The first 20 minutes of Lewis Allen’s Suddenly play out with the didactic tedium of a public-service announcement. Mid-morning creeps up on the small, sub-suburban California town of the title, wherein a war widow, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), tries her best to grocery shop between advances from a burly local sheriff (Sterling Hayden) and bleating demands from her son (Kim Charney) for a toy firearm. The cop, sensing an opportunity to fill the child’s paternal void, engages in a less-than-seductive debate with the mother about the necessity of learning the proper, defensive use of guns. But she refuses to waver, having been taught by too tragic a lesson (the death of her groom in Korea) that hazardous objects are not to be trifled with, either in fact or in neutered facsimile.
In terms of character development, the argument is fatuous; any profession of skittishness toward pistols at the start of an American film from the 1950s can be safely viewed as an invitation to be proven wrong. And yet these sleepy opening passages establish the philosophical (Platonic, in fact) tug of war sustained by the film through its entirety—namely, that between objects and the ideals they’re supposed to represent. In other words, while the “ideal” gun is both an implement of defense and a procurer of sustenance, the objects themselves are too readily accessible by those with more deleterious plans. And as though on cue, the crooks that show up at Ellen’s ranch-style home soon after, planning to assassinate the president of the United States as he disembarks from a special train at a nearby station, proffer a splendid example of the harm guns can do in the wrong hands.
What follows is practically a Socratic dialogue-style deconstruction of American domestic objects using two disjunctive perspectives for thesis and antithesis—that of the war-widowed Ellen, and that of the would-be assassin, a psychotic, orphaned veteran named John Baron (Frank Sinatra, at his most attitudinal). As soon as Baron invades the home from which he means to fire on the leader of the free world, every domestic totem becomes a manipulative tool. He threatens to slit the throat of Ellen’s son if any of his prisoners meddle with his plans; a metal table accustomed to holding TV dinners becomes a shock-absorbing surface for the recoil of a massive rifle; a cellar full of canned peaches and cherries becomes a dungeon in which any visitors to the ranch home can be locked away while Baron works. In short, the “ideal” middle-class American home, in its necessarily objective form, has been contorted into a kind of arsenal, and every photograph and trinket in the frame’s deep focused, flatly luminous background becomes a potential weapon. Baron’s supercilious taunting, meanwhile, argues that homes and families are habitually maintained by destruction. When Ellen accuses him of killing “like an animal,” he chortles. “How do you like your roast beef?” he asks. “Medium rare or well done?”
It’s surely no spoiler to say that Baron’s scheme backfires, as those who derive their power entirely from artillery are too easily subordinated by, well, bigger and better weapons. But the fact that the faulty nature of American suburbia, and especially its electric appliances, provides salvation—much like air pollution does in War of the Worlds—caps the climax of the film’s ironic themes. Since human nature is fallible, it follows that objects made by humans are doomed to the same fate, but Suddenly recognizes within this symmetry of error space enough to improvise and innovate. The movie’s smartest plot device transforms a toy gun (in other words, a symbolic one) into a real gun (an imperfect but useful object) by way of a trick I won’t spoil; this wily firearm “answers” the debate of the opening scene by illustrating how abstract ideals can occasionally be reified into instruments of practical good by belief alone.
The only ideal that isn’t made concrete in the film is quite tellingly the president himself—the figurehead for whom Baron slaughtered overseas, and that he wishes to become wealthy by usurping. But while Baron implies that communists are subsidizing his work, he chides his employers for their lack of foresight. “Tonight at five o’clock I kill the president,” he says. “One second after five there’s a new president. What changes? Nothing!” Baron finds comfort in the fact that the ideal of the presidency, unlike that of the American home, cannot be so easily compromised. Otherwise, what would all of his “chopping,” as he refers to it, in the war have been in the service of? And yet, when the five p.m. train arrives in Suddenly, it rolls right through the station like a phantom. Whether or not it carries the president that neither Baron, nor Ellen, nor anybody else in the town have ever seen is unknown. Suddenly suggests that, as is the case with most ideals, one can’t be certain that the American president even exists.
Suddenly is hardly a visual feast, even of the junk-food noir variety, but the plain-jane shots and naïve use of shadow underscore the film's contention that danger thrives in broad daylight; it's one of the sunniest noirs ever made. Image Entertainment's 1080p restoration shows a good deal of grit and wear lines, and the rounded edges of the film frame are visible throughout, but none of this detracts from the image's enhancement of the film's themes. The telecine has been adroitly handled as well, with a good deal of film grain happily preserved; this texture gives the characters the look of quick pen sketches at times. The sound mix is less accomplished; there's very little bottom end, and the music is mixed much louder than the dialogue, despite the latter's general clarity.
Anyone hoping for an Oedipal breakdown on the audio commentary by Frank Sinatra Jr. will not only be disappointed but bored; the Sinatra scion mostly shows off how much he knows about the cast members and how little he knows about film. The most ridiculous comments on both sides are worth a hoot, however, such as his backhanded description of Nancy Gates's decision to give up acting for the sake of her family ("Noble!") and this non-sequitur chestnut: "I have a friend who teaches communication at one of the universities. His comment after looking at this movie is, 'It is very intense.' It is supposed to be." Anything would be an improvement on this, but by standards both comparative and objective Dr. Drew Casper's alternate running commentary is full of insights, especially about the private life of star Frank Sinatra. The two oppositional voices sit beside one another uneasily, even on separate audio tracks. Rounding out the set is a kaleidoscopic, post-Vertov documentary short about New York City construction, which despite its subject is only slightly less relevant to Suddenly than Sinatra Jr.'s trivia.
Frank Sinatra has the force of a president-killing adverb in Suddenly, a philosophical thriller made all the tighter by this high-def transfer.