Look alike dudes descending a staircase

Look alike dudes descending a staircase – the 1956 version of the film ‘Ransom’ is compared to the 1996 version

Molly Haskell

THE MORNING-AFTER IMAGE of the Presidential couple that blanketed the media was striking and carefully choreographed: a triumphant Bill and Hillary wearing matching black pant suits, waving in unison on the White House porch, or descending the staircase in lockstep, hand in hand. Royal We or unisex Us, it was startling to say the least. Both Imperial and populist-subversive (as any leveling of the President-and-wife hierarchy must be), the sartorially fused couple evoked memories of Chairman Mao and Madame Mao in matching tunics, or the Egyptian dynastic rulers in tomb sculptures.

Historically, periods of social and sexual unease have often been reflected in a renewed emphasis on male and female difference, expressed particularly in exaggerations of dress–a point made by a number of writers, most recently Francine du Plessix Gray musing on the Dior look in the New Yorker fashion issue. I wonder if our current taste for androgyny signifies a true relaxing of the barriers and a lessening of rigid boy-girl gaystraight strictures–or is it merely a cyclical return to the vogue for crossdressing as led by such fin-de-siecle aesthetes and dandies as George Sand, Colette, and Oscar Wilde?

I thought of the pinched-waist/flaredskirt Dior look (and the opposing gray flannel suit) while watching the 1956 version of Ransom, which an ever-alert TCM featured on the very night that the new Ransom opened. The black-and-white movie shows us an America still in thrall to the postwar suburban idyll, but with tremors of discontent burbling up like poison gases through the surface. Glenn Ford’s sober but boyish tycoon is a successful manufacturer of–appropriately enough–vacuum cleaners who, with wife Donna Reed and only son, lives in squeaky-clean suburban splendor. Their sprawling white frame house magically evokes both American plutocracy and smalltown community. Reed is the fulltime homemaker, dressed to kill–flared skirt, tiny waist, high heels, pearls, pristinely regal as she presides over the home and servants, sends the men off in the morning, in Cadillac and schoolbus respectively, and awaits their return. Their spoiled, bratty son Andrew who, when first we meet him, has removed the slats from mom’s and dad’s beds (twin; this is a Hays Office bedroom), causing his parents to crash to the floor, might be more at home in O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

By contrast, Sean (Brawley Nolte), the kid in the ’96 version, is precocious, alone, a modishly passive sitting duck for abduction and abuse. Mel Gibson’s self-made airline exec is another breed altogether: the tycoon-as-celebrity, isolated in his penthouse eyrie, his only friend his wife (Rene Russo as ex-biology teacher, now charity matron), his only close associate his second-in-command. When, in the ’56 version, the community wishes to show disapproval for Ford’s decision not to pay off the kidnappers (the distinctive twist of both movies), they throw rocks through his window. Gibson’s “neighbors,” such as they are, live thirty floors below, and he is accessible only on television.

The movies provide, like all kidnapping stories, the opportunity to express exaggerated anxiety over the fate of a child through vividly imagined disasters, which, as Freud has taught all of us late 20th century analysands, is a disguise for a wish. And–another bit of overcompensation maybe?–both fathers, despite their weighty CEO responsibilities, are Fabulous Dads, taking time off from their hectic schedules for quality-time playdates with their sons. The sons meanwhile are occupied by interestingly Oedipal projects of their own: Sean shows an engineering genius to rival Dad’s until his model plane crashes; Andy is constructing a fort out of his parents’ bedroom lumber! One of the most bizarre scenes in the ’56 version is Glenn Ford’s reaction to Andy’s tardiness. Having left the office early during a particularly intense meeting in order to help Andy build his fort, he waits impatiently for the boy’s return. When the child fails to materialize, Ford becomes angry, flustered, and hurt. Thinking Andy has forgotten their date, he reacts like a jilted lover, rushing to the bar for two quick shots of whiskey.

The at-home mother is given an equally creepy twist: Donna Reed, in her usual all-dressed-up-with-no-place-to-go semi-cocktail ensemble, sits down at the piano and with a demented smile tears into Chopin. The mutual fixation on the boy–as with Doris Day’s perpetually hysterical piano playing and singing mother in The Man Who Knew Too Much–suggests the child fills some affective or erotic gap in both parents’ lives. Indeed, when Donna Reed lashes out at Ford for refusing to pay the kidnappers, she accuses him of having always been jealous of her intense relationship with Andy since his birth.

