Ransom! (1956) & Ransom (1996)

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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.

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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.

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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.

This post is part of the They Remade What? blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Click here to read more posts. 

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20 thoughts on “Ransom! (1956) & Ransom (1996)”

  1. A good look at the two films and the differences between the 50s and the 90s. – I much preferred Rene Russo’s character to Donna Reed . The 90s version had a better cast, though Glenn Ford just edged it for me over Mel Gibson.

    1. Love Glenn Ford in this, I think it’s one of his best. I picked this because to me it’s still, almost 20 yrs later, one of the rare cases where a remake not only sticks to what worked in the original, but also is a very good movie on its own, in its own era.

      Rene Russo is THE reason I thought the remake didn’t need to add the kidnappers and their subplot; if you beef up the wife’s role and cast it with someone as great as her, then you can spend even more time focusing on the parents. Thanks!

  2. Glenn Ford’s incredible performance really made this film for me (referring to the 1956 version, of course). That scene towards the end with him and Hernandez is indeed gut-wrenching. But I thought all the supporting players were good too. Yes, the wife got on one’s nerves a bit, but Donna Reed played her character as written, and in all fairness, many women probably would have reacted the same way in that situation.

    I generally avoid latter-day remakes like the plague, so I probably won’t be seeing the 1996 version anytime soon. I did watch the Sabrina remake a few years ago, but only because a co-worker kept telling me to see it, on the grounds that she thought I looked like Julia Ormond… I finally did, only to find that I don’t! (lol)

    1. Yes. Agree on Glenn, I think it’s one of of his very best performances and that’s not the only reason I like the original better, but the remake really is a good one with a good cast, and that’s coming from someone who’s not a fan of many remakes. Like you, I’m also not one to go looking at the past in search of outrage or offense over era differences like Reed’s part, I just wish she had more time because she she was good, and as you say that character is not only “of its time,” it was and still would be realistic for many people. (It’s funny that I just discussed this very thing with Mikestakeonthemovies.com )

      Btw, maybe you don’t think you look much like her but I have to say if you are even remotely compared to Julia Ormond, that’s some compliment! Thanks!

      1. “Like you, I’m also not one to go looking at the past in search of outrage or offense…” And I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate that in your reviews! (of course I also appreciate that they’re well-written, witty, and informative, but the lack of concern about political correctness is a huge bonus 🙂 )

        Haha, thanks regarding Julia Ormond, but it only happened that once, so I try not to let it go to my head (lol.)

  3. Nice to feel the love for Glenn Ford here. You describe him quite nicely. Both films hold their own so it’s a win win situation for us the viewers. I’ll also go along with enjoying having a strong Rene Russo in the remake.

  4. Had no idea the Gibson RANSOM was a remake. I used to watch it a lot during my video store days and I saw it when it came out but I don’t remember reading anything about it being a remake. I’d like to see the original now but I feel like in my mind it wouldn’t match up.

    1. No, for the longest time I had no idea either. The original is a “smaller stage” (from sticking to the TV play) more personal drama but they really hold up well next to each other no matter which one you prefer. Thanks!

  5. I find a lot to appreciate in the 1956 “Ransom!”. I have yet to see the remake not out of some sort of loyalty to the earlier feature, but it didn’t feel like something I would want to revisit. Perhaps I won’t be so reluctant next time it pops up.

    1. Give it a try sometime, whether to compare them to each other to contrast it to most other remakes that assume they MUST rethink everything about an original. This one shows that not too much tinkering is needed when you start with a great classic. Thanks

  6. I have seen the remake, and quite liked the script and the casting. But I bet John Ford and Donna Reed in the original are super fabulous. I’m quite anxious to see it now that I’ve read your post. Thanks!

    1. Yes they are great, if you liked the remake you’re sure to enjoy so I hope you get a chance to look at it. It’s not often a remake is so close and good! Thanks 🙂

  7. Both casts sound great. I’ve only seen a couple Glenn Ford films but I’d like to see more. This sounds like a good one.

    Thanks so much for participating! 🙂

    1. Then I’m sure you’d appreciate (can’t say enjoy since it’s such a serious subject) Ford’s work in this one, he did such a good job. Underrated actor, I always think. Thanks for hosting, this was a fun one to think about and pick a movie for. Thanks!

  8. Good stuff. I really must watch both of these again. Totally agree that the updated version is improved by the public profile of Mullen, the rags-to-riches schtick and Sinise/Lindo.

    1. This comment got caught in the spammer, sorry for the delay! This is a great example of a remake living up to the original and just the right changes for their eras. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Having only seen the remake, I’d note that the tightly-wound Ford portrayal would make a nice counterpoint to Gibson, channeling his personal rage more effectively in this role than in any other I’ve seen him in, in the newer version. I shall have to Go Look to see if “Fearful Decision” has survived in some form…

    1. I agree about Gibson’s acting, and they changed just enough of it to make it modern but keep the most important thing which was that rage and feeling of helplessness. In fact on that note I could have probably thought a bit more about what it says about fathers and male power too. would love to see the Bellamy one too.

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