Jeopardy (1953)

Film Title: Jeopardyjeopardy

Year: 1953

Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Film Noir

Starring:

  • Barbara Stanwyck
  • Barry Sullivan
  • Ralph Meeker

Review

The meaning of a film’s title can often spark interesting debate among fans. There are some who feel it’s simply a face-value categorization and others who search for deeper substance in the words. In the case of 1953’s Jeopardy, the title is like a “Danger Ahead” road sign. Ironically, in this thriller/drama, the road is involved, and it’s definitely less traveled. With a short running time of 69 minutes, Jeopardy manages to speak volumes without the need for elaborate detail.

Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan), his wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are on their way to a peaceful and relaxing Mexican beach vacation. The route through southern California becomes more desolate with each mile and is practically deserted at the Mexican border. The cheerful family of three, however, has no cares. They spend the long drive laughing and planning the upcoming activities, including the target practice that Doug promises Bobby after the youngster finds his father’s handgun in the back seat. The gun isn’t loaded, but Doug feels that having it around (along with a box of bullets) is a good insurance policy so far away from home. In the meantime, he places it in the glove compartment for safe keeping. Everything appears to be running smoothly, though the ‘road’ is now nothing more than a dirt trail barely wide enough for the Stilwins’ car. When Doug realizes that Helen had used the last of their water supply and forgot to replace it, they make a quick stop near an abandoned store to find more. The store doesn’t look neglected, but it’s obvious that no one is around. A peek through the front window reveals nothing but old tools and random storage. Bobby, overly concerned with acting like a “big boy”, runs around to the back and fetches a pail-full of water for his parents. All three are back on the road in minutes. Helen continues to drop subtle comments about being lost, but Doug reassures her that he’d traveled this same road countless times. He was apparently telling the truth; the family arrives at the beach a short time later. It appears to be deserted like everything else on the way. Houses that once enjoyed company now sat dormant along the coastline. But more blatant is a dilapidated bridge stretching far into the water. The wood is rotted and the foundation is crumbling. Helen finds it troubling and is only distracted by Bobby’s announcement that he’s found a trail down to the beach. The calm water falls gently onto shore. It looks inviting enough. It’s finally time to relax.

The trio sets up camp. Helen gathers some essential items together while Doug is half asleep in the sand. Bobby, meanwhile, has wandered off to explore the new vacation spot. Helen decides to awaken Doug with a kiss, and when she does, he immediately grabs her in for a more passionate embrace. After a few playful words, she suggests that they call Bobby for lunch. The first few calls yield no results. Projecting louder, Doug finally reaches Bobby, who has been walking along the top of the rickety bridge. The entire structure is like a collection of wet toothpicks, so walking back and forth requires one to step carefully across the wood planks. Bobby does a fairly good job until a separation in the wood catches his foot and prevents him from moving any further. Doug and Helen can see that something is wrong, but they’re too far away from Bobby and have trouble hearing him. When they finally recognize the problem, Doug runs down to the bridge, climbs up and heads over to his struggling son. Every step is like a held breath; the bridge could collapse at any moment. Nevertheless, Doug frees Bobby’s foot and sends him back across the bridge to climb down to shore. Bobby is safe. Doug starts to make his way back but a plank of wood snaps and sends him plummeting to the ground. Miraculously, he isn’t hurt. A fallen pillar narrowly misses him and burrows into the sand inches away. But there is one problem. Doug can’t move. A portion of the downed pillar is pinning his left leg into the earth. He feels no pain but is completely immobilized. Helen and Bobby try in vain to move the heavy beam. Neither of them has the strength and Doug is in no position to assist. Helen’s idea to lift the pillar using the car jack also proves ineffective when it buckles under the weight. The only option is to find a rope, tie it to the car and pull Doug free. Unfortunately, the last hint of civilization is the empty store they passed on the way. It’s a couple of hours in the opposite direction, but the tide is rolling in and the lack of time leaves no alternative. Helen sets off like a maniac; Bobby stays behind with Doug. After a few minutes on the road, Helen crosses paths with Mexican natives who do not understand English. She attempts to say “rope” in Spanish, but her slight mispronunciation confuses them. Once again, she takes off erratically until she finally reaches the store, breaks the window and finds what she needs. Suddenly, a man (Ralph Meeker) appears out of nowhere. He stands quietly and stares at Helen. Despite being startled, she explains the harrowing situation to the curious stranger. He tells her to jump in the car and the two head back towards the beach, or so Helen thought.

