Jeopardy - 1953
Jeopardy - Released March 30, 1953. Directed by John Sturges
A simple vacation in Mexico for an American family (Barry Sullivan, Barbara Stanwyck and Lee Aaker) becomes a race against time when Dad (Sullivan) gets his foot trapped between a fallen pier pylon and granite with the tide soon to come in. Unable to get him free, Mom (Stanwyck) heads off in the family car into the countryside to find help to free her husband before water gets above his head. Bobby (the son played by Aaker) is left behind to try and watch over Dad.
Meanwhile, Ralph Meeker (as escaped killer named Lawson) has the Mexican police searching for him, and he comes across Stanwyck and pretends to be willing to help her free the trapped Husband, but he quickly turns the rescue trip into a kidnapping, intending to use the family car as an escape vehicle.
The challenge now becomes for Helen Stilwin (the wife played by Stanwyck) to somehow bend Lawson to her will to go to the isolated campsite and free her husband, and to not get herself killed in the process.
Director Sturges sets up the story in a sunny, breezy way, though the dialogue, narration and situation is mostly banal until the family reaches the deserted shoreline that is their goal. A dilapidated industrial fishing pier juts out into the cove where the family intends to camp on their vacation "in beautiful privacy" as Barry Sullivan puts it.
But it's that privacy which turns deadly and sends Stanwyck's character out into the Mexican countryside. She has barely a few words of Spanish at her command to explain the situation to bewildered Mexicans that she meets, and the helplessness of her situation adds to the mounting tension.
Sturges doesn't really dwell very long on his Mexican location, though, as most of the film is tied up with two main action scenes that unfold in parallel: Barry Sullivan slowly drowning as the water inches higher and higher to where he begins grooming his helpful son (Aaker) with encouraging words about how to live without a father; and Ralph Meeker and Barbara Stanwyck in a psychological duel as they duck the police and overcome various obstacles. This battle of wills reaches a point where Meeker's character has to make difficult choices, as does Stanwyck's.
Director Sturges makes the story tighten up considerably as we go along, and the tension of the situation plateaus then worsens when the criminal Lawson is finally at the shoreline, trying to get the nearly underwater and half-dead father free as waves come rolling in over his head, Helen's goal finally reached but now frustratingly thwarted with each attempt and idea ending in failure to free the trapped man.
Stanwyck moves the character of Helen Stilwin from an unassuming wife and mother into a determined, desperate and dangerous woman who is willing to go to any extreme to rescue her trapped family. Though Stanwyck headlines this movie (and with good reason), Meeker gives a slender but effective portrait of a reprobate criminal also in a desperate situation who finds a reason to throw in with the housewife. This relatively limited tale (it only has a 69 minute runtime) makes the most of a few unexpected twists, the effective cast, and Director Sturges's directing skill.
From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page February 2017 | Updated March 2021