Once in a while in the fifties, a popular teleplay was given a new life as a feature film, and MGM’s Ransom! is a unique example of a simple kidnapping tale given a fresh angle by having the victimized father deciding to publicly reject the kidnappers’ demands on live TV, and offer the ransom to any scumbag willing to bring the crooks to the police, dead or alive.
Both Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum expanded their hour-long 1953 teleplay “Fearful Decision” by opening up the drama with a lengthy intro and some exterior scenes, as well as some dialogue exchanges that probably further criticized the nature of the media feeding off a family’s misery; and the father’s position of a ruthless, assertive, and risky businessman and the seething divisions within the company’s board of directors that threaten to topple his position as CEO.
Teleplays were often about characters, social and emotional conflicts, and sharp contrasts at play, and Ransom! begins with an idyllic intro featuring a loving but busy father, Dave Stannard (Glenn Ford), his elegant socialite wife Edit (Donna Reed), their precocious son Andy (Bobby Clark), and the two-person retinue of black house workers – a devoted maid, and a loyal, silent but wise butler, Uncle Jesse (Juano Hernandez).
When the son is mysteriously picked up from school by a nurse, the parents become suspicious, and eventually calling the police, who send Police Chief Jim Backett (Robert Keith). Just as the house is being wired for a phone tap and an extra line, local city reporter Charlie Telfer (Leslie Nielsen) sneaks into the house, and blackmails Stannard into an exclusive as long as details of the kidnapping are kept quiet until the next day, allowing time for the kidnappers to call and make their demands.
No sooner is the call made than the local media swarm the family compound, and Stannard is forced to convert company stocks to half a million dollars. He’s then supposed to authorize the host of a series his company sponsors to wear a white jacket, letting the kidnappers know the cash is ready for a drop-off.
The first half of Ransom! is a tight procedural drama as experienced by the parents. The police chief is also the de facto negotiating expert who gets everything set up, right down to a phone tap (nicely dealt with in a detailed montage), as well as coordinating traffic barriers to keep the public and media scrum off the Stannard estate. He’s also seen as a man who reveals various levels of truths to the parents as events shift in certain directions, such as the realities of seeing their son alive after 30 hours since his disappearance, as well as being merely an advisor of the law; Stannard is on his own as to whether he wants to pay the money, a choice the father eventually takes to heart.
Also woven among the characters is hungry reporter Telfer, who begins his job as cold and unsympathetic, and eventually becomes protective as the family unit starts to disintegrate under the media’s intense pressure. Telfer’s intro is the oddest of the characters: he literally sneaks into the house and is allowed to stay by the police chief because of a prior friendship – surely the strangest rationale within the drama. Telfer’s an experienced newsman who offers hard facts and percentages as to the outcome of most kidnapping cases, and Stannard’s eventually realization that a criminal dilemma is beyond his negotiating skills prompts him to rely more and more on the chief and Telfer for advice, eventually fixating on the 2:1 odds of success that whether or not the ransom is paid, the child will likely show up, either dead or alive.
So why pay at all?
Hiding his decision to go live on his company sponsored show, he sits behind $500,000 and tells the kidnappers ‘this is as close to half a million that you’ll ever get,’ and offers the cash as blood money to hungry crooks or diligent cops. Stannard’s gone rogue and also broken FCC rules by commandeering public airwaves for private use, and while he’s now shared his personal trauma with the public – arguably neutering the media’s hunger for dirty facts – he’s also isolated himself from the police, his board of directors (which includes power hungry brother Al), and his wife.
Doped up on tranquilizers, Edith eventually learns of Stannard’s blood reward, and pleads him to ‘take what he said back’ and pay the ransom, but he refuses, and pushes her to a virtual breakdown.
Stannard’s character is stressed by being shoved into a situation that almost destroys his confidence, social standing, and marriage, whereas Edith basically shifts from pretty happy wife to a female weakling, and she’s the most unfortunate character because like the black house servants who stand quiet but loyal, she’s a dated caricature of the era.
When Edith’s makeup is gone and her clothes are grey, it’s clear she’s deeply distressed, and because she’s a housewife, she can’t understand managing the potential loss of her son. As her doctor explains prior to an oral sedative, ‘You carried him and gave birth to him,’ so she can’t possibly detach herself in the smallest degree and help Stannard or the police. After much crying, she’s eventually nuked into a coma through an injected sedative, and kept off camera until one morning she learns of Stannard’s TV address through the morning paper, which the well-intentioned maid tucked among the coffee and toast.
The drama eventually comes to a head: Will the boy be released?
