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President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 shocked and stunned the nation but for one Hollywood superstar it had even more disturbing repercussions. Frank Sinatra, a loyal supporter and friend of Kennedy, had once played a potential presidential assassin in the suspense thriller, Suddenly (1954). When he heard that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched that film on the evening before he shot and killed the President, he demanded that the film be withdrawn from distribution.
Made nine years earlier, Suddenly is the story of a trio of assassins led by John Baron (Sinatra) who arrive in the sleepy California town of Suddenly with a sinister purpose: to assassinate the President when his train travels through the rural depot. But first the gunmen have to find the best vantage point and, posing as FBI agents, gain entrance to a hilltop house and take everyone hostage. The similarities between Baron and Oswald are striking: both are hostile loners with a warped ideology and both plotted their murders with a rifle from an open window. But the connection between Sinatra and presidential assassins didn't end there.
In 1962, Sinatra appeared in The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer (also a close friend of the Kennedys). Once again the plot involved an elaborate plan to kill the President, leaving his vice-president (and Communist Party stooge) to take his orders directly from his operatives. But this time around, Sinatra played the hero, racing against time to stop his former army comrade (Laurence Harvey) and now a brainwashed victim of the enemy, from carrying out his orders. Sinatra also had this film withdrawn from distribution as well after Kennedy's assassination making both The Manchurian Candidate and Suddenly difficult films to see for many years.
Suddenly was based on an original screenplay by Richard Sale who got the idea from news stories about President Eisenhower's train trips to and from Palm Springs. Sinatra made Suddenly right after his Oscar®-winning performance in From Here to Eternity (1953) and it marked the first time he played the "heavy" in a film, though weighing less than 120 pounds, that label hardly sounds apt. Nevertheless, his performance as a cold-blooded, psychopathic killer is still considered one of his best. Newsweek wrote: "As the assassin in the piece, Sinatra superbly refutes the idea that the straight-role potentialities which earned an Academy Award for him in From Here to Eternity were one-shot stuff. In Suddenly, the happy-go-lucky soldier of Eternity becomes one of the most repellent killers in American screen history."
Once considered little more than a tautly directed B-movie, Suddenly has since come into its own as a highly regarded example of the film noir style. In his essay on Suddenly for the movie reference book, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Carl Macek wrote, "The sense of claustrophobia and despair unleashed by the assassins in Suddenly is completely amoral, and totally opposite of the style of harassment found in such non-noir, socially redemptive films as The Desperate Hours ....There are no reasons given, or asked for, regarding the assassination - the entire incident functions as a nightmare, a very real nightmare that invades the serenity of a small town. At the end of the film it is apparent that the Benson family will never be the same, suddenly scarred by people out of nowhere who irrevocably disrupt their middle-class tranquility."
Producer: Robert Bassler
Director: Lewis Allen
Screenplay: Richard Sale
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Film Editing: John F. Schreyer
Art Direction: Frank Sylos
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Frank Sinatra (John Baron), Sterling Hayden (Sheriff Tod Shaw), James Gleason (Pop Benson), Nancy Gates (Ellen Benson ), Kim Charney (Peter Benson), Paul Frees (Benny Conklin).
by Jeff Stafford