Jeopardy (1953) John Sturges

“Jeopardy” is a terrific little thriller from MGM, cheaply made, did okay at the box office and disappeared without much fanfare. MGM known for its lavish and expensive musicals also had a small unit that produced low budget films, programmers, product to keep pumping out to theaters. With a small budget and stars who were no longer at the top of their career the studio was able to put out some decent films that turned a profit. “Jeopardy” falls nicely into this category.

A typical American family is driving down to Mexico for a vacation. Let’s remember this is 1953, post-war America, the Eisenhower years, folks were glad the war years were over and enjoying the open roads, the country’s super highways. Barbara Stanwyck’s narration in the film alludes to this as well as to the unknown trouble that lies ahead.  The destination is an isolated beach area her husband, Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan) went fishing there years ago with former Army buddies.  The rest of  the family consists of wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker).

The first stop is Tijuana but from there it is a long ride to the isolated beach some 400 miles south on the Baja peninsula. When they first arrive young Bobby goes exploring on a pier that has been condemned (only the condemned sign is in Spanish and we do not find out the meaning of the word until it is too late). Bobby gets his foot stuck in between two boards and Dad has to go out on the pier and pry his son’s foot loose. On the way back one of the weaker boards gives way and Dad falls, a piling pinning his foot underneath. Unable to get him loose and with the tide beginning to come in, Helen, panic stricken, is forced to take the car and go for help hopefully getting back before the tide comes in drowning Doug.

Not knowing any Spanish, unfamiliar with the terrain and half hysterical Helen drives wildly searching for help. She meets some locals walking down the road but the language barrier prohibits any communication and she drives off frantically still in search of help.  She comes upon a roadside gas station but the place seems deserted. She breaks in looking for a heavy rope or some other material that would help free her husband.  Suddenly, a man appears standing by her car, he’s an American and she tells him her tale. He instantly agrees to help her; they jump into her car and take off. As they drive away, the camera,remaining behind at the gas station, slowly moves over revealing a dead body lying on the ground. The supposed good Samaritan is Lawson (Ralph Meeker) a half psychotic escaped prisoner.  He isn’t interested in helping Helen and her husband as much as using the car to get away from the Mexican police. To make Helen’s situation even more desperate he finds a pistol in the glove compartment, one Helen’s husband packed for shooting practice.

The remainder of this short (69 minutes) film becomes a duel between Helen, a woman determined and willing to do anything to save her husband and the crazed Lawson (the film hints that she agrees to a sexual encounter), who mocking her fears that her husband may die at one point tells her to “stop it, you’re making me cry, I’m a very sensitive guy.”

Stanwyck is always at her best when she combines vulnerability and toughness which she does so well here, but the real revelation is Ralph Meeker (who incidentally replaced Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway). Best known as Mike Hammer in the classic Robert Aldrich film “Kiss Me, Deadly,” here he just about steals the entire film in what has to be one of his best and juiciest roles. It was a good year for Meeker, he also had a role in Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur.”

As exciting as Meeker is in his role, Barry Sullivan is just as dull. He has the less fortunate part of the husband who for most of the film is stuck under the pile with the tide coming in, the waves crashing up against him harder and harder. Actually it is not so much Sullivan’s talent that is at fault as it is the role itself.  Lee Aaker who plays the young son Bobby is best remembered by baby boomers as Rusty in the TV series “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” that began filming the following year and ran for five years.

Though the film was set in Mexico, the Yucca Valley and an area near Laguna Beach were substituted for the Baja Peninsula. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli who wrote such fine thrillers as “The Spiral Staircase,” “Cause for Alarm,” “The Window” and “Beware, My Lovely.” Directed by John Sturges on a very small budget,  He would within two years go on to make his first great classic, “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

Notice in both the poster and the insert how in the advertising of this film they allude to Stanwyck’s character having sex with the killer Lawson with phrases like “she did it…because her fear was greater than her shame!”  and “she did it…and no woman in the world would blame her”

“Jeopardy” is a fine thriller without ever reaching the level of greatness, but you will not be bored.

***1/2

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17 comments on “Jeopardy (1953) John Sturges

  1. I never expected to hear about this one again, John. When I was but a wee lad at a Saturday matinee in the Riviera Theatre, one of those posh ’20s palaces by then a bit run down,the sight of the waves threatening again and again to drown Barry Sullivan held my hypnotized with suspense. I also recall vividly Barbara Stanwyck’s larger-than-life hysteria. The immediacy of everything in the story was, I think, what made me begin to love movies so fervently. Strange, really, to think back on that afternoon. It’s almost as if that boy I was then is now a ghost, no longer in existence, but somehow capable of emerging from the darkness at the most unexpected times.

    • John Greco says:

      Dave,

      Similarly, I find that there are some old movies I saw as a kid when viewing them many years later have a way of transporting you back in time yet, it seems life another life time. Thanks for sharing!