The final act has everything around Stannard being torn away, with even the media leaving, after Stannard repays the company, and converts his own assets into a trust fund for the blood payment, as well support for another family if his son is never found after ten years. Just as the film’s end credits are minutes away, Stannard hears his son’s voice, and the family, with a more sober and less embittered Edit, is reunited.
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As an expanded teleplay, Ransom! is a fascinating work because one can sense some of the areas where scenes were added, as well as montages opened up the drama, but there’s also the vestiges of the teleplay’s original dialogue that made it such a hit, “Fearful Decision” was repeated again by its original cast a year later on The United States Steel Hour.
The original teleplay actually became a TV show within a TV show when Stannard addressed the kidnappers (who are never seen) on live TV during a live broadcast, and it must have been a powerful moment in live TV when a fictional character seemed to break the fourth wall and involve viewers in the drama. Alex Segal, who directed the TV and film versions of Hume and Maibaum’s script, does provide coverage of the TV station where Stannard is to address the kidnappers, but he also cuts to massive, sharp close-ups that turn the film screen into a TV screen, and make Stannard’s torment more intimate.
Segal’s use of close-ups is also consistent throughout the film, because the emphasis is on levels of intensity, and besides Jeff Alexander’s opening and closing title music, the film is filled with natural sound, such as the creaking floors of the Stannard house that become increasingly eerie when the father is left alone in the finale.
Perhaps the story’s only lingering flaw is the happy ending, which feels like a tacked on relief for TV and film audiences; they may have been furious at being left with seeing a broken family, and never knowing whether the child was ever returned alive. Dramatically, though, the script progresses towards stripping a family to its bones, and the most sensible ending would’ve been an inconclusive finale.
There’s a sense that a more faithful character arc instead of the three-person hug-a-thon would’ve been seeing Dave Stannard sitting beside the unfinished shed he had planned to build with his son the day Andy was snatched away by faceless bastards, and a final shot of the bloodied shirt left in the abandoned car used by the kidnappers.
The 1956 MGM version of the Hume-Maibaum story remains unavailable on DVD in North America, perhaps due to lingering rights issues from Ron Howard’s 1996 remake with Mel Gibson as the wealthy father, Rene Russo as the much stronger and fiercer mother, Delroy Lindo as the soft-spoken agent and negotiator, and Gary Sinise as the lead kidnapper who takes on some of the cynicism displayed by reporter Telfer.
What’s striking about Richard Price and Alexander Igon’s 1996 script is how well the drama was expanded and modernized, weak characters like the mother were fixed, and yet the characters are ostensibly true to the original creations. Both parents are devoted, busy, rich, brutalized by the media; the negotiator can only advise, and his soothing tone becomes as grating as the police chief’s when the father starts to feel increasingly helpless; and television is once again the outlet where the father addresses the kidnappers.
Two scenes are tonally (and almost verbally) identical to the 1956 film: Stannard’s live TV taunt (‘This is as close to half a million as you’ll ever get!’), and Edith’s begging her husband to ‘take it back,’ although the rage level is pushed father by having Gibson tell the kidnapper on phone ‘Fuck you,’ and Russo going from pleading to rage; they’re marital breakdown and the huge distance that separates the couple after the TV address is more realistic in the 1996 version.
Moreover, unlike the original film which had a fast happy ending, Howard’s film is more cathartic for the characters and audiences. There’s the amoral, sadistic lead kidnapper, and his sometimes futile efforts to snuff out infighting among his cohorts; their treatment of the poor child; the police becoming as untrustworthy as the kidnappers; and the potent dramatic (and rewarding) release of Gibson beating the shit out of Sinise before he’s shot to death like a rabid pitbull.
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As near-perfect as the 1996 film is, it’s well worth tracking down the 1956 version for it’s intimate direction, and Glenn Ford’s stellar performance. The original Hume-Maibaum dialogue still cuts to the bone, and Ford’s rationalizing of not paying the ransom is a horrific scene because we know it will destroy his marriage and instill a seething pit of guilt if his plan fails to bring his son home alive.
Cyril Hume’s other fine credits include the western Branded (1950), Forbidden Planet (1956), and the drug addiction drama Bigger Than Life (1956), co-written with Maibaum. Besides the James Bond films, Maibaum’s other films include The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) and The Man Inside (1958). Alex Segal virtually stayed in TV for the rest of his career, and is best known for directing the classic teleplays No Time for Sergeants (1953) and Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), and the Emmy Award-winning Death of a Salesman (1967).
The original 1954 restaging of “Fearful Decision” starred Ralph Bellamy as the father (named David Durfee), Meg Mundy as Edith, Joey Fallon as son Davie, George Mitchell as the police chief, and Sam Levene as the crime reporter (named McArdle).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan