Monday, September 11, 2017

Barbara's in Jeopardy

The Stilwin family, Helen (Barbara Stanwyck), Doug (Barry Sullivan), and son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are in a deserted area of  Mexico to enjoy a long anticipated camping expedition. But when an accident places Doug in Jeopardy (1953), it's up to Helen to find assistance before the rising tide drowns her husband. There is, however, a complication - an escaped murderer (Ralph Meeker as Lawson) is in the area, and will stop at nothing to get away. 

The poster art for the film is rather peculiar. Yes, Helen does end up in jeopardy, but there are two people in real danger. The posters make it look as though the title of the film is A Woman in Jeopardy, when it is not.  This, of course, does make the art a bit more lascivious, but it doesn't prepare the viewer for the real story.

We were a little taken aback that Doug would bring his family to such a remote and really dangerous area, especially since they are in a country where none of them speak the language (Doug does have a modicum of Spanish). The conversations between Doug and Helen, however, remind us that this was an area in which Doug spent some happy times during the second World War, fishing with his army buddies. We can assume that, after facing combat, Doug found the isolation of this area attractive, and he remembers it colored by his other thoughts about his time in the service.

Barry Sullivan is quite good as Doug - you may shake your head at his decision to take his family to such an odd vacation locale, but you cannot doubt his regard for his wife nor his love for his son. Sullivan's scenes with young Lee Aaker are especially moving; as Doug loses hope of Helen's timely return, he begins to carefully prepare the boy for his death. Sullivan does it tactfully, and without any self-pity. It's a picture of a good father wanting what is best for his boy.
Mr. Sullivan was particularly complementary about Ms. Stanwyck in the film, stating that "of the films I did with Miss Stanwyck only Jeopardy sticks in my mind as having any merit, but all three occasions (the others were The Maverick Queen and Forty Guns) cling to my memory as fun experiences."  Part of the credit for the success of the film goes to director John Sturges, who enticed Ms. Stanwyck back from a one-year attempt at retirement. (TCM article)

There was a great deal of discussion about Ralph Meeker, who presents an interesting and complicated character. Two of our members wondered if providing a backstory for Lawson would have been beneficial. What did he do? Why was he in Mexico? I'm convinced it would not have added anything. We know Lawson is a murderer. We see a dead man that he killed, and we see him shoot a police officer. That, for me, was enough. By the end (no spoilers on this one), we do have to look at Lawson as a human being rather than just a malevolent villain. Lawson is a complex individual who you won't like but will appreciate.
Lee Aaker, who is very good as Bobby, had a relatively short film and television career. He's probably best remembered today for his role as Corporal Rusty in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959). Many of his film roles were uncredited (like A Lion is in the Streets (1953)), but he also had the role of Red Chief in "The Ransom of Red Chief" segment of  O. Henry's Full House. When acting roles were not available to him any longer (as so frequently happens to child actors), he went into the production arena. He finally left Hollywood, settling in Mammoth Lakes, California.
Based on a radio play A Question of Time (AFI catalog), the film was expanded a bit, but is still relatively short - 69 minutes, which affords the film a lot of tension. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not impressed by the film; regardless it did well at the box office. In 1954, Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Sullivan reprized their roles in a 48 minute broadcast.

In a recent introduction on TCM's Noir Alley (to Stawyck's Crime of Passion), Eddie Muller called Ms. Stanwyck "greatest actress in the history of motion pictures." He went on to say:
Not only did Ms. Stanwyck possess the greatest range of any movie actress, being equally adept at screwball comedy and gut-wrenching drama, she could easily lay claim to being the most essential actress in the development of film noir. After all, dark crime thrillers were not really a movement until Stanwyck created a sensation as the duplicitous  Phyllis Dietrickson in 1944’s Double Indemnity. At that time she was the highest paid woman in the USA and the box office success of that film was the single most critical factor in the rise of what would later be called film noir.  And she didn’t stop there; during the 10 years following Double Indemnity, she could lay claim to the title The Queen of Film Noir: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong NumberThe Two Mrs. Carrolls, The File on Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own, Witness to Murder,  as well as noir-stained dramas like The Lady Gambles, Clash by Night, and Jeopardy. Stanwyck took a long Walk on the Wild Side. For years however, few of those films were mentioned when experts talked about film noir. The reason is simple. Film scholars were mostly men and they rarely felt a female protagonist fit the mold they’d established for film noir.  No one, man or woman, portrayed this angst and agony better than Barbara Stanwyck.
Thank you, Mr. Muller for saying so eloquently what we've been attesting to in our own modest way about this most glorious of actresses.  We'll leave you with this opening scene for the film.

2 comments:

  1. I find the movie a fine and tense character study. I like to compare Sullivan's good guy hubby in this to his psycho spouse in Cause for Alarm! In fact, I just like to watch Barry Sullivan.

    The movie group may want to seek out a first season episode of The Big Valley entitled By Force and Violence which places Victoria Barkley in a situation not dissimilar to Helen's plight in Jeopardy.

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    1. I'll see if I can find it. Thanks. I can't say I myself am a huge Barry Sullivan fan, but when he is good, he is a powerful actor.

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