double bill at the 17th Annual Noir City Film Festival began with the very enjoyable WITNESS TO MURDER (1954), then continued with the suspense film JEOPARDY (1953).
Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan play Helen and Doug Stilwin, who as the movie begins are driving south into Mexico for a fishing trip with their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker). They plan to camp on a deserted piece of coastline Doug had visited once before.
Plans quickly go awry when an old pier collapses, trapping Doug's leg. Helen needs to go for help -- including a sturdy rope that can hopefully be tied to their car to move the lumber and free Doug, before the tide rises and Doug drowns (!).
Things go from bad to worse when Helen thinks she's found a young man (Ralph Meeker) who can help them, but it turns out he's a murderer on the run from the Mexican police. Talk about having a bad day!
JEOPARDY is a short, fast-paced movie, clocking in at a brisk 69 minutes. From my perspective it was a good thing it was short, as I couldn't have stood the tension any longer!
I can't say I really enjoyed the storyline of this one very much -- could it be any more heartbreaking when the dad is hesitantly trying to make clear to his little boy that he might not be around in the future? -- but it did have some memorable moments, chief among them the surprising scene where Stanwyck turns seductive on Meeker in order to obtain his cooperation to save her husband's life.
I also wondered about things such as when Stanwyck was having trouble communicating her need for a rope to some rural Mexicans, why didn't she try asking them for the police? There had been some in the area who might have been able to help. Or she might have tried asking them to come with her. But if she'd tried harder to bridge the language gap and obtain their help I guess there might not have been a movie!
Stanwyck and Sullivan do a good job presenting a portrait of a happy marriage in a short time frame, and indeed, it's one of Sullivan's more appealing performances; when he's in a movie you never know whether he'll be a hero or villain. I did think his character chose a rather odd vacation spot to take his wife and son, being so extremely remote (and probably not an outhouse in sight), but of such things movies are made. He was clearly a good dad and husband, and it's a nice performance.
Young Lee Aaker is a particularly good child actor; he's previously been seen in films such as THE ATOMIC CITY (1952) and HONDO (1953).
Incidentally, differences in child rearing over the last few decades are particularly apparent in this film, as Bobby climbs from the backseat to the front of a moving car, with nary a seatbelt in sight, and waves around a handgun. Such little moments reflecting the culture of the day added to the film's interest.
JEOPARDY was directed by John Sturges. The screenplay was by Mel Dinelli, from a story by Maurice Zimm. The movie was filmed in black and white by Victor Milner, with location work in California's Pioneertown.
As a side note, the movie's publicity stills are amusing; in some shots Meeker's holding a gun on Sullivan, with Stanwyck not looking too worried, but there's also a photo of Sullivan holding the gun on Meeker and Stanwyck!
JEOPARDY is available on DVD in the Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection.
Update: In a nice coincidence, Colin just wrote about JEOPARDY at Riding the High Country.