The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, August 23, 2013


In an age of remakes, sequels, prequels, series and what not, it can be fun sometimes to stumble across an original you didn't even know existed. I can't remember for sure if I saw 1996's Ransom as I was growing up, but I've always been aware of it if nothing else. Well, I can also say I wasn't aware of its predecessor, 1956's Ransom! Forty years apart, is it enough time between original and remake?

A very well-to-do executive of a vacuum cleaner company, Dave Stannard (Glenn Ford) has created quite a life for himself with his beautiful wife, Edith (Donna Reed) and eight-year old son, Andy (Bobby Clark). Their idyllic home life is broken up one day when Andy doesn't return home from school. His teacher tells Edith that a nurse took him from school that morning, claiming to go to the doctor's office. The doctor though has no knowledge of Andy's whereabouts, leaving Dave and Edith to fear for the worst. The call comes later that night....Andy has been kidnapped, and his kidnappers are asking for $500,000. With some help from the police, including Chief Backett (Robert Keith), Dave and Edith discuss what to do. Should they come up with the ransom? Do the police have any chance of catching the kidnappers? As they weigh their options though, Andy is more at risk with each passing hour.

I was really worried about this movie for about 10-15 minutes, worried to the point I was wavering over whether to stick with it. The opening 15 minutes presents that idyllic Leave It to Beaver/Happy Days family life that is so sugary sweet it's almost impossible to take. Andy is the precocious kid who's always up to some shenanigans, but goshdarnit! His parents love him! Aw shucks, he stole slats from all the beds in the house to build a fort?!? What a crazy kid! I'm assuming the goal early on was to show what a good life Dave has from his wife and son to his house to his highly successful job. The problem is, it's so aggressively happy that it made me laugh, and I'm betting that wasn't the goal here. If I'm wrong, so be it, but I don't think I am.

But because I like reviewing movies, I stuck with it, wanting to give it a fair shot. I'm glad I stuck with it. In a way that most 1950s just didn't seem capable of, 'Ransom' is dark in a way I would associate more with the late 1960s or throughout the 1970s. Director Alex Segal turns in quite the thriller, low-key in terms of action but very high strung in terms of the personal level, in terms of an emotional attachment to the situation. The scenes where Dave and Edith begin to put two and two together are unsettling to say the least, some odd, unanswered questions turning into every parent's worst fear, someone has taken their child. Segal films in black and white, much of his story relegated to indoor sets for the Stannard's house as the ransom/kidnapping and case develop.

Why does it work so well? Mostly, it's the personal involvement. Other than a brief shot from behind a kidnapper watching TV, we don't see the kidnappers in the least. We don't know how many there are, what their motivations are, what drove them to do this. It's a gutsy decision in telling a story, one that works because it puts the spotlight entirely on Dave and Edith and those helping them. One of my favorite actors, Ford does a fine job as Stannard, an everyman type of father who loves his family more than anything. He has a good chemistry with Reed (similarly very good), including an early scene I'm assuming is one of the earliest mentions of a "quickie" in movie history. Seriously, it's there. Mostly though, we see their disintegration as parents, as adults, their world crumbling around them. Edith loses it, Dave doing the same but trying to keep a hold on reality, anything that will help bring his son back. His plea on TV is an effective scene, probably the movie's most effective scene.

The rest of the cast is solid too. The cast benefits from Segal and the script from Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum showing how the community responds, from the police to the curious onlookers and everyone in between. Making his screen debut, Leslie Nielsen is very good as Charlie Telfer, the hardened journalist who has an in for the case and is allowed in the Stannard house. Juano Hernandez plays Jesse Chapman, the Stannard's longtime servant. He's called Uncle Jesse so just a little on the politically incorrect meter. Keith as Chief Backett is interesting because he's not just a pure cop. He's also worrying about his reelection coming up too. Ainslie Pryor plays Al, Dave's brother who begins to question his brother's thinking once the ransom demands are made. 

If you've watched any police shows since 1956, from Perry Mason to Law and Order and everything in between, you've no doubt seen at least a show or two dealing with ransom. What have we learned? Just because the family pays the ransom doesn't mean they'll be getting their loved one back. I'm guessing though that in 1956, this was a new concept for moviegoers. This information provides an interesting twist in the second half of the movie as Ford's Stannard learns the possibilities of what could happen. I wasn't sure exactly which ending this flick would go for, but it's a decent enough ending. It could have been one epic ending, but it works, capping off a tense, uncomfortable 1950s thriller.

Ransom! (1956): ***/****

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