August 2009
Rhythms and redemption in Tiomkin’s score for Jeopardy

(Fourth in an occasional series on Tiomkin’s lesser-known film scores)

by Warren M. Sherk

Jeopardy - InsertAs the United States worked to regain its footing following World War II, Hollywood continued to crank out popular melodramas into the 1950s, many of which focused on threats to the security of the American family. A good number of these films are admittedly forgettable; however, some do stand the test of time. Jeopardy, released in 1953, is one example.

The film’s direction (by John Sturges), screenplay (by Mel Dinelli), and cast­—with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role—are first rate. In August, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) screened Jeopardy as part of a Barbara Stanwyck 100th birthday celebration. (TCM is spotlighting films scored by Bernard Herrmann in September. Perhaps the cable network will consider Tiomkin for its future programming.) Based on the short story “A Question of Time,” originally written for radio by Maurice Zimring, the plot of Jeopardy revolves around an American family on vacation in Mexico and their encounter with an escaped convict and psychopath, played with relish by Ralph Meeker. Meeker was a rising star on Broadway thanks to his lead role in the stage production of Picnic.

One month after the film’s February release, Tiomkin took home two Academy Awards for his work on High Noon. By this point in his career, he understood the medium of film and had mastered the technique of using music to strengthen narrative and trigger emotions. His score for Jeopardy functions on multiple levels. At various points Tiomkin’s score not only communicates to the viewer a sense of place but also denotes the passage of time, enhances drama, and sets the pace of individual scenes to help bring the film together as a whole. In addition, he establishes a singular theme, “Together,” that plays a crucial role in one character’s redemption.

Dimitri Tiomkin, 1951Tiomkin wrote 37 minutes of underscore, strategically placed throughout the film’s taut 69 minutes. For the first 15 minutes there is little to suggest the peril implied by the film’s title. The main title features a driving motor rhythm of sixteenth notes in the strings and signals excitement and adventure rather than danger. As the story unfolds, rhythms, harmonies, and instrumentation typically found in Mexican music help establish the film’s Baja California setting, particularly in two music cues, “Tia Juana Theme” and “The Map.” The latter ends as the family—Helen (Stanwyck), her husband, Doug (Barry Sullivan), and their young son, Bobby (the endearing Lee Aaker)—come across a police roadblock. The scene that follows, which foreshadows that a fugitive is on the loose, is not scored. In fact, throughout the film, scenes that might typically be scored are deliberately not. Instead, music cues begin after a dramatic scene ends, serving to propel the story forward and set up the next dramatic scene.

Lobby Card GThe passage of time during the long driving sequences is captured by new musical phrases that begin when the camera cuts to the car. These phrases are accompanied by harmonic modulations, or tonal shifts. The first hint of danger comes when the family arrive at their destination, a deserted beach. Bobby sees a Danger sign on the dilapidated pier but cannot read it, as it is in Spanish. Here a lengthy cue opens with idyllic music—pure Americana scored primarily for flutes, piano, and strings—as the boy makes his way across the pier. Doug and Helen share a tender moment on the beach, and we hear for the first time the “Together” theme that Tiomkin weaves in and out of the remaining score.

Lobby Card EBobby’s foot becomes caught, and Doug and Helen spot the Danger sign. The music turns darker, including a musical nod to the broken piling that will soon entrap Doug. As Doug tries to help his son the music builds, growing more furious and dissonant with brass flutters and trumpet outbursts. The boy is retrieved safely, and the danger appears to have passed—for now. There is no music, only words of comfort and encouragement as Doug coaches his son across the planks of the unstable pier. A plank breaks, and the music enters boldly as Doug crashes to the sand below. Then a heavy piling lands on Doug’s leg, trapping him in the shallow water. Unable to free him, Helen desperately sets off in the car to find help in a race against time and the rising tide. For the next 40 minutes or so, Tiomkin deftly captures the movement and terror of the incoming tide by subtly synchronizing his underscore with swells in the music each time a wave crashes higher and higher over the helpless Doug.

Lobby Card BIt is interesting to note the number of emotional shifts the music supplies in the one minute 40-second cue “Helen Departs.” The underscore enters with a dramatic driving rhythm, signaling the urgency of the situation as Helen and Bobby run to the car. Helen waves to Doug as she drives away, and we hear a few bars of the romantic “Together” theme. There is a musical flourish that accompanies Bobby as he runs back to join his father, but when Helen waves to Bobby the romantic theme returns. With Helen gone, the music takes on a dirgelike character to reflect Doug’s despair. As Helen drives frantically, “Cuerda” opens with rollicking music to accompany the speeding, swerving car, with sixteenth notes in the strings reminiscent of the main title. The “Together” theme has now been cast in a heroic vein with rising horns.

As Doug realizes Helen may not return in time, he endeavors to prepare his son. In a poignant three-minute scene in which Bobby makes coffee over the campfire, the music begins with contrapuntal strings and wispy harp glissandos. It is movingly scored, rife with symbolic meaning. The viewer understands the gravity of the situation but knows the child cannot. Throughout the scene no fewer than five waves pummel Doug, each rise announced by the underscore.

Lobby Card FEach failed attempt to find help is heartbreakingly filmed and scored. No music accompanies Doug’s frantic effort to flag down a passing boat, but once the boat disappears, the music enters with somber instrumental solos to enhance his mounting loneliness and despair. After Helen encounters Meeker’s convict, Lawson, she returns with him to the beach. Lawson assists in freeing Doug, and the “Together” theme turns heroic as the convict finds redemption. During Helen and Bobby’s struggle to help the exhausted Doug, they pause and the music holds for several beats. With a final tug, Helen pulls her husband out of the water and the music turns both triumphant and cathartic, signifying the end of his ordeal.

Most reviewers, from local newspapers to trade publications to national magazines, commented favorably on Tiomkin’s score. Newsweek wrote that the score “admirably counterpoints the mood of frustration and fear.” The Los Angeles Examiner, which admired the film’s deceptively simple story, small cast, and intelligent production, noted the haunting, lonely music that subtly accented the tense mood.

Jeopardy was the first of four collaborations between Sturges and Tiomkin. Later in the decade, Tiomkin would score Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Old Man and the Sea, and Last Train from Gun Hill.

Sources

  • Barbara Stanwyck Double Feature: To Please a Lady / A Woman in Jeopardy, Warner Home Video, DVD, copyright 2007
  • “New Films: Jeopardy,” Newsweek, April 6, 1953
  • “Jeopardy Put in Class A,” Los Angeles Examiner, February 21, 1953
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