Jeopardy

You’re smart… honest. I like smart women. They got cat in ’em.

Current trends in cinema indicate that audiences prefer ever-increasing running times, or at least the major studios seem to interpret it that way. In terms of minutes spent in front of the screen, you could definitely say you’re getting your money’s worth out of a movie these days. But is it really possible to reduce the worth of a movie, or any piece of art for that matter, to such crude terms? I’m fine with long films if the story or its telling merits the added time. The problem though is that this is rarely the case; simple stories are padded to the point they lose their edge, and true epics no longer as potent. It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time filmmakers knew that quality and quantity were not equal partners, that it was unnecessary to tie them together in a marriage of inconvenience. Today, let’s look at Jeopardy (1953), a movie that does all it needs to do in under seventy minutes.

There’s something wholesome and reassuring about family vacations, especially the hard-earned ones. Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan), along with his wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker), are driving south to get away from it all the stresses and strains of life. They’re heading to Mexico, to a deserted fishing cove Doug remembers visiting with an old army buddy, and everything seems right with the world. As they cross the border and move away from the big towns Helen’s narration catches some of the optimistic flavor of the early 50s – there’s an air of domestic contentment, but there’s an edge to her voice at times that warns of a tale which will take a twist before it runs its course. We get the odd hint of an undercurrent of tension  – Doug doesn’t like being told what to do and Helen is obviously not a woman to be undervalued – but the first real sense of danger comes when the family encounters a police roadblock. The reason for the spot check becomes apparent later. For the time being, things couldn’t be better – Doug finds his secluded beach and the family settle down to relax in glorious solitude. However, to borrow from another noir narrator, fate has put its finger on this particular group of people. While exploring the old jetty, Bobby gets his foot stuck in the decaying timbers and his father has to go and free him. It’s at this point that everything, quite literally, falls apart. The upshot is that Doug finds himself trapped in the shallows by a fallen pile, and the tide is rising. With all attempts to extricate him coming to nothing, Doug convinces Helen to drive back to the last settlement they passed in search of help. Reluctantly, she does so, leaving Bobby behind to keep him company. What she encounters though is Lawson (Ralph Meeker), the object of the aforementioned police dragnet. As the water level rises, and Helen’s sense of desperation matches it, we learn exactly how far a woman is prepared to go to save the life of the man she loves.

I’ve commented before on how there’s something very attractive about John Sturges’ work in the 50s, which is not to say I dislike the bigger, and more ambitious films he made in the years to come. I feel he was at his best in the 50s though; there’s a tightness, a kind of taut economy, in his filmmaking during that period. Jeopardy is a straightforward and direct story – there’s no explanation of who Lawson is or what precisely he’s wanted for, but a handful of telling shots let the audience know all that’s necessary about his character and the things he’s capable of. Time is of the essence for the man trapped on the beach, and Sturges never once lets go of that sense of urgency. The almost constant use of motion – the crashing waves, Helen’s chaotic drive to the settlement, and Lawson’s similarly frantic journey back – offer no respite from the tension. Not a moment is wasted, nor a word uttered superfluously. In visual terms, Sturges was as fine an exponent of the wide screen process as it’s been my pleasure to see. While this film was framed for, or at least is presented in, Academy ratio, the director’s spatial awareness and composition is always in evidence. The high, objectifying angles increase the sense of isolation of the characters in a barren and hostile environment, and the close-ups catch every twitch of emotion on their faces.

