Tricky business, casting a world-famous musician in a movie’s starring role: it seems you must either craft the part to perfectly match their persona, or to run perfectly against it. Nicolas Roeg, that inimitable employer of singers to his own semi-fathomable cinematic ends, has rigorously explored this range of possibilities. David Bowie seemed the only possible choice for the terminally lonely alien of The Man Who Fell to Earth, just as Art Garfunkel seemed the last possible choice for the psychosexual tormentor of Bad Timing. I personally regret that Roeg never got to work with Frank Sinatra, used to such striking effect by John Frankenheimer in The Manchurian Candidate and Otto Preminger in The Man with the Golden Arm. To hold those pictures up against, say, the Rat Pack free-for-all of Ocean’s Eleven is to understand that casting against persona, though on average the riskier option, produces more fascinatingly contradictory performances. In the 1954 noir Suddenly, available free on Archive.org, you can watch an early example of this in Sinatra’s career, when director Lewis Allen turns him into a psychopath bent on assassinating none other than the President of the United States.
Given the project’s unquestioned B-movie context, critics regarded Sinatra as having made a reasonably rich meal of this villainous part. “Mr. Sinatra deserves a special chunk of praise,” wrote the New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther. “In Suddenly he proves a melodramatic tour de force.” Variety also looked favorably upon him: “Thesp inserts plenty of menace into a psycho character, never too heavily done, and gets good backing from his costar, Sterling Hayden, as sheriff, in a less showy role but just as authoritatively handled.” Yes, you read that right: this movie pits Frank Sinatra against Sterling Hayden. Sinatra and his crew of killers take over a small-town hilltop family home, the ideal vantage point from which to shoot the passing President. Then Hayden, the town’s sheriff, turns up to check things out. How will this clash of titanic personalities resolve? Hit play and find out whether “the number-one man in the nation,” as Suddenly‘s sensationalistic poster puts it, falls victim to this “kill-hungry hoodlum.”