The Irrepressible Miss Stanwyck: Jeopardy (1953)
When I hear the word “jeopardy”, a few things comes to mind, but I’m guessing that director John Sturges didn’t have either the Trebeck hosted game show, the hit by the Greg Kihn Band, or the subsequent parody by Weird Al on his mind. More than likely because these things were not even invented yet because if they were it surely would have been all he could think of. If you haven’t guessed by now, today’s film is Jeopardy from 1953, and it is the inaugural post in the second new feature in August, The Irrepressible Miss Stanwyck. My love for Miss Stanwyck is deep and unabated by the passage of time. I love her tough gal characters, always with a soft, sensitive center, and no matter if she’s doing romance, action, drama, or comedy, Stanwyck always gave it her all. Sadly, in four years I’ve only got to take a look at two of her films here at The Lair, the Sam Fuller (also a feature holder for this month) weird Western 40 Guns and the Christmas flavored Remember the Night. So over the next few weeks, I hope you enjoy my look back at Babs. First up, a movie where Stanwyck would do anything for love, and yeah, I think she would do that.
Helen and Doug Stilwin (Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan) are on their way to vacation at a nice little private beach along the coastline of Mexican Baha. Everything looks like it’s going to be a wonderful trip full of fishing and relaxing in the sands, but when Doug gets caught under a timber fallen off of a ramshackle dock, Helen must go for help. This proves to be quite a chore. As she doesn’t speak the language (or even attempt to remember correctly the word for “rope” that her husband tells her), she is turned away several times before she arrives at an abandoned gas station. Busting out a window to get a rope, she finds the station isn’t as deserted as she thought. An escaped convict, Lawson (Ralph Meeker) takes Helen and her car and refuses to go back to help Helen’s husband. Soon it becomes apparent that she can’t escape the thug, and it leaves her no choice but to offer up her body as a final bargaining chip to keep her husband alive.
During Jeopardy’s most pivotal moment, Stanwyck, while being menaced by Ralph Meeker, cries out, “I’ll do anything to save my husband.”, and by anything, you know she means anything. I guess it’s just a good thing that she existed in 1953 and not 2012 or who knows what kind of sick stuff she would have had to do. As much as I love Babs, I have no desire to see her with a ball gag in her mouth or with any amount of cups. The implication is that Helen gives up the nookie to save Doug, and for the rest of the film, in voiceover, Barbara’s Helen justifies it to herself saying that any woman would do the same. So I thought I would check this theory out. I asked my wife if I was trapped under a heavy timber, and your only choice was to have sex with an escaped convict in order to save me would you do it? She started talking about levers and other methods she could use to get me out. So I guess not every wife would give up the Ill Na Na to save her betrothed. As an exercise, I turned the situation around in my mind, but it didn’t seem to be as much of a quandary, as escaped female prisoners who wanted to sex me up just sounded good and not harrowing.
While Helen is up for making the ultimate sacrifice to save her husband, Stanwyck’s character is not nearly as tough as I would have liked to see. In fact, when her husband gets trapped she gets a patronizing speech about staying calm and gladly accepts it. Thankfully, after being kidnapped, a sea change comes over the character, and the quiet ruthless planner begins to emerge, a far cry from the home maker determined to set up her kitchen on the beach. So this character goes 50/50. For the first half of Jeopardy (which takes far too long with only a 75 minute running time), Babs is the picture of the ‘50s housewife, but pushed to extremes, the tough broad I know and love shone through. There’s little to be said for the performance of Barry Sullivan. Apart from being pinned down by a timber and pounded with waves from what must have been one of the worst location shoots ever, Sullivan’s character never amounts to much. He has a few touching scenes with his movie son Lee Asker, Rusty from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, but they are melodramatic and forgettable. Sullivan would later appear again with Stanwyck in Fuller’s 40 Guns. Ralph Meeker, who played Mike Hammer in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, is the best of the bunch. His convict is sleazy, mean, and merciless, the perfect foil for Stanwyck’s desperate wife.
Director John Sturges would go on to make classic films such as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Bad Day at Black Rock among many others. In comparison, Jeopardy seems like a minor affair. While keeping the cast low and the suspense high as possible, Sturges creates a feel and tone for the film, but there is never any real tension that somehow the husband will drown to death and leave their kid alone on the beach. Jeopardy also took a long time getting to the titular situation. This meant that almost half the film was spent crossing the border, driving down Baha way, and setting up camp. While perhaps the idea was to build suspense because the viewer knew something had to happen sometime, it came so late in the film that I had nearly lost interest in the couple’s playful bickering and everyday actions. Even the one real note of suspense, a gun the husband has in the car, falls flat due to the ham-fisted foreshadowing surrounding it.
For the Barbara Stanwyck fan, Jeopardy is nearly indispensable viewing with Babs showing up in nearly every scene, narrating the film, and being the pivotal character. However, if you’re looking for Hitchcockian suspense, then there are plenty of Hitchcock films to look at so why where you looking here? You won’t find it. Instead, you will get a story that plays out by the numbers, and the numbers all seem to go in exact order. Well, that brings us to the end of this first installment of The Irrepressible Miss Stanwyck. I’ll be back each and every Monday with another film featuring Babs. In the meantime, coming up Wednesday, I have my first film in the Sam Fuller feature Fuller Himself, on Friday there will be a choice horror cut, and then Saturday I’m back with more anti-Mayberry Andy with the second feature in The Other Andy. So come back and check out that and more as The Lair celebrates its fourth anniversary!
I couldn't find a trailer, but here is the scene where Stanwyck's character meets the
desperate Ralph Meeker.