Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, February 08, 2010

"Anything" goes in JEOPARDY (1953)

In any marriage, the reasons for "cheating" vary by age and gender. Older men cheat because they're chomping at the bit or having a midlife crisis or don't want to miss what might be their last opportunity. Young guys cheat because they don't want to end up like the older ones who cheat, so they want to sow the oats from their systems. Young women cheat because they're not happy or having enough orgasms. But older women cheat only in order to save their husbands' lives or reputations as DAs, and sometimes fate must contrive beyond all logic to arrange it for them, at least in the movies, of the post-code era.

Witness JEOPARDY (1953), a post-code throwback to the soapy days of maternal "indecent proposals" in films like THE CHEAT (1931), TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931) and BLONDE VENUS (1932). The whole rickety plot is set up for the payoff answer to the question: "How far would you go to save your husband?" In other words, what Rube Goldberg-style series of events needs to be set up for a Good American Mother/Housewife to able to get her freak on with a wild outlaw Ralph Meeker without having to feel guilty later, or die at the end by the decree of the almighty code?

The story is itchy, fetid and well-laden with cryptic foreshadowing: roadblocks appear on the family trip to a lonesome stretch of Mexican beach; the WW2 vet husband's .45 automatic is brought along "in case" and stashed foolishly in the glove compartment; a rickety, dangerous pier leads far out to sea; the son's constant mention of "peril" makes it seem like a Disney ride he's excited for (no American post-war family vacation is complete without a life-or-death disaster). Director John Sturges assumes we already know what's going to happen (Husband trapped! Tide incoming! Ralph Meeker! With his shirt open!) so he's able to mine terrific suspense, especially once husband Barry Sullivan starts helping his towheaded son back across the treacherously weathered pier.

Stanwyck is set up right off the bat as the kind of broad we just don't see in the movies anymore. You can tell by her deep voice, brown tan and manly aura that she's a lifelong cigarette smoker. A closeted lesbian from Hollywood's inner sewing circle (1), Stanwyck's ambivalence towards her husband's sexual advances is palpable and anyone who suffers from anxiety is bound to understand her trepidation at taking a holiday in the middle of nowhere, with no one around, open to attack from any wandering biker gang, rapist, sadist or Satanic coven that happens by, with only her naive breeder husband around for protection (with our butch belle Babs, either you show her some rough stuff up front--give her a couple slaps, throw her up against a wall, shoot a cop--or she'll lose respect for you). It ain't called JEOPARDY for no reason! And her man's innate sense of trust in the world to supply him with anxiety-free isolation jars her craw. Like so many noir women she's the only "conscious" one in the family, and when she sees Meeker, it's like she finally finds the dark soul mate she's been unwilling to admit she's needed all along. (Note the poster at left, which deceptively paints Meeker and Stanwyck as a tough noir couple)

Stanwyck is a wife who, as she explains in her narration, "found out" how far she would go for her husband. And if you want to know just what kind of distance we're talking about, just look at that canary-fed cat grin of Meeker's up top. But who is really being served here? Babs is too far gone to matron to be a jailhouse pin-up, but the roughnecked Meeker is certainly a believable hothouse fantasy for a very frustrated and guilty-about-it hausfrau. When she says "I'll do anything to save my husband... anything!" It's both dangerously sexy and hilariously campy, like the way the gay john who admits he has no money in MIDNIGHT COWBOY asks "What are you going to do me?" with masochistic anticipation.

Thus the JEOPARDY payoff is not the rescue or near-rescue, the life or death ticking of the clock, but the cool way Stanwyck goes from panicky harridan--speeding around gnashing her teeth--to a resignedly smooth seductress, sizing up Meeker as a potential lover so that you can't tell if she's really turned on, just trying to seem that way to win his interest, or cannily realizing a 'freebie' like this may not come again, and grabbing on. Meeker proposes she just forget her husband and son and ride off into adventure with him and--for a few seconds--you can believe she's seriously considering it. Regardless of her decision, what impresses Meeker isn't the thought of shagging a cougar-iffic MILF as much as the fact that she's willing to go that far in order to save her husband: "You've got some cat in you" he says. Mister, Stanwyck wrote the book on "cat" and by the way he leaps into the cold surf later to help her husband, you know she scratched him in all the right places.

That such a key element of the story is missing (we fade out from their first kiss back to the crashing waves and husband) attests to the basic adult understanding of the code. Kids could watch this and probably never catch on what happened in between that juicy fade-out. JEOPARDY's so coded, with every signifier--the gun, the car, the desert, the pier, the waves--so charged with foreshadowing, the film barely needs actors at all. Even if you've never seen a movie before in your life and therefore don't understand coded symbolism, there's something about that fleshy, middle-aged, husky-voiced Stanwyck smolder cuts right through the crap. And in JEOPARDY there ain't no crap to begin with, so you just get cut. A vehicle for suspense and suggested sexual content from an age when sun--tanned middle-aged broads could still hook 'em, fry 'em and devour 'em -- even if its in the service of the over-hallowed American Family on holiday crap-- JEOPARDY's the sort of game where everybody wins, especially horny-but-guilt-wracked-about-it wives seeing this on rainy weekday matinees while the kids are in school. When the symbolically neutered husband finally realizes that a wife in the bush can be worth more than a gun in the hand, even the censors can't do anything about it, since on the surface it's just cars, cactus, crowbars, tire jacks, and lots and lots of sexy cigarettes.

1. This according to my sources on the matter, which are admittedly--and understandably--shadowy. And let it be known this diminishes my love for her not a whit, and may even enhance it far more than some dull as 

For more on Stanwyck, read my 2008 review of TEN CENTS A DANCE.

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