Tonight's Movie: Suddenly (1954) at the Noir City Film Festival

SUDDENLY, a suspense film starring Sterling Hayden and Frank Sinatra, ended up being an unusual experience at the Noir City Film Festival -- I saw it twice! My experiences seeing SUDDENLY, the only digitally presented film of the festival, encapsulate both the problems and the promise of the digital film revolution.

The film was initially shown following NAKED ALIBI (1954), as the second half of Saturday night's tribute to Sterling Hayden.

In their talks preceding the Saturday screening, the Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Muller and Alan Rode discussed the inescapable tidal wave forcing the change from film to digital projection. The Film Noir Foundation will probably be able to hang on to 35-millimeter film projection longer than anyone else, due to its longtime positive relationships with studios -- case in point, the brand-new prints Universal recently struck of both THE GREAT GATSBY (1949) and NAKED ALIBI.

However, the future will be digital, which along with its potential benefits will lead to all sorts of new problems. Muller and Rode particularly urged audiences not to settle for second-rate digital prints.

It was thus rather ironic that the problems of the digital age were unexpectedly and vividly illustrated by that night's screening of SUDDENLY. SUDDENLY is a public domain film which was digitally restored by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. Although the black and white picture itself was crisp and beautiful, there were fields of shimmering gold or yellow digital pixilation that jumped around the picture throughout the screening. After realizing the problem wasn't going to go away, I mentally shrugged and just settled in to enjoy the film, as did most of the audience. The compelling story and excellence of most of the print helped distract me from the ever-moving blob of gold.

I had the opportunity to speak to Eddie and Alan after the screening, and they were dismayed by what had occurred, to say the least.

When I arrived this afternoon for the day's Cornell Woolrich triple bill, Eddie announced while we were in line that the projection problems which had afflicted SUDDENLY had been corrected; apparently something as simple as turning off the projector between an initial test run and that night's screening led to the problems. One can only imagine how common issues like this could become in an all-digital age.

It was announced that SUDDENLY would be shown again tonight, properly projected, for anyone willing to sit through a quadruple bill! Since I had enjoyed the film and was on what I call a "movie vacation" for the first weekend of the festival, I took advantage of the opportunity to see SUDDENLY as it was meant to be seen, and I was very glad I did. It's quite a good movie and, other than one tiny skip, it looked terrific.

SUDDENLY fell into the public domain many years ago; there are numerous DVD and VHS prints available of varying quality, and it's also available via streaming, but no one has properly cared for the film until Lobster Films undertook its restoration. The murky, fuzzy print which can be streamed on Netflix looks absolutely nothing like the pristine, sharp picture I saw tonight.

Sterling Hayden plays Tod Shaw, the sheriff of the little town of Suddenly, California. (The film was shot in Saugus and Newhall, California.) One afternoon Tod receives a telegram advising that the President's train will be stopping in Suddenly later that day, and the President will be transferring to a limousine. Tod is immediately busy coordinating security with the Secret Service and state troopers.

Meanwhile, three would-be assassins (Frank Sinatra, Paul Frees, and Christopher Dark) take over a hilltop home which has perfect access to shoot the President. As circumstances unfold, Tod is imprisoned in the home along with Ellen (Nancy Gates), a young widow he loves; Ellen's little boy Pidge (Kim Charney); and Ellen's father-in-law "Pop," a former Secret Service man (James Gleason).

Although the film makes good use of its smalltown location filming, much of the film, written by Richard Sale, is effectively a one-room drama. There are a couple of too-convenient coincidences, such as Pop being a former Secret Service man, but for the most part it's quite a riveting film, with Sinatra's electric, creepy killer ("I was awarded a Silver Star") contrasting effectively with Hayden's low-key demeanor. There were a couple of over-the-top shots where Sinatra seems to be addressing the camera directly, but he's excellent, gradually peeling back the layers of his character's warped psyche. In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, Frank Sinatra deeply regretted he had played a would-be Presidential killer.

I did wonder exactly why Tod is so hung up on Ellen at the outset of the film, given how strongly she discourages him -- and although there is sympathy for Ellen having lost her husband in the Korean War a few years previously, it's also difficult to understand her attitude toward Tod, a handsome, upright, churchgoing sheriff who would also be an excellent father for her young son. The story stretched credulity just a bit there for the sake of the evolving story.

I especially liked the plan Pop and a young TV repairman (James Lilburn) devise to deal with the assassins. Lilburn was the brother of Maureen O'Hara; his film roles also included playing young Father Paul in THE QUIET MAN (1952).

A couple random asides: advance Presidential security being just a matter of hours seems rather quaint by modern standards; was it ever really that simple?  (Of course, given recent stories about the Secret Service, maybe a lack of advance teams isn't a bad thing...) I was also amused that the war movie which Ellen wouldn't let her little boy see was BEACHHEAD (1954), which I saw just a few days ago.

SUDDENLY is a fast-paced 75-minute film directed by Lewis Allen (THE UNINVITED). It was shot by Charles G. Clarke. The musical score was by David Raksin. The cast also includes Willis Bouchey, Paul Wexler, Kem Dibbs, Clark Howat, Roy Engel, and John Beradino.

Although I had some minor quibbles with the film, as described above, it was obviously interesting enough for me to want to watch it twice in 24 hours!  I definitely recommend seeing it -- preferably in as nice a print as I saw  tonight.