The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, April 5, 2010


The timing of the release of the original The Manchurian Candidate could not have been planned any worse as the movie was in theaters a year prior to Lee Harvey Oswald assassinating John F. Kennedy Jr.  Star Frank Sinatra demanded the movie be pulled from theaters and for years it wasn't shown in theaters.  Could Oswald have been influenced by the movie?  Who knows?  However in a biography of Sinatra, it is claimed that Oswald was influenced by an earlier movie the actor starred in, 1954's Suddenly.

Similar to Manchurian Candidate, Suddenly involves a plot to kill the president and both movies feature Sinatra in a starring role.  That's where the similarities end.  Suddenly is a B-movie that comes in at just 76 minutes and was probably an ideal drive-in movie.  Set almost entirely in one house -- even more specifically, in one room -- it has the feel and look of a TV show inspired by a play with a longer running time.  At times, it even reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode, not that it involves science fiction or strange happenings, but in its personal relationships and interactions of how individuals react in extreme instances.

In the sleepy California town of Suddenly, sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden) receives a telegram telling him that the President is coming through his town later that day by train, and that he should help arrange security.  The Secret Service and the State Police will help, but Shaw will be the one at the forefront.  In a house on a hilltop overlooking the train station, three gunmen, led by John Baron (Sinatra) kidnap the three members of the house, including Pop (James Gleason), a retired Secret Service agent, his daughter-in-law and widower, Ellen (Nancy Gates), and son Pidge (Kim Charney).  Their plan is simple, pick off the president when he steps off the train. Searching the area for the rumored assassins, Shaw ends up a prisoner too.  With only a few hours to spare, can Shaw intervene and stop the assassination attempt?

One big thing I couldn't help but notice with this flick was the acting, which ranges from great -- like Sinatra -- to pretty awful (Gates, Charney, and one more named to be mentioned).  Sinatra was just a year removed from his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity and gets another meaty role here.  His Baron is a WWII veteran who was awarded for bravery with a Silver Star, but something else happened during his tour that we never find out about, but it's something dark.  Baron is a gun for hire, pure and simple, who holds money in higher regard than patriotism.  He does the job not because he hates his country, but because the money offered was the right price.  Sinatra dominates the screen with his part, even looking right into the camera several times like he directly addressing the audience.  His performance is the big reason to check this movie out.

In previous reviews, I've pointed out Hayden typically has the on-screen charisma of a cardboard box.  Angry or in love, that deep voice sounds the same.  This is a little better part for him although I couldn't help but wonder if he was auditioning for a 1950s version of The Andy Griffith Show.  His part is smaller once Sinatra is introduced, but of course, he's the hero.  And remember, this is the 1950s.  Do you really think the attempt is going to be successful?  Gates and young Charney are comical in their parts (unintentionally I hope) as their "anger" takes over.  My personal favorite was Charney screaming 'Darn you!" several times at Sinatra, with Sinatra appropriately laughing.  Also, look out for the extremely unlucky TV repairman who is so genuinely confused as to what is going on it makes you wonder if he even saw a script.

The tension builds throughout, but a ham-fisted ending doesn't really work with everyone involved guilty of some very stagy over-acting.  If you don't see the ending coming, well, shame on you because Gleason's wise old grandpa foreshadows what is to come about 15 minutes into the movie.  It's a chaotic finale with the types of deaths where a person is shot, groans and clutches at their stomach.  There is a bit of a twist during the attempt, but looking back, I should have known it was coming.

Not a bad movie by any means, and it is an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half.  Don't expect too much, and you'll probably like it too.  Seeing Sinatra -- an underrated actor if there ever was one -- do his thing is enjoyable, and even Sterling Hayden isn't that bad.  Just try to think of this one as a really long Twilight Zone episode, and not a feature length film.  I couldn't find a trailer so the link below is four clips from TCM.

Suddenly <----clips (1954): ** 1/2 /****

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