Lights, Camera, Conversation… Miniature Art

Posted on June 17, 2011

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How much movie can be packed into a running time of 65 minutes? John Sturges gives a master class in “Jeopardy.”

The MGM lion roars and fades into music as brisk as the movement of vehicles on a sea-hugging road. Then the title, Jeopardy, which jumps out as titles do on the covers of pulp fiction, with serrated edges and the scent of thrill. After the opening credits, the camera zooms in on a single car with a trailer, and the heroine (Helen, played by the irrepressible Barbara Stanwyck) talks about America as a civilisation that moves on wheels. This voiceover tells us that this is her story, that she is the narrator-protagonist. The car stops at the Mexican border, and we see, inside, Helen’s young son Bobby and husband Doug, who reveals that they are going fishing. They are let through, and they’re soon strolling around sombreros and taco stands and a shop selling duty-free perfume. Helen buys some, saying she’s saving money. She’s the perfect fifties’ housewife, and Doug rewards her perfection with a kiss.

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Then the first pebble in their placid pond, as Helen’s voiceover hints at dangers ahead. “When you see the map you see what isolation you’re heading into – roads of dirt and desolation.” They’re stopped by cops. Bobby asks, “What’s going on?” He doesn’t receive an answer, but we do, at least to the extent that something is up that cannot be disclosed to a child, something so dangerous that it warrants the revelation that Doug is carrying a gun. We’re about ten minutes into the movie, and we already have the barebones of a plot – happy American family heading into unfamiliar territory (sombreros! tacos! dirt roads!) and danger. They stop for fuel at a garage and holler, “Hola!” There’s no answer. After filling up, Doug notices that the lock on the door is hanging open. He fastens it. “The least we can do for ‘em,” he says, impressing on us his all-American decency. These are good people. We don’t want bad things happening to them.

They stop at a spot that slopes down to the sea. Again, Helen’s voiceover hints at danger. “I hated that jetty the moment I saw it.” They are in the middle of nowhere and the camera captures this perfectly with a starkly elemental composition with the car at the centre – there’s just sky above and sea below. They head down to the beach. Helen makes lunch and calls out to Bobby, who’s headed too far out on the jetty and gotten his foot stuck between planks. As Doug sets out to rescue his son, the soundtrack swells with the music of high adventure as well as the sound of waves, which, as if angry at being disturbed from a centuries-long sleep, lash out at the intruders above. Just twenty minutes have elapsed. Doug extricates Bobby like a gentle passer-by freeing a fawn from a hunter’s trap, but the relief is short-lived. Doug slips through the rotted wood and falls into the sea, his foot buried under a stout shaft of timber. (In Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, which runs a little over 90 minutes, the protagonist’s very similar accident occurs around the 15-minute mark.)

Helen tries to prove that she’s good for more than just saving money on inexpensive perfume and preparing wholesome lunches by the beachside. She positions their car jack under the timber and almost succeeds in extricating him, but the sea won’t let her have him so easily. The tide is rising. About twenty-five minutes in, Doug realises that it’s hopeless, that they need help. Helen instructs Bobby to watch over his father and drives away. Around the thirty-fifth minute, she reaches the garage they were at earlier, but this time there’s a man there, Lawson, who offers to help. She smashes a window and steals some rope from the very place whose door was secured, earlier, by her husband. She cannot afford decency anymore. She jumps into the car as Lawson takes the wheel, and we cut away to a dead Mexican. This is why there was no one here earlier, and this is the man the cops warned Doug about. He grabs Doug’s gun and asks her to drive. She lies to cops along the way because if she doesn’t she’ll be killed and then there will be no one left who knows about Doug trapped in that ever-rising tide.

At the beach, Doug begins to prepare Bobby for the possibility of his death. In the car, Helen warns Lawson, “If he dies I promise you one thing, I’ll kill you.” She crashes through a roadblock and a tyre goes flat. The jack, of course, is by the sea, so Lawson devises an ingenious ramp (this is no fool!) and changes the tyre. At the beach, around the fiftieth minute, Bobby sees a boat and grabs a towel and waves it like a sign of surrender until the boat, frustratingly, vanishes from view. In the car, as Helen talks about her son, Lawson replies that he’s not a family man. He’s thus, in the conformist landscape of 1950s America, a loose cannon. He cannot be allowed to triumph over the family. Cops find them and fire at them. They manage to find shelter around the fifty-five minute mark. Helen tells Lawson that if he helps her she’ll do anything.

He smells her perfume, the same perfume her husband did earlier at the store. She says that he’s the same size as Doug, so if he helps, he can have Doug’s clothes and registration papers. They kiss. Is this a kiss to beguile him, or is Helen, trapped in that conformist landscape of 1950s America, genuinely turned on by this loose cannon, who’s conveniently the “same size” as her husband? At the beach, one hour in, father and son hear the car and see Helen race up to them with a strange man by her side. Why does Lawson help? Why doesn’t he just grab Doug’s clothes and papers and flee? He does weigh that dishonourable option, but after a moment’s weakness he stays and helps free Doug, and claims the clothes and the papers as a rightful reward. “I’ll hate you, but a deal’s a deal,” Helen says and watches him leave without paying the price for disrupting a family unit by nearly seducing the wife and nearly letting the husband die.

Lawson runs, but not before shaking hands with Helen. After all, she did say that a deal’s a deal, and this was very much a business transaction – Doug’s papers in exchange for Doug’s life. A final voiceover from Helen: “He killed and he deserves to be killed; yet how will we feel hearing about it?” An unexpected note of ambivalence in a drama made in 1953, when it would have been far more acceptable to have Lawson swallowed up by an angry sea. The names of the characters and actors come up around the sixty-fifth minute, by which time we’ve not only experienced an adventure but also entered the heads of the characters, especially Helen and Lawson. We’ve followed a story, veered off into subtext, and returned to an ending that’s not really an ending because the villain who made overtures on the wife and earlier murdered an innocent Mexican is allowed to go unpunished.

Jeopardy is something that, during its time of release and also in the years thereafter, would have been advertised in cinema halls as one half of a double bill. It’s not a prestige picture aimed at the Oscar voter, just a little genre piece aimed at the ticket buyer likely to be lured in by the adrenalin rush delivered by the vaguely disreputable title. (The posters of the film promised more disreputability with a fuller title, A Woman in Jeopardy.) And yet, for all its nuts-and-bolts efficiency in telling a story as tightly as possible, there is so much sly craft on display. It’s like miniature art – the size of the canvas belies the scope of the achievement. This is not to say that smaller films are somehow superior films, and that The Godfather, at about three hours, would have been better if Michael bloodied his war-hero hands at the fifteenth minute, Sonny was killed a half-hour later, and the heads of the Five Families were wiped out at the ninety-minute mark. Some films, like some wines, need air. It’s just interesting, as contrast, how seemingly airtight Jeopardy is, like so many B-movies of that era, and still manages to breathe and be alive.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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