Barbara Stanwyck was in her mid-40s when she made Jeopardy, and showing few signs of relinquishing her grip on leading roles. By this stage she’d had plenty of experience playing tough broads who knew their way round the world and were capable of giving as good as they got. Unlike similarly strong actresses like Bette Davis or, more especially, Joan Crawford, whom I often find off-putting, Stanwyck retained that toughness without descending into hardness. While she worked in a variety of genres, there was an edge and earthiness which made her a good fit for westerns and thrillers. Jeopardy gave her top billing and plenty to get her teeth into – the painful decisions circumstances have forced her into making are never shied away from and her reactions to them remain entirely credible. Barry Sullivan would go on to make another two movies with Stanwyck – most notably Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns – and he worked well with her on screen. The film has no shortage of high drama and thus needed a strong, stable presence to anchor it all. Sullivan is very good as the man used to taking charge and calling the shots, who’s reduced to helplessness. Even so he’s stoic throughout, and his interaction with Lee Aaker (who also appeared in Hondo the same year) is genuinely touching at times. Just the other day I saw Ralph Meeker described, not at all disparagingly, as “a poor man’s Brando”, and I can see how that could be the case. He had the kind of brutal machismo that made him a terrific and interesting Mike Hammer a few years later in Kiss me Deadly, and he has ample opportunity to show that off here. I think it’s also worth noting that even in a film as lean and pared down as Jeopardy, Meeker’s character still has the chance to earn redemption by the end.

Jeopardy was released on DVD in the US some years ago as part of a Stanwyck box set, and the disc was also available individually. It shares that disc space with To Please a Lady, and the transfer is quite good. The print is generally sharp, clean and without damage. The theatrical trailer is provided as an extra along with the radio adaptation of the story. I’m very partial to sparse, brisk storytelling, even more so nowadays as it seems to have become something of a lost art; men like John Sturges knew how to do it well, and Jeopardy is a solid example of that.

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52 thoughts on “Jeopardy

    • It’s a cracking little movie that just zips along, and Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses. The short running time and self-contained cast work really well here.

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          • There are those stars, like Stanwyck, Wayne and now Eastwood, who seem to have extraordinarily long careers as major stars one way or another – 50 years more or less at the top, working continuously, is just amazing (in any field).

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            • Absolutely, and much harder for women to achieve I think, even now. I really admire the way Stanwyck stayed on top of her game for so many years, and the way she moved seamlessly into television, again with great success.

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              • I agree completely – I’m not sure I would have liked her (her politics for one thing) but I admire her tremendously – and I think she was a better and more versatile actress than say Joan Crawford.

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                • I don’t know an awful lot about her outside of her screen work, and her marriage to Robert Taylor – but I generally don’t concern myself much with the “reality” of many stars. For example, while I wouldn’t sympathize with John Wayne’s hawkish politics, it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of his screen work.
                  Crawford, and to a lesser extent Davis, is someone I cannot warm to – her screen persona is just a total turn-off for me.

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                    • I find Davis far more watchable than Crawford. She was a better actress in my opinion and could earn my sympathy much more easily – Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a lovely piece of work, for example. And her earlier roles had a lot of variation. Crawford, on the other hand, always had what I can only term a kind of cold artificiality, and it doesn’t really do anything for me.

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                    • I agree completely – time has been less kind to Crawford’s type of star. Davis was always mostly an actress first and a star second, though she could certainly ham it up with the best of them!

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  1. Always liked this film. Both Stanwyck and Meeker and to a lesser extent Sullivan are actors I always enjoy seeing. As to the short running time I sometimes wonder if the film had issues and it was trimmed down in the editing stage along the lines of Huston’s Red Badge? Though it works great.
    Thanks for the link over to Shadow In the Sky.

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    • You’re very welcome, Mike. I can’t say I noticed any of the tell-tale editing or continuity signs that point to trims. i reckon it’s just lean and pared down, which is no bad thing in my view.

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  2. Watched this tense film a couple months ago and found it a small, but well-done film. I wondered how many days did it take to shoot Sulllivan’scenes trapped as the tide is rising, with the child actor. Very well done scenes, too, as we know Sullivan could drown right there with his son looking on.

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    • Yes, she’s wholly believable in her determination to keep her family alive and together – it’s the kind of role that’s perfectly suited to her abilities.

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  3. Excellent essay on a topnotch movie — many thanks!

    I share your feelings entirely on the bloatedness of far too many modern movies; I think in just the past three or four years, though, some of the commercial moviemakers have got the message, because it seems that a higher proportion of recent movies are more like 90 than the 120 minutes we’d come to expect.

