Nielsen Ratings: Ransom! (1956) Review

Ransom! 1956 Review

It was ten years ago today that Leslie Nielsen passed away, robbing the silver screen of one of its most prolific, most recognisable and often most underrated stars. By the time Nielsen made his feature film debut – in this thriller co-written by future Bond writing mainstay Richard Maibaum – he was already a familiar face thanks to his regular appearances across a variety of TV shows.

Clean-cut and square-jawed, he was destined for the big screen – although he’d never leave television altogether. His debut may not have been as the lead, but he played an important supporting character and – more importantly – held his own against a powerhouse performance from Glenn Ford as father Dave Stannard and sterling work from Donna Reed as Edith Stannard, the parents facing their worst nightmare when their son is kidnapped and held for “Ransom!”.

Remade forty years later as a bombastic action thriller starring Mel Gibson, this original “Ransom!” (exclamation point included) is an altogether more restrained affair. But that restraint also means its more tightly wound and tense than the version you may be more familiar with. There’s little to no focus on the kidnapper in the movie and instead the camera stays obsessively, oppressively on the family enduring the worst of their fears and largely powerless to remedy the situation.

It’s a claustrophobic approach to the drama, almost theatrical in its static setting of the family home and it’s into this simmering tension that Nielsen makes his entrance as a local journalist chasing the story. Nielsen brings an old-fashioned sense of decency to a role which these days would probably end up being a secondary villain of the piece. He’s supportive of the authorities in their attempts to solve the crime and is one of the few characters who supports Dave Stannard’s boldly unorthodox decision to turn the ransom money against the kidnappers, a desperate gamble which may or may not cost his son’s life.

Where the 1996 Ron Howard version works better is in its resolution, thanks to having fleshed out the kidnappers and upping the action quotient. As it is, this original version feels like it has an abruptly tacked-on definitively happy ending where it might have been stronger – and certainly braver – to end on a bleakly ambiguous note. The ending, though, doesn’t diminish the drama which has come before it, one in which Nielsen makes an impressive big-screen debut. It would quickly be followed by more starring roles, not least of all as the dashing space captain – and James T. Kirk progenitor Commander Adams – in “Forbidden Planet” later the same year.

Leslie Nielsen Rating 08

Nielsen Rating 8/10