Retro Review Double Feature: Ransom and Ransom!
Wrapping up our look at kidnappers in cinema, we’re highlighting two interesting thrillers, both of which are based upon the same story. In 1954, a television series called The United States Steel Hour (which is my vote for both the best and worst name for a television program,) aired a short drama about a wealthy man who turns the tables on some would-be kidnappers by using their demanded cash to offer a bounty on the miscreants. Hilarity ensues. The premise grabbed the imaginations of two directors, and separated by forty years of film, they both offered their takes on the story.
Alex Segal, a big time television producer, made his leap onto the big screen…by adapting a popular television episode into a full length film. Ransom! keeps quite a few of the small screen’s sensibilities, focusing the drama squarely on the characters, showing no violence (or action,) and working primarily off of one set. It also showcased the acting chops of two notable TV celebrities, Donna Reed and Glenn Ford, while also celebrating the acting debut of Leslie Nielson, who would go on to greater fame as Detective Frank Drebin on the show Police Squad! and The Naked Gun series of films.
David Stannard (Ford) is a wealthy industrialist, married to a beautiful and faithful wife (Reed), and proud father of an 8 year old son, Andy. One idyllic day, Stannard arrives home in a foul mood: he had ditched an important board meeting to spend time finishing a tree house with his son, only to be stood up by the boy. We begin to see the chinks in the family’s facade as he snaps at his wife and heads right to the bottle. His wife, upset and chain smoking, takes a call from the school nurse, who reports that Andy was removed from school by a nurse, apparently under the Stannards’ say so. The couple soon realize that something sinister is brewing, as neither authorized Andy’s removal. A phone call soon sets the stakes: 500 thousand in cash, or the boy dies.
True to the television story, Stannard defies the ultimatum and appears personally on the air to address the kidnappers. Surrounded by the piles of cash, Stannard tells the criminals that he will personally pay the money to any person who can bring him the kidnappers, dead or alive. If they return his boy, he’ll call off the dogs.
A Hero of Our Times?
Ransom! is better as a character study than as a thriller. We never see the kidnappers, or the kidnapping. We never really leave the Stannard’s home, except to see the televised middle finger to the crooks. There is no dramatic showdown, and nobody is ever held accountable for the crime. What we do see is the slow disintegration of a powerful and privileged man, who eventually comes through the crucible thankful for the blessings around him. It would seem like a ringing indictment of Stannard as an aloof plutocrat, especially viewed by today’s standards. He is driven, calculating, a real patronizing son of a bitch to his wife, and generally unlikable. Luckily, the script and Glenn Ford rise to the challenge.
Ford gives Stannard an inner life: his drinking, his stone wall of business acumen, his tense relationships with his butler, his CEO, and Nielson’s character of a news reporter who defends his actions in the press. He has motivations and drives, on top of all his flaws. He even breaks down to cry in front of his servants. My favorite scene is Stannard, grilling the chief of police and Nielson, demanding information from them as if he were directing a boardroom. He even equivocates the kidnapping to a hostile negotiation with another company. He treats his whole world like his business. It may be a moral failing, but it is a terrifically interesting character study.
Ron Howard was next to take aim at the story of a wronged father who uses his wealth to get even. Mel Gibson is a wealthy business mogul, Tom Mullen, who has it all…until kidnappers grab his son and demand 2 million in cash. Gibson ponies up the cash initially, but after a botched drop results in the FBI pouncing too soon and killing the only lead in the case, he decides to cancel amateur hour and get some bang for his buck: you guessed it, he offers the money on national television to any Moe, Dick, or Dirty Harry willing to bring him the heads of anyone involved in the caper. His wife (Rene Russo) bitterly disagrees, and an alienated and frantic Gibson does what he does best, namely have a psychotic break down and go full Lethal Weapon on the bad guys. The NYPD and the FBI are just along for the ride as he decides to get his pound of flesh, personally.
Howard’s version of Ransom is much more a thriller at heart than Ransom! There is much more focus on action and on the mechanism of the stereotypical kidnapping. That doesn’t mean the tension of the internal conflicts within the Mullen family are absent, or that we don’t get to see the psychological pressure placed on Gibson’s character. The pivotal difference between the two films is what occurs after the televised response to the kidnappers. In Ransom!, the television studio is the catalyst for Stannard’s inner change, and we spend the rest of the film watching his careful barriers slowly erode once he has been put to the decision. In Ransom, the TV ultimatum is the beginning of the second act, where the film switches gears from a tense police procedural into an action thriller. The die is cast, and the remainder of the film is the outward conflict between Gibson and the kidnappers.
Who Gets the Money?
Both films a worth consideration, as they both present the same material very differently. Glenn Ford’s stricken father is played with more nuance and subtlety, and the events that surround him are more intensely personal. Gibson’s portrayal is not poor, but it is very much in line with other action movies he’s done in the past. He does manic and conflicted pretty well. In the end, it comes down to who tells a better story, and I have to give the duffel bag of cash to Ron Howard and Ransom.
Ransom is much more of a complete story. The struggle inside the Mullen family is just as present as with the Stannards, but Howard creates a much larger world than just the family at the movie’s core. The police and FBI are much more fully realized in Ransom and the kidnappers are actual characters with quarrels and fears which we get to actually witness, instead of the non-existent bogey men of Alex Segal’s film. The big Hollywood action sequences of Ransom are not the films strongest points, but they provide a much stronger climax than found in Ransom!, where the film just kind of ends once the director is satisfied that he has documented Stannard’s torment long enough.
Oh, and there are some pretty great moments of dialogue in Ransom. You know which line I’m talking about…