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    • Thanks very much, John.
      I hope you’re right about filmmakers finally realizing that it’s how you tell a story rather than the amount of time the audience has to stay in the cinema watching it that matters most.

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  4. I know you have mentioned being busy with work, Colin, but it is great to see your writing more frequently again. With your assent, I wanted to share info about a new book that I think you and many of your fantastic commentators/followers would appreciate.

    The University of Arizona Press is set to release (on April 16th) a new film history/theory text entitled The Sagebrush Trail…it looks at the connection between Western films and American history & culture during the 20th century….I wrote about it at the link below and wanted to share with you/your readers:

    http://westernsreboot.com/2015/04/09/new-western-film-book-the-sagebrush-trail/

    Thanks very much,
    Chad
    http://westernsreboot.com/

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  5. “the poor man’s Brando.”

    I like Ralph Meeker much better than Marlon Brando and think he was a better actor because he was much more believable. Interestingly, Meeker took over the role of Stanley Kowalski on stage at some point and I’d rather have seen him in the movie because his brutishness would have been compelling while Brando is so plainly acting and seems kind of ridiculous to me. Well, OK I’m just not a Brando fan but glad to speak up for Meeker and enjoyed Mike spotlighting SHADOW IN THE SKY which I thought was pretty good.

    Meeker was especially good as swaggering masculine characters as with his signature movie role Mike Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY and close second best role as morally bankrupt Roy Anderson in THE NAKED SPUR (released close to JEOPARDY).

    Colin, I generally agree that less is more and pretty much agree about this in relation to Sturges as his generally taut 50s movies are best for me and I like all the Westerns he made then. Still, my favorite of all his films is THE GREAT ESCAPE made later and I guess I can’t reconcile that but despite its three hour length I don’t find it slack at any point and especially beautifully edited in the last hour.

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    • Hi, Blake. I’d much rather watch Meeker than Brando any day too, though others would no doubt disagree. In addition to the films you mention, I thought he was very good in another unsympathetic role in Fuller’s Run of the Arrow. Also, Revenge, alongside Vera Miles in the very first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, directed by Hitchcock himself.

      On Sturges and The Great Escape, I don’t think there’s any real contradiction there, and I share your fondness for the film. I think Sturges excelled at small scale films, but he handled large productions with equal ease, and The Great Escape is a good example of a film whose lengths is entirely appropriate given the nature of the story it’s telling.

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  6. Agree with so much said above – I don’t think there is a wasted frame or padded moment in “THE GREAT ESCAPE”. Perfect as made.
    Not a fan of Brando either.

    As to “JEOPARDY”, I re-watched it only recently and totally agree with your point about compactness, Colin. Again not a wasted moment. Sturges was a great craftsman from early on. I also really like his “MYSTERY STREET” (1950).
    The thing that struck me especially when watching recently was the subtle emergence of Stanwyck’s character’s inner strength as the film progresses. For the first section it is very clear that the husband is the head of the house, and this is totally believable. This man had been away at war only a few years earlier, probably as an officer, and used to making the decisions. She does not question this normal balance. However as Sullivan’s ability to act lessens her inner strength is needed and I find this change completely natural and believable. Fine movie acting by all the small cast, I think. Stanwyck is one of my favourite actresses and it is no surprise she had such a long and successful career.

    BTW, Colin, this current trend for films of unwarranted bloated lengths also applies to books (fiction), I find. For years a perfectly well-told story could be handled in 200 pages. Now it’s unlikely you will pick up any novel of under 500 pages! Has everyone forgotten that old “less is more” adage??

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    • I’d need to watch Mystery Street again, Jerry, as it’s been so long since I’ve seen it I don’t remember much about it.

      this current trend for films of unwarranted bloated lengths also applies to books (fiction), I find.
      I hear ya, Jerry! Huge doorstop books, telling relatively simple stories, have been a bugbear of mine for some time too.

