Jeopardy (1953) is the kind of film that exists on a star’s filmography and gets overshadowed by bigger, better known fare. When you think about Barbara Stanwyck’s career, you immediately think of Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve or Baby Face. You don’t think about, because you probably don’t know about, a modestly budgeted film noir, even if it also stars well known actors like Barry Sullivan and Ralph Meeker.
I first came across Jeopardy not because of Stany, but because of Ralph Meeker, who I had seen and liked in Kiss Me, Deadly, which is undoubtedly his best known film. When I learnt that Barbara and Sullivan were also in the film, I knew I had to see it. But somehow I just never quite got around to it, and ended up watching other Barbara films for the first time, like The Purchase Price and Christmas In Connecticut, which are two of her films that I love.
So I thought that this Blogathon, which I am hosting in her honour, was the perfect time to review this little known gem. Jeopardy tells the story of an average American family, Helen and Doug Stilwin (played by Barbara and Barry Sullivan respectively), who are on holiday in Mexico with their young son, Bobby (played by Lee Aaker). The family leaves the bright, bustling tourist town of Tijuana, and head out into the isolated countryside in order to track down a broken-down old pier, where Doug used to fish when he was serving in the army during WWII. But tragedy strikes when Doug is stuck under a part of the old pier, and the tide begins to steadily come in.
It’s up to Helen to save Doug by going to get help, but all of her plans are seemingly derailed when she comes across not a Good Samaritan, but an escaped convict, Lawson (played by Ralph Meeker), who is instantly intent on not only using Helen to get away from the police, but also using her other ways.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film, based on a radio play I couldn’t find called “A Question of Time”, the movie clocks in at just over an hour. But through my classic film viewing I have come to learn very well how classic Hollywood managed to pack a lot of action into a short running time, and how it is often the “B” pictures with their small budgets and simple storylines that entertain you the most. And Jeopardy is no exception to this rule. Not for one moment are you bored, or do you feel that the film is treading–well–water. Barbara’s narration is used cleverly, introducing you to her character in a shorthand way that saves the film having to use its precious running time to establish her character. Through her thoughts you come to understand the realities of her marriage to Doug, as well as how brave she is in trying to get back to he and Bobby when Lawson seems intent on enacting other plans and desires.
Mel Dinelli, who wrote the screenplays for three other films I hold in very high regard, The Spiral Staircase, The House by the River and Beware, My Lovely, weaves another yarn that is tight, tense and action packed. There is one scene, among many well paced and tension filled ones, that I feel had me particularly nervous. Soon after Helen has realised that Lawson will not be helping her and is instead the dangerous criminal the police warn her about too late; the tyre on the family car goes due to the rough terrain and lack of properly paved roads. Lawson has to change it, and the suspense builds and builds as Helen firstly tries to figure out a way to incapacitate him whilst he’s distracted, and secondly as you, the audience, hope that the police may just come along at an opportune time. This scene has little to no dialogue, but Barbara and Meeker act out the scene with such palpable energy that there is no need for it. And it’s a testament to Dinelli’s skill as a writer that he realises that there is no necessity to bog down the scene with a lot of talking, but that the tension comes from Helen’s quiet bid to regain some control, and your knowledge as the viewer that Lawson is not only very dangerous, but intelligent and resourceful, too.
John Sturges’ direction is, as always, completely lacking in any fanfare. He knows exactly how to keep the fast pace of the film up without losing any of the important details. And through his lens, the Mexican landscape has never looked more devoid of human occupation and more deadly. The sun is as merciless as the situation that Helen and Doug find themselves in, and their surroundings watch them dispassionately as Doug’s time begins to steadily dwindle. As Helen attempts to plead with, bargain and then offer herself up to Lawson in order to save her husband, Sturges shows how Doug comes closer and closer to drowning. The waves eventually begin to cover him, and Bobby, unwilling to accept that his father will die, hangs onto his father, unknowingly adding to the physical burden that Doug must suffer as the water becomes more and more overwhelming.
