Frank Sinatra

Suddenly (1954, Lewis Allen)

I’m sure there’s got to be some examples of well-written “Red Scare” screenplays, but Suddenly isn’t one of them. Writer Richard Sale’s got a lot of opinion about the dirty Commies, he just never gets the opportunity to have any one character fully blather it out. They’re too busy blathering out patriotic platitudes while being held hostage.

Suddenly’s about Frank Sinatra trying to assassination the President for half a million dollars. He’s got a couple sidekicks with him, but they’re not too bright. Sinatra’s character should’ve been a war hero but he just liked killing Germans too much. Sale has a lot of dialogue about Sinatra’s backstory because most of Suddenly takes place in the house he’s holding hostage. It’s either Sinatra alluding to his past or second-billed Sterling Hayden figuring it all out and lecturing him and making Sinatra lose his cool. Sinatra’s performance is good. Hayden’s isn’t. Neither of them have good writing, neither of them have good direction (though Sinatra gets better direction).

There are a handful of notable costars–James Gleason as the homeowner, Nancy Gates as Gleason’s widowed daughter-in-law, Kim Charney as the annoying kid. Gleason ought to be fine but Allen’s coverage is awful. It seems like Gleason doesn’t even know where the camera’s pointed at times. So he’s not good. He’s not awful (Charney is awful), but he’s not good. Gates would maybe be better if she didn’t have a lousy part. Women don’t understand much about men; Sale’s script isn’t deep. Gates’s part in the first act is mostly to be harassed about not wanting to marry Hayden, who courts her with the charm of a wrecking ball.

David Raskin’s music is outstanding. John F. Schreyer’s editing is weak–again, Allen didn’t shot the coverage the film needed–and Charles G. Clarke’s photography is mediocre. There aren’t really any good shots in the film, so it doesn’t matter. But there are some where Sinatra gets to go wild and those work out, even if the composition isn’t strong. Sinatra’s awesome.

Suddenly’s a chore of seventy-five minutes. Not even Sinatra can keep it interesting through some of the longer stretches. Sale’s script is just too weak and Allen’s direct is just too disinterested.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Allen; written by Richard Sale; director of photography, Charles G. Clarke; edited by John F. Schreyer; music by David Raskin; produced by Robert Bassler; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Sinatra (John Baron), Sterling Hayden (Sheriff Tod Shaw), James Gleason (Pop Benson), Nancy Gates (Ellen Benson), Kim Charney (Pidge Benson), Paul Frees (Benny Conklin), Christopher Dark (Bart Wheeler), James O’Hara (Jud Hobson) and Willis Bouchey (Dan Carney).


A Hole in the Head (1959, Frank Capra)

The first hour of A Hole in the Head is slow going. It shouldn’t be slow going, not with everything the film has going for it, but director Capra is real lazy. He’s lazy with his composition, he’s lazy with his actors, he’s lazy with the pace. It’s amazing how the film’s pluses are able to turn things around in the second half.

The script’s a very stagy adaptation of a play, with original playwright Arnold Schulman doing the adapting. Capra takes the easiest approach possible to everything in the first half of the film, which takes place almost entirely at lead Frank Sinatra’s hotel. It’s not a nice hotel, Sinatra’s not a good hotelier, but there’s something interesting about a little bit of a rundown hotel amid otherwise glamorous Miami Beach. Capra is indifferent to that possibility, unfortunately. Instead, he plops the camera down and shoots almost everything in medium shot, two characters in profile. It’s beyond boring.

Sinatra’s not just an unsuccessful businessman, he’s a widower with an eleven year-old son (a likable Eddie Hodges) and a twenty-one year-old girlfriend (Carolyn Jones). Between Schulman’s script and Capra’s direction, none of the actors get much favor, but Jones easily gets the worst treatment. She’s actually got a character and she does well. Schulman’s just lazy. She lives in Sinatra’s hotel, they’re not discreet, yet Hodges never gets to acknowledge her. Not really. When the film finally does try, it cops out. Worse yet, it cops out with one of editor William Hornbeck’s awful fades. Terrible editing in Hole. Not sure if it’s Hornbeck or just Capra refusing to take the time to get solid coverage. I’d assume the latter.

But Sinatra’s also unlikable in this first part of the film because it’s about him being a deadbeat dad. When redemption does arrive, in the film’s deftest move, it doesn’t come in the shapes of Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter (Robinson’s Sinatra’s successful, if miserly, brother and Ritter’s Robinson’s very patient wife) or Eleanor Parker (as the widow who Robinson wants Sinatra to marry), it comes because Sinatra finally gets a character to play.

By not shooting his actors in close-up, except as comedic reaction shots, Capra never asks them to act. He never asks them to try. I guess Hodges does get close-ups, but it’s so he can be likable, which is probably worse.

