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Friday, February 06, 2004

Suddenly (1954)

The Gambler:
Frank Sinatra in Suddenly


by Nicholas Stix




In December, some big dates passed in relative obscurity. One was December 7th; the other was the 12th, Frank Sinatra’s (1915-1998) birthday, the only showbiz birthday I know by heart. I remembered the Chairman of the Board by ordering the VHS of an obscure movie he made in 1954, Suddenly. (But don’t you order it – the sound quality is horrible. Fortunately, the movie is often broadcast on TV.)

Just two years before he made Suddenly, Frank Sinatra thought he was finished. His vocal cords hemorrhaged, and “The Voice” almost fell silent. Movie producers were no longer interested in making light musical comedies starring the kid from Hoboken, and no one took him seriously as a dramatic actor, a field where he had no track record. And he could feel the love of his life, Ava Gardner, slipping out of his grasp. (Although Sinatra and Gardner had just married in 1951, following his divorce from first wife Nancy, the affair had been going on for years, and the wedding was anti-climactic.)

At his low point, legend has it that one night, a forlorn Sinatra was backstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, standing off in a corner, his head slumped over. Someone said, “Frank, why don’t you go out and sing a song?” “Nah, the people don’t want to hear me,” came his defeated response. But that Samaritan somehow convinced Sinatra to go out on the stage for one song. That Harlem audience showed Frank Sinatra where the love was.

Well, Sinatra got his vocal chords fixed. And after a manic lobbying campaign, which had him sending postcards signed, “Maggio,” to producer Buddy Adler, director Fred Zinneman, and Columbia Picures mogul Harry Cohn, offering to play the role for free, and making a screen test, he got the role of a lifetime, as the heroic but ill-fated, “Pvt. Angelo Maggio,” in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity. With Sinatra’s help, the movie won eight Oscars, including his own, richly deserved one for best supporting actor. (Hollywood legend has it that Sinatra only got the role after mobster friends made producer Buddy Adler “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” See The Godfather, for the rest of the legend.) For the next 12 or so years (through Von Ryan’s Express), until one of the longest midlife crises in world history took over, Frank Sinatra was among the world’s greatest movie actors. Unfortunately, the third part of his life could not be saved. By 1955, he and Ava Gardner had split up, though as she wrote in her autobiography, Ava, they would have occasional “reunions” in hotels around the world, over the next 30-odd years, until her death in 1990.

Going for the role of Maggio was a huge gamble for a man who had no history of straight dramatic acting, but then, Sinatra was nothing if not a gambler. Existentialism was then a popular philosophy, but unlike pretentious types in French cafes, who knew only the words, he knew the music. From his thirties through his mid-forties, Sinatra lived a life of continual high drama, subsisting off tempestuous passions and guile, with little room left for prudence. (But unlike professional existentialists, Sinatra was no nihilist.)

And so in 1954, he starred in the kind of insane movie that could have ended his fledgling, dramatic movie career. Suddenly (what a lousy title!) is the name of a California hamlet, where the President of the United States will happen to pass through, for about the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Only the Secret Service knows this – and a small group of assassins posing as Secret Service agents, led by “Johnny Baron” (Sinatra).

Johnny is a homicidal sociopath who has no qualms about doing what was then “the unthinkable.” “Sure, I like choppin’” (shooting). He has a $500,000 contract to kill the President, and so kill him, he will.

(Sinatra would go on, in 1962, to co-produce and co-star in yet another - big-budget - movie about a plan to assassinate the president, The Manchurian Candidate. Directed by the late John Frankenheimer from Richard Condon’s classic political thriller, in Candidate, Sinatra gave a now hilarious, now moving performance as insomniac Capt. Bennett Marco. But the following year, his friend, President John F. Kennedy, would be assassinated, and so for the next 30 years, Sinatra would pull Suddenly and The Manchurian Candidate out of distribution.)

The era of the anti-hero had just begun, with Marlon Brando’s 1953 performance as motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler, in The Wild One. But not even the young Brando had cojones like Sinatra. No one had shot a president since William “Big Bill” McKinley in ’01, and no one made movies about 20th century assassins.

But Sinatra did. Working almost entirely on one set, on a shoestring budget, and squaring off against dramatic (and physical) heavyweight Sterling Hayden (as “Sheriff Tod Shaw”), he gave a towering performance.

Johnny and his accomplices take the Benson family hostage. The Bensons’ home has a clear shot at the spot where the President will get off his train. “Pop Benson” (James Gleason) is a retired Secret Service agent, whose widowed, pacifist daughter-in-law, “Ellen” (Nancy Gates) has been rebuffing Tod Shaw’s attempts at courtship. Ellen Benson holds all who wield weapons equally in contempt.

Johnny likes to talk, and he has a captive audience. Literally. The set-piece around which the picture revolves, is a soliloquy Johnny delivers, on his failed life as a civilian prior to World War II, as a lost soul, wandering about an anonymous, non-descript, unnamed metropolis.

“Before, I drifted and drifted and ran, always lost in a great, big crowd. I hated that crowd, used to dream about the crowd, once in a while. I used to see all those faces, scratchin’ and shovin’ and bitin.’ And then the mist would clear, and somehow all the faces would be me. All me, and nothin.”

This is not the spirit of America on the eve of World War II, but of a different time and place altogether. It is the spirit of Hitler’s Vienna, on the eve of World War I, the spirit of fascism.

Now, I realize that logically this doesn’t jibe. After all, Johnny doesn’t work in a collective, the way the fascists and Nazis did, or the anti-Semitic socialists of pre-WWI Vienna; he’s more of a freelancer. And spoken abstractly, overlaying a 1910s, European mentality doesn’t work for a story set in America in the mid-1950s. And yet, it does work, gloriously.

Here's how: Already in 1922, before Hitler’s rise, German director Fritz Lang’s first Dr. Mabuse film, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler/Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, also known as Dr. Mabuse, Herrschaft des Verbrechens/Dr. Mabuse: The Rule of Crime, told of a criminal mastermind who hypnotized people with his omnipotent stare. (Later, Hitler supposedly hypnotized crowds with his speeches; Dr. Mabuse novelist Norbert Jacques was either a prophet, or an unparalleled observer of his times.)

After Hitler's seizure of power, surely influenced by Lang's Dr. Mabuse film, the notion took hold among artists and academics, that Nazism was nothing but a form of gangsterism. This notion was perpetuated during and after the war by communist playwright Bertolt Brecht’s drama, written in Finnish exile in 1941, Der Aufhaltsame Austieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui).

After the war, many leftwing academics simply swallowed whole the undigestable "theory" (really, a mere attitude or assumption) that equated "fascism" with gangsterism.

(The academics adopted, unthinkingly, the Soviet Communist Party’s propaganda, such that the term “fascism” referred to the actual fascism of Mussolini, to Hitler’s national socialism, and to all conservative thought. One of the many problems with such notions, was that fascism and national socialism were both hybrids of left and rightwing thought. One of the reasons the communists needed to call Nazism “rightwing,” was to distract people from its socialist components – which is why lefties spoke only of “Nazism,” rather than of “national socialism.” The other reason was that communists and their fellow travelers needed to rewrite history to hide the fact that they had been allied with the Nazis, at the time of Stalin’s secret, 1939 non-agression pact with Hitler, whereby the German national socialists and the Russian Soviets conquered and divided Poland.)

But Suddenly doesn't owe its power to the twisted reasonings of academics. Give credit, instead, to screenwriter Richard Sale, director Lewis Allen, and to … The Gambler.


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