Barry Sullivan, although not onscreen for very long periods of time, gives another excellent performance. Sullivan always had that believability as the all American male, with his easy manner, tall build and his strong New York accent. He and Stany make a very believable couple, even if they look like they’re slightly too old to have a young child. Sullivan never once tries to steal the film away from Barbara, and actually does much to anchor her performance when they’re in scenes together, which isn’t much, but which are very real when they are.
He also provides a great foil to the younger, more overtly sexual presence of Meeker, and the way he shows the growing fear of his character as death seems inevitable, is really something to behold. Doug tries to give Bobby a kind of talk in order to prepare the child for the fact that he probably isn’t going to make it, and Sullivan imbues this with so much emotion, even whilst he has to hold Aaker as the waves crash over them. It’s a truly exhausting performance in a film that couldn’t have been easy for any of the actors to shoot, and I really take my hat off to Sullivan for not sacrificing the emotional aspects of his performance for the physical ones.
But it’s really the combination of Ralph Meeker and Barbara that makes this film so strong. Their chemistry is exceptional right from the moment they first come together onscreen. Helen has gone to get help at the nearest petrol station, but Lawson has murdered the owner. Meeker appears, not saying a word, just letting Barbara’s desperate character believe that he is there to offer assistance. In the same strain as Beware, My Lovely and The Spiral Staircase, it’s all about mistaken identities, and the strange psychosexual desires that men with bent minds possess, and actually how easy it is for civilisation to disappear, and for men to act on their baser instincts and to make their own rules outside of the fabric of established society.
Meeker and Barbara’s onscreen chemistry and the way in which they brilliantly react to each other’s actions and character motivations, creates a fascinating interplay, which ensures that the audience is never entirely able to settle into preconceived notions. When Lawson makes advances towards Helen, it isn’t pleasant, but the manner in which both actors play out this scene means that there isn’t only revulsion. It’s a complex realisation of a woman trying to negotiate with a criminal who clearly desires her and is angry that she, understandably, doesn’t feel the same way about him.
But Ralph Meeker is incredibly attractive in the role, as is Barbara as Helen, and so, as usual, film noir fudges the lines about sexual chemistry and acceptable boundaries. It’s between Meeker and Stany that the signature sexual overtones of the genre are realised in Jeopardy, and although you absolutely want Doug to be saved, you also can’t help but find yourself rather fascinated by the fierce connection between Helen and Lawson. In the end, when Lawson is fleeing from the police, and Helen talks about how she’ll feel when she reads in the papers back home that he’s been caught and probably killed, some part of her will mourn him.
Jeopardy is a film that shows that Barbara gave her all in every film she was in, whether it was a prestige picture or a smaller, sleeper hit like this one. Not for a moment is she phoning her performance as Helen in, and it’s her who provides the emotional centre of the entire story. She is the only woman in the film, and yet the entire story belongs to her, because it is her actions that decide much of what happens. Like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Stany was never believable as the victim, and her role in this film reinforces that. Not for a moment is she a helpless, useless damsel in distress. She negotiates things as best she can, and the consequence of this is that in the end, she is victorious, as Lawson says to her as she holds her fading husband up in the crashing waves, she never gives up. And she doesn’t.
As I wrote previously, there is no doubt that this must have been an exhausting film to make, especially for Sullivan who spends much of it in rising water. But Barbara has to keep the level of emotional intensity at a fever pitch for most of the film, and she never falters. There’s not a moment where she relaxes or loses the believability of her performance. I think that if this film was made now, Barbara would’ve been a big hit on the independent awards circuit.
Overall, Jeopardy is a film that you absolutely have to seek out if you’re a fan of both Barbara and film noir. It’s a film that despite its relatively simple premise and short running time, stays with you for quite a while after you watch it. If you enjoy film noirs that take place in the wilderness, like On Dangerous Ground and Nightfall, then Jeopardy is definitely one that you’ll enjoy.
This is my first contribution to my blogathon dedicated to Stany. Please visit this post to read all of the wonderful entries by the other bloggers participating.