1950s crimes films carry their own brand of nostalgia and an emphasis on turning almost anything into a cautionary tale. Ransom! does away with overacted caution to focus on a real thing: kidnapping. It’s hard to make the abduction of someone’s child more terrifying than it is, and director Alex Segal turns an episode of The United States Steel Hour – who originally did debuted this story as an episode entitled “Fearful Decision” – into a taut thriller about harsh decisions and the gray area where police intervention isn’t the first line of defense.
David Stannard (Glenn Ford), his wife Edith (Donna Reed), and their young son Andy (Bobby Clark) are a typical all-American family. When Andy is kidnapped David and Edith turn to the police only to realize that, if they want their son back safely, they’ll have to take matters into their own hands.
Most people are familiar with Ron Howard’s 1996 remake starring Mel Gibson and Gary Sinise. Both Howard and this film’s director, Alex Segal, keep the same serious tone and the main character’s turning of the tables by turning the titled ransom into a bounty. The core difference between both movies is Howard elaborates further on the kidnappers themselves, whereas this movie’s happy ending leaves the kidnappers to presumably steal someone else’s kid at a later date. Regardless, each film has their individual merits making each movie a distinct and enjoyable on their own.
As a separate entity, Ransom! combines the best of the 1950s melodrama with an incredibly nuanced performance by Glenn Ford. Things start off with the narration requisite of all thrillers of the era, showing the idyll life of suburbia can be corrupted. “Life was perfect, until….!” There’s a reason Donna Reed is perfectly suited for this film as the Stannards are such picture-perfect people whom, for audiences of the time period, represents them. This populist representation continues through our first meeting with David and Edith who discover their darling little scamp of a son has stolen the slats from their bed to craft a fort. Of course David and Edith can’t stay mad at him, and neither should you. Furthermore, the movie makes a point of saying the Stannards are just like you…but are reasonably wealthy. Thankfully, David has no pretensions about his success. I mean, he understands “why the unemployed have big families.” He also makes a point of mentioning “I haven’t got time to turn into an alcoholic.” It’s hard not to immediately think David and his clan are just average, everyday people, right?
This sitcom intro belies an air of foreboding because it’s only a matter of time before little Andy disappears for the rest of the film, kidnapped by an unknown “nurse.” From this point, the Stannards snobbery is vaporized and, unfortunately, David and Edith endure every parent’s worst nightmare. This is where Ford and Reed’s acting chops are tested, particularly Ford’s. During the initial discovery of Andy’s disappearance Ford remains stoic, but the light in his eyes shows he’s doing his best not to turn to hysterics. The hysterics come courtesy of Reed, who spends nearly the runtime being drugged or dragged by people attempting to cater to “her best interests.”
There’s a balanced application of both police intervention as well as parental ingenuity. Even the police realize they’re not always going to be successful, telling the Stannards it’s perfectly fine for them to make an outside deal with the kidnappers directly. Why go through the middle man? We also get Leslie Nielsen, in his debut role, as cigar-chomping newspaperman Charlie Telford, or as he calls himself “Jack the Ripper. Times Chronicle.” Nielsen singlehandedly steals the show and belongs in a different movie, for as much as he tries to play serious, the His Girl Friday schtick the script employs is incongruous to the film’s dark tone, especially once he gets a heart of gold at the end, unable to report on the Stannards personal anguish. And Charlie’s introduction gums up the works further by introducing the media aspect, making the police even more superfluous once David starts questioning his “public obligation” regarding his son’s kidnapping.
This is Ransom’s turning point, moving away from a straight kidnapping drama into questions of media spin when tragedy strikes. David is told that if his decisions regarding the press and whether he pays the kidnappers (or doesn’t) will have ramifications in the court of public opinion. Should one really have to worry about their image when their child’s life is in danger? In fact, it is the police who come off as publicity hungry, bringing in a cadre of media to barge into the Stannard home to conduct an impromptu press conference. As flashbulbs go off the police tell the Stannard’s as bloody shirt has been found and that it might be their son’s. After that the sympathy moves towards the Stannard’s plan of offering the reward as a bounty because obviously the cops are worried about themselves.
The ending is a letdown when compared to the 1990s bombast of the remake. You can’t expect anything less than a happy ending for these people, but the film quickly ends with Andy popping out of a bush. I’m doubting he was there the whole time but there’s proper explanation or payoff on what happens. We also never close the door on the bounty/ransom question. Did someone get the bounty? Or did the kidnappers, out of the presumed goodness of their hearts, let Andy go? The open ending actually reminds us of the arrogance of the Stannards at the opening. They’re so perfect they didn’t have to pay a penny for their kid. Too bad for the poor guy whose kid is snatched next. All of this could dampen the effect of the movie overall, but Ransom! is infinitely better than other socially conscious films of the era. Glenn Ford and Leslie Nielsen handle the material with all the solemnity it requires and Donna Reed is chillworthy as a beleaguered mother. Warner Archive recently released it and it’s a diamond in the rough.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.