Ransom! (1956) DVD Review: “And Introducing Leslie Nielsen”

Although television was basically considered to be the bastard cousin of the cinema during the ’50s, it nevertheless proved to be a successful launching point for many a future talent in the industry – as well a venerable fountain of resources whenever filmmakers needed something that wasn’t so heavily copied to death in the realm of film. A relevant case in point would be an episode of the long-running (and long-defunct) anthology series The United States Steel Hour, which once presented a dramatized account of a family’s reactions after they learn their child has been kidnapped. Soon after, a big-screen, extended remake of the tiny television effort was released to cinemas by MGM in early 1956, with Glenn Ford and Donna Reed cast as the terrified Mr. and Mrs. Stannard – parents who act very differently to the news that their eight-year-old son has been kidnapped and is being held for a hefty Ransom! by an unknown party.

If it’s already sounding a bit familiar, it’s because you probably caught that popular 1996 exclamation point-less (read: just plain Ransom) remake from Ron Howard (yet another product of television, folks) starring a then-at-the-zenith-of-his-career Mel Gibson (who, interestingly enough, was born just 21 days before this Ransom! premiered). But whereas that big-budgeted re-imagining of the remake of the original television anthology story went off in directions as different as the way the parents of the abducted child react – delivering the much more terrifying thought that those whom we depend on to help us are no less trustworthy than you average slimy denizen of the underworld – this Ransom! is a slightly different tale. For starters, the vehicle rarely leaves the confines of the Stannard residence – something that could be attributable to the fact that director Alex Segal regularly worked in the theatre (that thing which cinema itself is essentially the bastard cousin of), while Ron Howard had to change locations for every scene.

No, there aren’t any heart-pounding chases, references to George Pal movies, Marky Marks, or epic fist fights between good and evil here. Instead, we witness the decline of morale within a white suburban fantasy home as its residents realize reality is in fact close to home. Donna Reed’s mother character gets heavily sedated by a kindly family physician (Alexander Scourby, who starred opposite Ford in The Big Heat) because, after all, this isthe ’50s, people. Meanwhile, our hero Glenn Ford takes a decidedly bolder move and turns the tables on his unseen enemy – by appearing on live television with the ransom money for all to see, and instead offering it as a reward on the kidnapper’s head should any harm come to his son. This, of course, causes everyone from the average member of the growing mob outside the Stannard home to the local police chief (as represented by the great character actor Robert Keith) to question the grieving father’s ethics.

Likewise, Mr. Stannard’s own family – from his nearly-coherent wife to his big brother (Ainslie Pryor) and down to their prominent business associates who stand to lose everything as well – begin to fight with our protagonist. For them, it’s a matter of money. For the public outside, it’s a chance to be a part of the show – and they standby like vultures ready to tear down the very foundations of an until-only-recently happy home if they are given the opportunity to. But for Mr. Ford and Ms. Reed, this is about something else: our heroine wants the human being she bore unto the world back in her loving arms – our hero is determined to teach the scum who would perpetrate such a heinous act that they will not be able to benefit from their bad call. Unlike the ’96 remake of the film – wherein several characters from this version were combined into one and then turned into the bad guy – the actual villains remain completely anonymous throughout.

For you see, this Ransom! is all about emotion, not sensation. And a fourth-billed Juano Hernandez – as the Stannard’s black manservant Jesse Chapman – projects a lot of feeling all by his lonesome here. Though his character could be considered stereotypical or even racist by today’s standards (he is also referred to as “Uncle Jesse”after all!), Hernandez faithfully stands by his determined employer right until the very end, delivering not only what could be the most genuine form of compassion in the film when even its powerful father begins to crumble from within, but also the word of God, too – when writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (and probably the censors, too) feel it necessary. The little-known performer also appeared as a judge in Trial with Glenn Ford a year earlier, and was posthumously cited as a groundbreaker for contemporary black actors by film historian Donald Bogle.

Indeed, Hernandez could very well be the glue that ultimately holds Ransom! together when viewed by modern audiences who demand the oxymoronical mix of political-correctness and convincingly over-sensationalized hyperbole from their motion picture entertainment. Ford delivers a fine performance too, naturally – especially as the film progresses and both he and his character let their macho guard down (although from what I’ve read, Glenn Ford was the fastest draw in Hollywood, so I won’t say too many bad things about him for fear that he’ll challenge me to a shootout in the afterlife someday), while Reed is essentially (and tragically) removed from the equation about midway through. Because she’s a woman and this was 1950s America and stuff, I guess (which makes the strong black character all the more surprising here).

But there’s yet another highlight to Ransom! that has been just as forgotten as the feature film itself. Yes, just like television inspired the very photoplay in question to begin with, Ransom! also marked the first time a young Canadian actor made the transition from appearances in TV shows to a third-billed supporting role in a big-screen production. And that man, ladies and gentlemen, is none other than Leslie Nielsen – who would remain on the MGM lot for his next feature, something called Forbidden Planet. Hardly the comic we all remember him best for today (and which he himself loved to do, as the late actor was revered to be quite the prankster and always game for anything), Nielsen is cast here as a reporter friend of police chief Robert Keith, who initially looks at the case from a typical impartial newshound point of view, before being the only other person in the film to actually respect Ford’s character for his decisions.

Never before released on home video in the United States, Ransom! finally makes a long-awaited debut courtesy the Warner Archive Collection (one of six recently-released Glenn Ford movies from the ’50s, which also include the previously-mentioned Trial, so you can see more of the vastly underrated Juano Hernandez). Presented in its original intended matted widescreen aspect ratio, Ransom! shows some wear and tear here and there, but the unrestored image is intact and in overall great shape. A mono English audio track comes through just fine as well. Sadly, the original episode of The United States Steel Hour that served as the basis for this film is nowhere to be seen here, but this manufactured-on-demand release (the menu of which amusingly shows off that someone went crazy with the paintbrush in the image software when viewed on certain television sets – I could certainly see it on mine, at least, and it was something I only noticed because I had similar problems making a DVD menu myself recently!) does includes an open matte trailer of the title.


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Luigi Bastardo

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