40 years apart, two intense, likable and underrated actors were at their career peaks when they starred in their versions of this story about a wealthy man who makes a stunning decision when his son is kidnapped. Glenn Ford played the father in Ransom! (1956) and Mel Gibson in Ransom (1996). The source material for both films was a 1954 TV play “Fearful Decision” by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, which in turn was based on a real-life Missouri kidnapping of an auto dealer’s child. The TV production starred Ralph Bellamy in the lead role and had the same director as the 1956 film, Alex Segal.
In Ransom! Dave Stannard (Glenn Ford) is always busy running his successful vacuum cleaner company but plans to take a break from work to build a shed with son Andy (Bobby Clark) and that very day the boy is taken. Dave learns that paying the ransom won’t come close to guaranteeing the boy’s return, so he goes on TV to announce he’ll pay that money as bounty to anyone who can bring the kidnappers in, dead or alive, or set up a trust fund for a family in a similar position. The film is a procedural when you’re watching Police Chief (Robert Keith) come in to do the negotiating, organizing the phone taps and security around the Stannard estate, and debating kidnap statistics, but once Dave makes his defiant statement–”this is as close to half a million as you’ll ever get”– the focus is less on the crime and the search than the emotional drama. The unknown fate of the child, the time passing which decreases odds of his survival, and Dave’s refusal to go back on his bounty offer, all prove too much for wife Edith (Donna Reed), who spends much of her time in hysterics and/or sedated.
Juanita Moore and Juano Hernandez play Stannard’s servants and Hernandez gets a touching scene, comforting Dave when he’s convinced his choices have doomed Andy. This was Leslie Nielsen’s first movie and he’s fabulously wormy as Charlie, the cynical reporter who sneaks into the house, blackmails Dave and yet makes himself strangely useful thanks to his brutal honesty. Ransom! presciently portrays the media as a predatory mob feeding on the family’s heartache, and the real case that inspired these films similarly captivated and horrified the nation.
Ransom! is a very tight, gripping and underrated thriller with great work by the equally underrated Ford. He had a knack for playing layered and tightly coiled good guys–harder than it sounds–and here he makes you believe his anguish and righteous anger, his capacity to make impossibly hard choices and resignation to being forever misunderstood, hated and tortured by guilt if those choices are wrong. Ford does a great job of putting across the emotional burden of gambling with his child’s life while defying scum (who we never see in this film), especially framed as he is here, when he addresses the TV/movie audience directly or is the subject of Segal’s frequent close-ups.
Good as the original film is, and I do prefer it, there won’t be any remake-bashing here since there’s much to like about the 1996 version. Director Ron Howard and screenwriters Richard Price and Alexander Ignon hardly touched the essentials or spirit of the story, and made a riveting, smart and exciting thriller, updating just the right “cosmetic” details, language and characterization to fit the era, and what I feel is a more realistic and dramatic ending.
Here super-rich Tom Mullen’s (Mel Gibson) business is an airline, he lives more easily in the public eye, makes ads that promote his rags-to-riches message, and fears that dabbling in illegal activity has invited this kidnapping. In the ‘56 film Andy is taken from school by someone posing as a nurse and the parents don’t know until time passes and the boy still hasn’t come home. By the 90s, with more daring and numerous predators, more paranoid helicopter parents and more sheltered children, the danger comes disturbingly closer, so son Sean (Brawley Nolte, son of Nick) is snatched in Central Park with the parents present, which adds that extra guilt of turning your back or looking away for a second.
Since in 1996 it’s near unthinkable to have a crime thriller with no criminals, the kidnappers are not only shown but get a subplot and stellar casting (Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber and Mark Wahlberg), while law enforcement (FBI agent Delroy Lindo and NYPD detective Gary Sinise) can no longer be simply ineffective but also untrustworthy and possibly evil. As much as I think it would have worked to not have the kidnappers in the remake either, I can’t deny that having those characters and twists make for a good reveal and a juicy scene for Nolte. One of the most predictable and welcome updates, besides sums being adjusted for inflation, is that here the wife, Kate (Rene Russo) is a much improved, more involved character. Both Ransom movies are excellent examples of well-made suspense drama, and it’s rare to see a remake like this, that, with “modern” adjustments, is so similar, so true to its strong character-based source material, and ends up working as well.