It takes less than ten minutes before he reveals himself as Lawson, a fugitive on the lam. It surely doesn’t help when he finds the gun in the glove box. Helen is now in a rudimentary hostage situation. She’s no match for the sneering Lawson, who displays little evidence of any conscience. Her cries of desperation have no effect; Lawson is indifferent towards the possibility of Doug drowning in the tide. The Mexican authorities are hunting him and his primary objective is to avoid the handcuffs at any cost. When Lawson sees a police checkpoint in the distance, he forces Helen to take the wheel while he feigns sleep on the passenger side. The ruse works. Lawson resumes his control of the car, driving recklessly over the rocks and bumps until finally blowing a flat tire. Because the jack had broken at the beach, he finds a strip of wood and wedges it under the tire. It provides just enough lift to accommodate the change. Helen hides the tire iron behind her back, planning to knock Lawson out and race to a powerless Doug. She narrowly misses him, as he dodges the attack just in time. She throws punches but his restraint overcomes her. She looks him in the eyes and the faint glimmer of “being turned on” comes over her. Helen becomes conscious of her own vulnerability. Lawson is officially in charge. In the interim, Bobby has been taking care of Doug on the beach. He starts a campfire and even makes a pot of coffee for his father. A random lobster boat in the distance ignores Bobby’s towel-waving call for help. Doug begins to consider the fact that he may not make it. He has a brief father-to-son talk with Bobby, making him promise to always take care of his mother. Bobby is the more optimistic of the two. He believes that his mother will make it back in time. Doug isn’t quite as hopeful, but maintains a calm demeanor so as not to appear frantic.

Lawson drives to a remote barn-like structure, planning to hold up there long enough for the heat to die down. Helen’s mind is spinning a mile a minute; her womanhood may be the only way out. Strolling seductively over to Lawson, she removes a cigarette from his shirt pocket, lights it and leans against the car, blowing smoke almost suggestively in the air. Lawson is caught off-guard, and the physical distraction allows Helen to fill his head with the idea of stealing her husband’s identity. Naturally, he’d have to go back to the beach to get the identification. To quickly overshadow any hesitance he may have, she states: “I’d do anything to save my husband’s life, anything”. Lawson kisses her, and what happens next, though obviously not shown, is understood. But does any of it matter? Why would Lawson, a criminal with no heart, make good on a promise to help save Doug? How else could Doug ever escape an almost certain death? What will happen to Bobby if his father is killed? Who is in the worst jeopardy?

It’s rare that an actor with third-billing would heavily influence a film. But, Ralph Meeker, as Lawson, was like spice on a dramatic recipe. Until he appeared at the abandoned store, the plot was simple and straightforward. Had he been just an additional character with honest intentions, Jeopardy may have become a documentary on how to handle a crisis at the beach. Thankfully (or unfortunately), he was an offensive sociopath with absolutely nothing good to say about life. Meeker’s only real films of note prior to Jeopardy were The Naked Spur, a 1953 western with Jimmy Stewart and Janet Leigh and a 1952 musical with Betty Hutton, Somebody Loves Me. There is debate as to which film was his first, 1951’s Teresa or a Swiss film the same year titled Vier im Jeep, Die (meaning “Four in a Jeep”). Most audiences will remember Meeker for the 1955 Mickey Spillane classic Kiss Me Deadly. The Lawson character was stereotypical, yet unpredictable. There were moments throughout the film when his frustration leaked through the rough exterior. Struggling not to show a “human” side, he essentially fought himself. It’s not unusual to see a criminal fall to pieces under the weight of his/her misdeeds. It is, however, interesting to watch them deny it. Lawson spent a great deal of the film in denial, trying to ignore his subtle impulses towards normalcy. Barbara Stanwyck receives top billing and rightfully so. Granted, Jeopardy didn’t allow her as much of an opportunity to expand, but the role of Helen Stilwin wasn’t the expandable type. Helen is like America’s housewife. She has a stash of witty comments and snappy dialogue but she’s essentially subservient to her husband. It was on-par with the time period. This was the 1950s and housewives were as abundant as soda jerks. She did exhibit fastidiousness, however, with the way in which she handled the plight of being against the wall. It took a certain amount of composure to play Helen, but it also took restraint. Stanwyck had to be careful not to let her natural independence control a less-independent character. As Doug, Barry Sullivan was like the precursor to a Father Knows Best episode. He’s everything you might expect in a family man. It’s easy to imagine him as a pillar of the community, so it’s ironic that he would become trapped underneath one. The majority of Sullivan’s role is spent sitting in a puddle, giving life lessons to his son while waiting to be rescued. It doesn’t sound like much, but there had to be at least one weak link in the character chain to craft a successful drama. It certainly is no detriment to Sullivan’s performance. Next to Stanwyck, he’d had the longest career, his first film being 1937’s Dime a Dance. Interestingly enough, Stanwyck starred in a 1931 film titled Ten Cents a Dance.

On Video

Jeopardy was released on DVD in 2007 as part of the Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection. As previously mentioned, the film runs a mere 69 minutes, barely breaking the one-hour mark. There is a nice bonus feature included: a radio adaptation of the film with the stars reprising their roles. The film’s trailer is also included. Warner Bros. did a good job, presentation-wise. The video and audio are both crisp. For a film well over 50 years old, it feels like a new experience. Jeopardy is included as part of a split-disc, that is, two films on the same DVD. The other film is To Please a Lady, pairing Stanwyck with Clark Gable.

Conclusion

This isn’t about trivia and Alex Trebec is nowhere to be seen. This kind of jeopardy preys on real life. If you’ve ever had the feeling of being lost, being unaware, or even being uncomfortable, this film speaks to your fears. It isn’t meant to be terrifying, so it’s not. It wasn’t made to be explosive, and it isn’t. But, it does run like a burning wick. The only thing needed is a timer counting down in the corner of the screen. What begins as Barbara Stanwyck’s soothing narration becomes a family’s nightmare and a viewer’s dream.

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