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  7. I have not seen this before. After reading the above, I will look for it. I have always enjoyed most of the movies starring Barbara Stanwyck. Best regards.

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  8. I have been dying to offer a comment or two to your posts, but you keep doing stuff I haven’t seen!!!.

    I have never heard of this one, but I will be looking it up now, based on what you have said about it. My interest was piqued when you mention the name Ralph Meeker, because he is an actor who has always fascinated me. He’s usually no better than 2nd or 3rd billed (Kiss Me Deadly aside), but he somehow would still draw your attention. I think of his secondary role in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, where he was friendly and jovial. but somehow still managed to convey a vibe that he wasn’t to be trusted.

    Anyways, good write-up. I need to go out and find this movie now!

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    • Hello, Jeff. I’m happy I caught your attention with this one and also delighted to hear someone else putting in a good word for Ralph Meeker. It’s a pity he didn’t get top billing more often as he had good screen presence.

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  9. Colin, it’s a nice coincidence that I just saw this movie Sunday evening at the Noir City Film Festival. I wrote about it last evening and added a link to your post at the end this morning.

    I enjoyed your take, especially on Stanwyck’s emerging strength. The relationship of Sullivan and Stanwyck (and their son) was my favorite thing about the film, and you capture the gradual shift as the man who’s used to being in charge must sit while his wife acts. I did like the way he encouraged her in a little speech before she leaves — he may be used to giving the orders but he’s clearly got solid faith in his troops, so to speak (grin). It’s to the actors’ credit, along with the screenplay, that they create fully rounded characters and a relationship in a short running time.

    The brisk running time was a plus for me not least because the tension was such it was hard for me to completely relax and enjoy the movie! I especially find it hard when a child is in a tough situation but stuck with it as I felt all would have to end well. This wasn’t the first time Aaker played a child going through a hard experience — he was great in THE ATOMIC CITY, showing courage and nerve for a young child. Aaker was quite a good child actor, including in HONDO which you mention above.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  10. P.S. Want to add my thumbs up for MYSTERY STREET — have seen it a couple times and really like it a lot. Montalban and Bennett are a lot of fun to watch and there’s some nice Boston location work as well.

    Readers here might also be interested to know that the very enjoyable KID GLOVE KILLER, another “early CSI” film, is coming from the Warner Archive later this month. Marsha Hunt and Van Heflin, directed by Fred Zinnemann (his feature debut). Marsha Hunt said at a past Noir City Fest that Zinnemann and Jules Dassin were her favorite directors

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  11. Good mention, Laura! “KID GLOVE KILLER” is a terrific little B-movie. It has the MGM sheen and the performances, especially the always fine Heflin, are excellent. I think you will really like this one, Colin.

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  12. Colin

    As you point out, the short runtime here works in the films favor with no unneeded excess present. Stanwyck is always worth a gander imo as I have never see her do a bad bit of acting. Ralph Meeker is good here and director Sturges never takes his foot off the gas pedal the whole film. Love it.
    There is a neat series from 1959 called NOT FOR HIRE with Meeker as an Army investigator that is really very noir like. It plays out like a Private Eye type drama. It ran for 39 episodes. I ran across 7-8 episodes on You-tube a few years ago. I have write-ups on these 7-8 up. Check out the first episode, “The Soldier’s Story”. It is a hot to trot bit of television.
    Gord

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  13. Colin
    I do not know if you have seen it, but an early Sturges film worth a look is 1946’s SHADOWED. It was his second film if I recall and stars Lloyd Corrigan and a 17 year old Terry Moore. It is a neatly done crime film with noir elements that was put out by the COLUMBIA B- Unit. The d of p was Henry Freulich who worked on ” The Devil’s Mask”, “Chinatown at Midnight”, “Bunco Squad” and “Miami Story”. Review up needless to say.

    Gord

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    • No, Gord, that’s new to me. I’ll keep it in mind as I try to see as much of Sturges as I can. I’m very keen on his earlier work as a rule as I think he thrived on tighter situations.

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