Monday, April 9, 2018

Suddenly, I Have Hot Takes

Suddenly (1954) - Flickchart
Suddenly (1954) via flickchart

Eddie Muller played Suddenly for the most recent installment of Noir Alley on TCM. I'd never seen it before, don't think I'd ever even heard of it, but I won't let that stop me posting my hot takes.

First. it's not a film noir. You could make the case Sinatra's playing a noir character, his would-be assassin John Baron is perhaps not too dissimilar to (the literary source of) Bogart's Dix Steele from In A Lonely Place, so there's at least one element there. But, there's only one woman in the cast and, whatever her virtues, she's no femme fatale, Sheriff Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is not at all an anti-hero, and it's filmed as pretty much a straight crime drama, none of the shadow work or creative framing you'd expect in a noir.

That all said, I'm glad it played in Noir Alley, else I probably wouldn't have watched it. Muller's intro gave some intriguing insight into Sinatra's relationship with JFK and his having played in not only this movie, but later in The Manchurian Candidate. It's as perhaps the first of the assassination conspiracy thrillers that Suddenly is ahead of its time and worth a look beyond Sinatra's performance. Unfortunately, it's all the ways it's solidly of its time that ultimately sink it.

The damage is done early when Sheriff Shaw meets up with the widowed Nancy Gates after having bought her son a realistic looking (Chekov's) gun -- I didn't realize it was only a cap gun until it was explained later -- and basically mansplains how she ought to be raising her boy while berating her for not loving him back as she should. (That their virtuousness and the inevitability of their pairing up is signified by the fact they'll attend church together on Sunday also raised my hackles.)

Worse still, the movie promotes the idea that it is the citizen's duty to serve their President, even to the point of laying down their lives for his; an idea as ass-backwards as they come. The Secret Service agents who guard the President, sure, that's what they signed up for, but the idea law enforcement (it's really Shaw that expresses this) can sacrifice civilian lives in order to protect the President is repulsive, yet considered just and right by this movie. Shaw tells Nancy in no uncertain terms the he, her, and even her son don't matter, their lives must be sacrificed if there's a chance to prevent the assassination.

Fuck that. Now, you might think Trump being if office is coloring my judgment here, but even if we had a President Sanders, or Warren -- there is no way I'd choose saving them over a random person on the street, never mind a family member. The President's job is to serve us, the people, not the other way around. There's a VP, and a line of succession after that, to ensure our government can still function if the chief executive is taken out. The risk of assassination is accepted when seeking out the job and mitigated by the security provided by the Secret Service. It's not my job, or any other civilian's, to sacrifice our lives for the President's. That's not to say on a simple human level, the President is less of a human being than anyone else and there aren't scenarios in which it would be reasonable or virtuous for a civilian to risk personal harm or death if they could save the President's life, but the situation laid out in Suddenly is not, I'd argue, such a case.

Shaw, frankly, is a fascist. A McCarthy era, flag-draped all-American fascist. That he's presented as an upstanding, heroic figure reduces the film to a propagandistic screed. (The more I think about, the more I hate it.) Baron is a sociopath, probably a war criminal, and yet it'd have been a better movie had he killed Shaw -- and Shaw's passing gone as unlamented as the poor TV repairman who took a bullet for his part in foiling the plot, or of the Secret Service agent whose corpse spent a good chunk of the film rolled in a rug at the bottom of the basement stairs to nobody's particular distress.

One last irksome element: the script goes out of its way to obscure the President's party, or identify the authors of the conspiracy as either reactionaries or radical leftists. Baron doesn't know who hired him and he doesn't care about the Who or the Why of his enlistment. But, in the spirit of having their McCarthy Cake and eating it too, we're given a bit of offhand dialogue about filthy commies to make it clear the filmmakers aren't down with *that* sort of un-Americanism.

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