementioned issue with textures that lessens the wow factor, but doesn't totally derail the overall image quality.
Despite a nice looking image, the main problem here appears to be that 'Suddenly' wasn't transferred in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but rather in the flat open-matte of 1.33:1. The result is an unfortunate picture that leaves far too much room above the actors' heads and often makes some of the more dramatic sequences feel as though they're slightly off kilter, or not as focused on the correct actions as they could be. There is also a noticeable blurring effect on the edges of the frame that can be distracting at times. For all of the care put into this transfer, and the ballyhoo surrounding the original 35mm master, it's a shame that adhering to the original aspect ratio was overlooked or otherwise deemed unnecessary.
This is a fine-looking transfer that is unfortunately marred by a strange decision to alter the aspect ratio, which, in the end, takes what would be a good rating down a few notches.
The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track sounds remarkably good for both its age and the fact that it (thankfully) wasn't remastered and artificially spread across multiple channels. There is a fantastic amount of ambient sound present in the mix that includes incidental street traffic, trains and the commotion of killers in the confines of a small home. It is so effective that early into the viewing, one hardly notices the lack of extra channels and surround sound.
Dialogue is crisp and easily understood – even while the above-mentioned street noise is occurring – and the film's score comes through, sounding powerful and dynamic, without overshadowing other key elements like the actor's speaking, or added sound effects.
In the days of 7.1 channel surround, 'Suddenly' stands out as an example of just how effective a quality mix can be, despite the apparent limitations of a mono track.
'Suddenly' is a quality noir film that actually gets better with subsequent viewings. Though it has a particular stance in terms of its own subject matter that can only be looked at as an interesting byproduct of post-war sentimentality of the time, it is this somewhat outdated look at violence, and the atrocities men experienced during the war that make it all the more unique. Of course, the draw here is Sinatra, but film buffs will likely enjoy watching another flick with the man who would become Brig. Gen. Jack Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's 'Dr. Strangelove,' and the appearance of well known character actor James Gleason late in his life is another huge plus. The disc is simultaneously an example of all the things that can go right with an HD transfer of an older film, and some of the things than can inexplicably go wrong. Still, with some solid special features and a very good-looking image, 'Suddenly' comes recommended. Maybe Puffy will cast himself in the remake and we'll get another release with the correct aspect ratio.