This was not long after The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s classic kidnapping tale, in which Doris Day’s exsinger, also decked out in requisite ultrafeminine uniform, displaces all her bottled-up fury (over the loss of her showbiz career; over her husband’s role in making her give it up) into hysteria over the disappearance of the son. The estrangement between husband and wife that so often makes misfortune to a child a double tragedy is built into the Ransom plot in the debate over whether or not to pay the kidnappers. In both versions the wives naturally plead for payment, Donna Reed hysterically, and (like Day) between sedatives, Rene Russo, as a more fulfilled-and-in-control woman, with her eyes–and, when she learns her husband has himself lied to her about paying off a union leader to avoid a strike, by throwing his dishonesty in his face.

The 1956 Ransom betrays its origins as a twice-made telefilm with its mostly interior locales, its wordy screenplay, and its quaint Fifties sense of community responsibility and edification. The police move in and establish a surveillance beachhead in the basement so vast that it might fill the Pentagon or Bill Gates’s entire estate. Carefully explaining its state-of-the-art phone-tapping and criminal-tracking machinery, the movie becomes a virtual education film for kidnappers, while encouraging rapprochement between community, police, and kidnap target. That is, Ford thinks through his options rationally, and has the cops with him; they would prefer (pause for a public service announcement) that all parents of kidnap victims refuse payment, whereas Gibson is pretty much alone as the black FBI head in the new version insists the ransom be paid.

The kidnapper is unheard and anonymous–all we see of him is the back of his head wreathed in cigarette smoke as he watches his nemesis (an almost identical scene in both movies) on television. In 1956, the paranoia toward law enforcers is many years away, the cops are still benign and trustworthy, and even a representative of the “media”–an unexpectedly straight-faced Leslie Nielsen playing a reporter–is allowed a little homespun virtue and respect.

Glenn Ford does something superstar Mel would never do: he actually shares screentime with an older brother, whose managerial conservatism is a foil to Ford’s more reckless and risk-taking entrepreneurial style. Along with the interesting ambiguity of Gibson’s Tainted Hero (the worst thing Ford does is swipe a few planks from a construction site), the other deliciously dark twist in the new film is Gary Sinise’s twin role as head kidnapper and a nice-guy cop much decorated for community service.

The most vivid, if undeveloped, characters in the new movie are the coven of kidnappers, including an interestingly malignant Lili Taylor. Replacing the stolid solid-citizen-in-trouble plot of the old movie is Richard Price’s tripper screenplay with its emphasis on class conflict and its criminals motivated less by simple greed or Marxist envy than that ultra-American attraction-repulsion attitude toward celebrity, the Why-thou-not-me?

If male-female roles were more clearly defined and sartorially reinforced in the earlier version, the new one nevertheless doesn’t particularly enhance or “empower” the female. Donna Reed’s freshly pressed yards of cotton bespeak a hierarchy of servants and cheap labor, but Rene Russo’s hairdo, that perfect geometric sheet of humidity-proof gold, is no less labor-intensive and may appear as artificial to future generations as Donna’s perpetually daisy-fresh look does to us. Ford is the archetypal oaktree male in Brooks Brothers sobriety, trying to maintain control, while Gibson’s Armani-clad, aw-shucks narcissist is all over the place emotionally. Icon of a world in which men not only bring home the bacon but have breakdowns, he actually contemplates suicide when he thinks his strategy has failed. What makes the moment grotesque is the essential coldness of the story and the character. In neither film is there much warmth or chemistry within the family, and the real tension in the new version, as suggested by the prolonged final confrontation between Gibson and Sinise, is the orgasm of male-on-male violence for the target audience.

The 1956 film at least offers an emotional payoff in the ending, thanks largely to Juano Hernandez as the black manservant who at one point embraces and comforts Ford. He would be hooted off the screen today for political incorrectness, yet compared to his counterpart, the Mel Gibson aide who merely follows the boss’s orders, Hernandez is a majestic and authentically spiritual figure, functioning as Greek chorus and Biblical comforter. In the moving final scene, he cites Samuel (“O Absalom, my son, my son!”) as he bears witness to the reunion of the family, its tensions and frustrations buried for a while…if not, as we now know, for long.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group