'Suddenly' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you Lewis Allen's taut 1954 thriller, "Suddenly," which stars Frank Sinatra as a crazed killer who terrorizes a suburban California home in his quest to kill the president. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Suddenly" on October 7, 1954.

In a western, the bad guys are always after something: the money, the land, revenge -- whatever it is; it's a known quantity. But in a noir, evil can take a much more ambiguous form. That's because the film noir revels in the dark reaches of our psyche and brings forth characters onto the screen that represent the tortured corners of our souls. For noir villains, motive is optional.

In "Suddenly," Frank Sinatra plays John Baron, a psychotic killer out to assassinate the president as he travels through a small California town by train. Before the film's climax, Baron tells town Sheriff, who he's taken hostage, "When you have a gun, you are a sort of god." That emotional connection to the power of violence is characteristic of film noir.

The actor who played that sheriff was Sterling Hayden, who starred in Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking Western "Johnny Guitar." Ray's film, which became a favorite of French New Wave auteurs such as François Truffaut, was released a mere five months before "Suddenly." ("Guitar" also happens to have been filmed on the studio lot out of which KCET operated until last April, when we moved to Burbank.)

Here's one of Hayden's most memorable moments in that movie:



Take a Closer Look Back

In "Suddenly," Nancy Gates plays Ellen Benson; a woman who has come to abhor guns after her husband was killed on active duty in the Korean War. A year removed from the armistice, the wounds of war were still fresh with many in California at the time, and the movie aptly portrays many of those tensions.

The Army's 40th infantry division, hailing in Los Alamitos, Calif., suffered 1,180 casualties as a result of the war in Korea. Here's a photo of one soldier kissing his wife goodbye before shipping out in 1950:

"GOOD BY--Movement of the 40th had a greater impact on Southland families than anything that has come up thus far in Korean war. Hundreds of wives and sweethearts stayed beside their men until they rode away. Here Cpl. Lawrence Avila kisses his wife good-by under the watchful eyes of this buddies-all Signal Corpsmen." -- via UCLA's digital archives.

When Sinatra's maniacal character -- Baron, who claims to be a military veteran -- invades Benson's home, it's a stark reminder that she will never be able to escape the horrors of war, despite never setting foot on a battlefield. And by the end of the movie, Benson must decide whether some violence is justified in the name of survival.

But of course, "Suddenly" isn't the only movie in Sinatra's portfolio that involves an attempted Presidential assassination. In John Frankenheimer's 1962 film, "The Manchurian Candidate," Sinatra plays an Army vet forced to stop his platoon-mate, played by Laurence Harvey, who has been brainwashed into an assassin by the Soviets after being captured in Korea.

Here's Sinatra in a famous fight scene in from the film:



The train station exteriors for "Suddenly" were shot in Saugus, Calif. Here's what the train station looks like today:

Photo by Konrad Summers, via Wikimedia under a Creative Commons License.

"Suddenly" also stars James Gleason and Kim Charney. It was written by Richard Sale, who adapted the script from his short story, "Active Duty," published in 1943.


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