V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the summer sun! It's July, the time when many people go somewhere on vacation, whether it be to a warmer climate, a remote cabin in the forest, or another country altogether. This month we are escaping the summer heat by watching movies about vacations from the air-conditioned comfort of our couches.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Doug (Barry Sullivan) and Helen Stilwin (Barbara Stanwyck) take their son Bobby (Lee Aaker) on a summer vacation to Mexico. Doug was stationed in Baja California during his military service and wants to bring his family back to the beach he frequented then. It is a long drive through the desert with few signs of civilization and few English-speakers. When they arrive at the abandoned pier, Helen feels a sense of foreboding that she later regrets dismissing. After a tense rescue of their son there, whose foot got stuck in one of the footboards, Doug's leg gets trapped under a heavy collapsed pylon and the tide is coming in. It is up to Helen to find help to save her husband's life.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: What happened in Mexico, anyway? The forties were jam packed with colorful depictions of Latin America due to the “Good Neighbor Policy”, and it seems that as soon as the 50’s hit, we started seeing a grittier Mexico, albeit, in this case one, that people would want to vacation in. The city scenes are claustrophobic, as the family is approached by relentless vendors with every sort of tchotchke imaginable. It’s only as they start to approach the beach that there is SOME sense of solace, however, that solitude eventually leads to the undoing of the family.
SG: Jeopardy is a good example of a movie which is manipulated by the soundtrack. The opening of the film features a jagged, noir-ish font and a menacing title, but the music is jaunty and quaint like a sitcom theme. Dimitri Tiomkin's score tricks the viewer into thinking some moments are more significant than they are, like when Doug courteously closes the lock on the door of the deserted gas station. It is also excessively dramatic in some moments in hope of juicing up the action on screen.
RB: It does kind of trick you doesn’t it? In this film, those moments where you’re tricked into thinking nothing consequential is going to happen are the only brief moments away from the suspense that you get. For a film that really doesn’t let up after slamming on the gas, you don’t really realize until you look back on the film that all of those things were so important.
SG: The big conundrum for Helen is whether to allow herself to be had by the escaped convict (Ralph Meeker) in order to entice him to help her save her husband. It is one of those extreme situations that allows the viewer to contemplate their own decisions in a similar situation from the safety of their couch. The costs were more intense in the 50s when some men would not consider marrying a woman who wasn't a virgin. This theme has been examined in many films before including a few memorable pre-codes with Stanwyck contemporaries: Tallulah Bankhead in Faithless and Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. In both of these situations, the men, at least initially, reject their wives even though they owed their lives to their dalliances. This situation here is sanitized by a conversation where Helen says, "I said I'd go with you and I will," which suggests she has not yet had sex with him but intends to follow through on the promise. The hard face-smashing kisses he gives her, which black and white movie stars seemed to think were really hot but which only look painful to modern eyes, and the quick cut made me think the act was accomplished before they arrived back at the pier.
RB: The sex aspect is as underplayed as you’d expect it to be in a film from 1953, but the trade ads really played it up. “SHE DID IT…and her fear was greater than her shame” and “SHE DID IT…and it was bad!” are just a couple of the phrases used to intrigue theater goers into attending, putting the emphasis more on the act, as opposed to attempts at survival or as a moral conundrum. Your point about the emphasized morality of “virgin brides” in film stands, and one wonders what conversations would be had on the way home with their sleeping son in the back seat of the car. And of course, those aggressive hard kisses have all of the sex appeal of getting smushed in the face by a grapefruit wielding James Cagney.
SG: In contrast to the intensity of the Stanwyck and Meeker interaction is the more quietly desperate scene at the pier with Sullivan and Aaker. The boy attempts to entertain his dad, sitting right in the waves with him to keep him company and attempting to make him coffee. If the spray of the salt water didn't ruin it enough, Bobby has no idea how to brew coffee, but the activity keeps him busy and deflects him from noticing Doug's agony at his looming demise and the real possibility that his son will witness his drowning.
RB: I found these sequences troubling, and emotional. Poor Bobby has no idea of the actual danger that both he and his father are in, and his attempts at naively trying to bring comfort to his dad, were very touching. I found myself actually worrying for the poor kid.
SG: The New York Times's Bosley Crowther loved the beginning of the film but felt it trailed off and went "completely out of kilter" at the end. "The settings are strikingly authentic, the situation is coolly credible and the visual laminating of the story perceptibly tightens the suspense."
Modern Screen's reviewer said, "This picture, as the saying goes, will scare you right out of your wits. It's torture, and it's so exciting you can't close your eyes even though you're dying to."
RB: Well, not for the first time, but I disagree with Bosley Crowther. I don’t feel the film ever went off kilter. It’s a complete roller coaster ride from start to finish. A scary movie, though not a horror film.
SG: Photoplay's reviewer said the story was reminiscent of a radio thriller. The story was adapted for Lux Radio Theater on March 15, 1954.
RB: Little Harry Shearer has a role in that episode of Lux, around the same time that he was a semi-regular on the Jack Benny Program. The film actually was based on a radio play, albeit one that I’m not sure was ever actually performed, called "A Question of Time". The author of that play, had written for a few radio programs including Murder By Experts and Suspense, so it’s not surprising that he had a role in the creation of this.
SG: This is the bottom half of a double-bill, but an impressive one. What in some ways resembles Ida Lupino's acclaimed The Hitchhiker works better overall. This is a relatable scenario that pulls the viewer in right away, and Stanwyck's likeability holds us rapt. Four stars.
RB: It usually ran on the bottom half of bills, but in some smaller markets, it would take the top rung, paired with a western or lower-budget film. This is a really, really good film that deserves to be better known. It still holds up as extremely suspenseful, and the performances, especially from Stanwyck and Ralph Meeker are spot on. Four stars for an unheralded classic.