Frank Sinatra had a thing about presidential assassination films. Consider John Frankenheimer's cold war masterpiece, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), in which he tries to stop an attempt on a presidential candidate's life and SUDDENLY (1954), where he's the one set to pull the trigger on an American president.
SUDDENLY is a taut, economical little film noir that plays out in one afternoon in the small town of Suddenly, California. It seems the president of the United States (unnamed but presumed to be Eisenhower), is scheduled to arrive by train and make a brief stopover in the quiet little town. Secret Service agents and state troopers arrive to secure the town, enlisting the aid of Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden). Hayden's girlfriend, the widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), her son Pidge (Kim Charney) and her father-in-law, Pop Benson (James Gleason), live in a house overlooking the train depot, a house that would make a perfect sniper's nest.
And that's just what a gang of hit men, led by John Baron (Sinatra), Benny Conklin (Paul Frees) and Bart Wheeler (Christopher Dark), intend to use it for. They take the Bensons hostage, wound Sheriff Shaw, and kill Secret Service Agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey). Thus begins a tense game of psychological cat and mouse as the psychotic Baron counts the minutes until the train arrives in town, all the while threatening his prisoners and bragging about his multiple kills. Ultimately, it's up to the hostages to make a bold play to stop Baron in the third act and they do, utilizing all of the plot devices that were introduced and set up in the first act.
Sinatra delivers a stand out performance as the vicious hired killer. He's full of braggadocio and coiled menace but when the tables are turned, he's revealed as a gutless coward. Hayden is also good as the smart thinking lawman. Hayden was a big guy and he looks even bigger in scenes with the short, scrawny Sinatra. SUDDENLY mixes scenes shot on location with a handful of studio sets. It's crisply shot by cinematographer Charles G. Clarke and director Lewis Allen keeps things moving at a brisk pace. The film has a running time of 77 minutes and not a second is wasted. The screenplay, by Richard Sale, is based on his own story, ACTIVE DUTY, that appeared in BLUE BOOK MAGAZINE in 1943.
SUDDENLY is an off-beat little noir thriller that's definitely worth seeing. Recommended.