The sun and fun of Palm Springs, California warms both the heart and the skin of those that go there. Temperature is in the high 40s in some cases, and the desert around you makes for intrigue in places and people when the night falls. The unofficial, or depending on who you speak to, the official “King of Palm Springs” was Frank Sinatra during the forties through to the sixties. Coming off that trip, what better film to look at than one of Sinatra’s better roles, that of John Baron in the underrated SUDDENLY (1954).
The picture is quintessential 1950s paranoia minus the nuclear threat. Photographed in a fashion that makes even the scenes in the daylight look menacing, is offered by director Lewis Allen and with a taunt script by Richard Sale. SUDDENLY (1954) is about a plot to kill the President of the United States while he stops in the little California town of Suddenly. Leading the plot is John Baron (Frank Sinatra), and his henchmen who take over a house owned by the Benson family, which has the proper vantage point.
Within the home you have the post war ‘nuclear family’ of widowed Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) who takes care of her young son, Peter (Kim Charney) and her aged father Peter (Pop) Benson (James Gleason). Young Peter is a precocious 50s child, t- shirted, jeans and combed hair that is looking forward to watching baseball with Pop Benson if they can get the television working. Ellen Benson is a pacifist whose husband was killed in action. She is doing her best to care for both her charges while being romanced by lantern jawed, deep voiced, Sheriff Tod Shaw, played by Sterling Hayden.
Baron and his gang take over the family and their home and wait for the President to arrive. Sheriff Shaw and Secret Service Agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) are trying to secure the site when they go to the Benson home and are captured. Television repairman Jud (James O Hara) makes a pre-arranged house call to fix the television and is also captured. Baron and his gang now have a full house of people: exactly what they didn’t want. The waiting produces tension among those concerned as John Baron becomes more talkative about his reasons. The anger of a ‘little man’ feeling trapped seethes from Baron as it did at times from Sinatra in real life.
Baron enjoys killing, even to the point of threatening young Peter. Ellen cannot stand guns or violence in her home so this sets up some hard discussions. The President does come to town as the tension mounts and Baron readies the rifle with telescopic sight and special stand. Not before sudden switches happen and someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
SUDDENLY (1954) is filled with wonderful claustrophobic camera work even when shot in essentially two rooms and limited exteriors. Point of view shots abound as the resolution happens and the lives of the Benson family are shattered. Frank Sinatra is effective as the brutally violent John Baron. His look and clothes, complete with fedora, all fit what Old Blue eyes was like during that time in his life. No matter what happened in the picture, Baron always looks put together .
What really is the strong point of Sinatra’s performance is his eyes. Those blue eyes which look light grey with black and white photography as expressive in both defeat and triumph. This role marks the first time he played a heavy role. This was a calculated risk for him and the studio. In spite of winning the 1953 Academy Award for his role of “Angelo Maggio,” Sinatra was driven to prove he was not a “one trick pony” in Hollywood. SUDDENLY (1954) was without box office heavy weights like Burt Lancaster, Debra Kerr, Montgomery Clift , and Ernest Borgnine to play off of so Sinatra had to carry the picture himself.
Sterling Hayden as Sheriff Tod Shaw is strong, especially playing against Sinatra’s thinner body type. John Baron controls them all as things change with voice and kinetic movement. It flows almost with a dancer’s grace. Shaw, try as he might to assert Law and Order along with Secret Service man Carney, are both held in check by threats. This mechanism might seem irrelevant today as one wonders why the two don’t simply jump John Baron or have Ellen Benson do something. It was the 1950s, though, and essentially a picture about pacifism carried too far by the Benson family. Seemingly one had to ready for “Reds under the bed” and other menaces trying to destroy the American dream of postwar life in the suburbs with white picket fence, baseball, or in this case : small town life like artist Norman Rockwell painted.
SUDDENLY (1954) is a taunt thriller that moves quickly with scenes of utter desolation that make you almost taste the dust. It is a bleak, desperate story as people become trapped in a house, each with their own concept of the world, while rolling to a conclusion. Well worth seeing for an ensemble performance, good story and directing. See it in a restored version if you can. It is best this way, even if you need your television repaired like the Benson family. Enjoy with two fingers of Jack Daniels, four cubes, and a splash of water. Don’t forget the cocktail napkin to hold it in your palm.