  2. R. D. Finch says:

    John, TCM just aired this and I watched it last night. I can’t say I responded quite as positively to the film as you did, but I did find it fairly entertaining. For me the movie didn’t really come to life until about half way through when Ralph Meeker walked in. You were sure right about him being as electrifying as Sullivan was dull! In those days Sullivan often seemed to be cast in thankless roles opposite older, ballsy women like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Stanwyck. Stanwyck seemed rather confined playing the dutiful wife and mother, started to come into her own when the movie hit the “damsel in distress” mode, and really sizzled in her scenes with Meeker. She really needed direct conflict (especially with a male) to bring out the forceful quality in her acting, and she and Meeker played off each other beautifully. The biggest surprise for me was that this was an MGM production, but then by that time Dore Schary was head of the studio, and he did come from RKO, which was THE film noir studio.

    • John Greco says:

      R.D.
      The second half definitely raises the bar on this film. Stanwyck and Meeker duel it out while old Barry Sullivan puts you to sleep. The MGM banner is surprising but they did do their share of low-budget thrillers and crime films. Thanks again!!!

  3. She sure was in a lot of films back then.

    Never saw this one but it does sound like it’s worth a look see.

    These old B/W films are like watching a travelogue sometimes.

    Cheers and Thanks for stopping by!

    • John Greco says:

      CM,
      One of the things I like about older films is the “travelogue” aspect. I do not think at the time the filmmakers realized it that they were capturing moments in time that would soon be gone for good. Thanks again for stopping by.

  4. john streby says:

    One of the notable aspects of this film is that it was made on a small budget, and unlike so much of what is coming out today, doesn’t rely on special effects, rampant property destruction, ghosts, spirits, or other contrivances. I saw it many years ago and I’m sorry that I missed the TCM showing mentioned above, but let’s hope that Osborne & Co. re-air it a few more times. It deals realistically with ordinary people caught in a situation not of their making, and what the story lacks in terms of grandiosity is more than compensated for by the sense that what happened to them could happen to you or me just as easily. I am sure that my remarks date me but I pride myself for having an appreciation for film noir, classical music, legitimate art(by that I mean to exclude Andy Warhol)and other meritorious forms of entertainment. My thanks go to those corporate entities, MGM and Turner among them
    (along with Sony,who owns the entire Columbia Records library, and has been most generous in reissuing important recordings of the past 80 years, unlike RCA Victor, which has been relatively stingy
    with music lovers craving for pristine reissues), who have made it possible to enjoy and collect the treasures of the past. As long as I’m pontificating, to Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston, who just got married—you’ve done the world a favor by not creating a narcissistic side show that would rival the LeBron James spectacle. Please don’t blow it by starting your own reality TV show. Yes, times have changed a great deal, and not always for the better, but I thank people like John Greco for helping to enable discriminating movie lovers to communicate with others of the same persuasion. For my comments on how a scene from “The Asphalt Jungle” helped inspire a chapter in my just-completed novel, refer to the Twenty Four Frames blog on that great flick, which reminds me—just as Ralph Meeker couldn’t have played Dix Handley as well as Sterling Hayden did, Hayden would have been miscast in the part played by Meeker in “Jeopardy.” Casting isn’t just a matter of having top talent, but the right man or woman for each part. Ciao.

    • John Greco says:

      John,

      Again I thank you for your comments. You hit a important point when you say how this kind of incident could happen to anyone. I think that is part of whay makes this film impressive. There is nothing out of the ordinary that happens just some bad luck on the part of the family.

      If only Universal would start opening up their film library like Turner and others have….thanks again!

  5. [...]  John Greco continues his prolific run at Twenty Four Frames with a superlative essay on John Sturges’s Jeopardy, that’s a must-read: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/jeopardy-1953-john-sturges/ [...]

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    Terrific comment thread here John, for a film that may not be quite so worthy, though it’s solid enough. One thinks of John Sturges as the director of the superlative western BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (ok I just noticed you broached it) and off screenwriter Minelli, whose work on THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE particularly is most memorable. Stanwyck rarely misses the mark, and I did indeed just see Meeker in THE NAKED SPUR. Ha!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, I just rewatched THE NAKED SPUR myself. All this talk of Mann over at WitD got me an itch I just had to satisfy (lol).

  7. Christine says:

    I caught this on TCM (Australia) last night and really loved it. I felt it had quite a modern feel – a low budget movie that felt more like a clever indie than a B-movie. The type of premise is one that has been popular in recent cinema, one that plays out in nearly real time with a lot of ‘still’ action (someone being trapped somewhere) and which could theoretically be quite boring but from which much suspense is actually extracted, as well as fascinating moral dilemmas.
    Thanks for your great article on the film!

  8. Glenn Lovell says:

    If you haven’t already done so,consult my “Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges” for the most complete appraisal, production history of this film. For sale at

    http://amzn.to/fMRNMh

    • John Greco says:

      Glenn,

      I have the book and it is one of two I am currently reading (The other is Conversations with Scorsese). Sturges is an underrated director and glad to see him get this attention. I love the details in the book.

  9. Sam Juliano says:

    I well remember Meeker’s performance in THE NAKED SPUR John, and you do rightly assert that his work here is the best of his career. This would certainly appeal to those who favor low budget films from this period but also for Barbra Stanwyck completists and those who appreciate John Sturges. Sullivan is competent, but lacks charisma. Beautifully penned and fascinating review, which serves as a reminder for those to investigate the films that for one reason or another may have escaped the radar.

    It’s available as part of a double feature from Warners, inexpensively:

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