Sinatra and Parker have a very nice, very grown-up scene, with Sinatra leaving the hotel and going somewhere not shot in front of rear projection for once. Hole definitely shot on location in Miami, but not enough. At least not when none of the studio-shot inserts come close to matching. (Again, Capra’s clearly checked out).

After that scene, the whole thing starts to turn around. Schulman and Capra take Sinatra (and the viewer) outside the hotel, the script gives Hodges something to do besides be cute, Ritter and Robinson aren’t just playing for laughs anymore.

And, in the last half hour, A Hole in the Head gets quite good. The cast has a whole lot of goodwill banked from the first half, when Capra and the script clearly waste them, and it all pays off towards the end. The actors save A Hole in the Head. They save it from Schulman’s unsteady script, from Capra’s unimaginative visualizing of said script, from Hornbeck’s jarring cuts. They even save it from the awful Nelson Riddle music.

Capra asks everyone to do movie star acting in a story needing a far more muted approach. Sinatra, Parker, Ritter, Robinson. They’re all good enough actors to know what their characters need. Would better direction improve the film? Definitely. But it does all right without it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Arnold Schulman, based on his play; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Nelson Riddle; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Sinatra (Tony Manetta), Eddie Hodges (Ally Manetta), Carolyn Jones (Shirl), Thelma Ritter (Sophie Manetta), Edward G. Robinson (Mario Manetta), Keenan Wynn (Jerry Marks) and Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Eloise Rogers).


The Man with the Golden Arm (1955, Otto Preminger)

There are a few problems with The Man with the Golden Arm. It’s hard to think of the film actually having any defects, since it’s such a brilliantly made motion picture. It was one of the first Preminger films I saw and was I ever surprised when they all weren’t so beautifully put together. The film’s shot on this magnificent set–it’s a block and a quarter maybe (shades of Eyes Wide Shut in terms of the control Preminger could get from it)–and Preminger’s camera floats around it; it’s impossible to think the camera’s on a pre-laid track. Then there’s the music–Elmer Bernstein’s score is always fantastic, always right on, whether he’s dealing with addiction, human regard or suspense. Or the script–there’s amazing dialogue throughout the entire film.

I think this viewing must have been my third of the film and, again, I had the sensation at the open–it had to be better than I remembered, just look at that opening shot. But as the running time passes, the problems become clear. It’s unbelievable Frank Sinatra’s character would marry Eleanor Parker’s because he crippled her in a car accident. It’s not unbelievable he would have been torn up about it, but the film directly says he only married her because he felt responsible. The character doesn’t play that way–not with him becoming a heroin addict and flushing everything but that responsibility away. It could play–he’s escaping into the heroin–but the script doesn’t set it up. It’s almost implied in some dialogue (the film opens after Sinatra’s clean following six months of rehab); it’s not enough.

Second big problem–Kim Novak’s a together young woman who can’t find a better job than being a friendly, paid patron at a burlesque parlor. Or whatever the women who have drinks with and smile at the men are called. There’s got to be a word for it. It simply does not work. She’s too obviously a function, too obviously a cog in the eventual dramatic wheel. It’s possible her character in the source novel had a less censor-friendly profession, but it doesn’t work in the film. She’s practically a saint (she only completes one miracle in the film).

The acting is fantastic–Parker’s amazing as the manipulating, wheelchair-bound wife. Novak’s great. Darren McGavin and Robert Strauss are excellent villains. McGavin would give the film’s most astounding performance–of pure, friendly evil–if it weren’t for Sinatra. Everything Sinatra does in the film, down to chewing on a cheese sandwich, is magnificent. Arnold Stang makes a great sidekick for him too.

The biggest problem with The Man with the Golden Arm is its cleanliness. It’s a long film–the set makes it feel like a stage play, as do the lengthy conversations; time passes sort of just passes, a day here, a week there. It invites the viewer to think about what Sinatra’s doing during these stretches, but then it goes and makes it impossible (he and Parker can’t have a single calm moment together). There’s so much discussion about upcoming, scheduled events, it’s hard to remember they haven’t already happened. Preminger needed to apply some of his directorial discipline on the script. By the time it reaches the inevitable–from the third or fourth scene–conclusion, it’s hard to remember the film isn’t already over.

But Sinatra’s simply amazing. I mean, it’s got a lot of other great acting–Parker, Novak, and McGavin–but it’s inconceivable Sinatra’s not better regarded for his acting skills.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer, based on the novel by Nelson Algren; director of photography, Sam Leavitt; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Joseph C. Wright; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Sinatra (Frankie Machine), Eleanor Parker (Zosch Machine), Kim Novak (Molly), Arnold Stang (Sparrow), Darren McGavin (Louie), Robert Strauss (Schwiefka), John Conte (Drunky), Doro Merande (Vi), George E. Stone (Sam Markette), George Mathews (Williams), Leonid Kinskey (Dominiwski) and Emile Meyer (Detective Bednar).


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