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.