Ransom, 1956. 9/10

A different sort of crime drama. Glenn Ford’s and Donna Reed’s (Dave and Edith Stannard’s) son is kidnapped from school. It takes a while (:15 minutes) for the plot to get out of low gear, but Dave’s take charge personality is already amped up over business projects. The slow pace seems odd, and continues for a bit even after the realization that their boy Andy (Bobby Clark) is missing.

It works because of Ford’s and Reed’s convincing ability to show their character’s personalities with subtlety and nuance. Robert Keith is the very no-nonsense police Chief Backett. Both parents are extremely emotional, of course, but in very distinct ways–she’s crying, sometimes hysterical, he’s jumpy and threatening.

Unexpectedly, a reporter shows up. He’s obviously working an angle on the case, nonchalant, in his element. The boy’s teacher is another busybody, acting as though the crisis is all about her. Finally, Dave gets a call from the kidnappers. The ransom amount is set; also the police have a fix on the caller’s location. But when they arrive at the phone booth, there’s only a half-smoked cigarette lying on the shelf.

Dave arranges to get the money, but the reporter Charlie (Leslie Nielsen) lurks about, even though Chief Beckett warns him off. “Let’s have it, Times Chronicle!” Dave quizzes Charlie, the self-appointed expert on criminal behavior. More thoughtfully he asks the Chief “If I do pay the random, what are the odds I’ll get my boy back?”

Interestingly, then, the kidnapping has become a sort of abstract game, as Dave, his brother Al (Ainslie Pryor), the Chief, and Charlie compute the odds of ‘success’. Not that it doesn’t make sense to consider how best to proceed. “That’s gambling!” says his brother, of Dave’s reluctance to pay. Charlie isn’t so bad after all, as he shames the curious onlookers leering at the Stannard’s home.

Something that only became possible in the ’50s, it’s decided to use TV to communicate with the kidnappers. We see the ‘hideout’ vaguely, a darkened room, and, from behind, a figure in a chair, watching Dave on TV. Dave, looking horrible, threatens the kidnappers with the rather clever ploy of using the ransom money as a reward for the boy’s safe return. The cash is temptingly mounded-up on-screen in front of him. The problem that I see is that there’s no reason for the kidnappers to come forward with the boy, as there’s nothing in it for them (unless they have a falling out, which is another gamble; or a change of heart, a possibility…).

As Charlie ruefully predicted, the media frenzy is as grotesque as it is banal. Even Al tries to change his Dave’s mind, as ‘public opinion’ is against Dave. Not to mention, the Sheriff (Robert Burton) starts grumbling. He feels Dave is meddling in police business, which Dave probably is, but, it’s fairly clear that the sheriff is also concerned with his reputation. Edith has been literally out of the picture–she’s right that Dave shouldn’t have refused the ransom without consulting her–she even accused him of not really loving their son.

Suddenly, the chief shows up with what they think is evidence: a bloody shirt like the one the boy was wearing. It’s weird that they think it’s an important discovery…it could’ve belonged to any similarly-aged boy in the community. In a very affecting scene, Dave collapses in the arms of his butler Jesse (Juano Hernandez).

Somewhat miraculously, the boy simply shows up at the house. Fittingly, the reunion occurs adjacent to the play house the boy had been messing before the kidnapping. Jesse sort of ties up the ending with an appropriately touching biblical reference.

Ransom! Has been taken to task for not showing the criminals. Other than one phone call, in which we only hear Dave’s voice, and the obscure scene where he/they remain hidden, that’s it. The emphasis is on the parents, and the community’s reactions. That means that Ransom! pretty much slides out of film noir territory, remaining a straight mystery/thriller. And it does that very well. Other than the slightly lengthy beginning scenes, there’s a very careful, thoughtful portrayal of a family in severe emotional and psychological crisis.

Edith is ignored for a large part of the movie. Since we’re not dealing with the criminals’ characters, it would seem that there should be plenty of scene time for both parents, not just Dave. The reporter and police chief are more involved that the kid’s mom. On the one hand, this could be an example of the passive social and domestic role allotted to women at the time. At the same time, Edith directly addressed this issue with her strong statement that she’s been wronged by being shunted to the side. That’s a good counterpoint.

Ransom! is a very effective character study and suspenseful crime drama. Farmermouse is fixin’ to surround them bad guys with nine playhouses/forts. 9/10.

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