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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Raising the Ransom (originally published 6/01)

Few experiences in life can possibly be as traumatic as the abduction of a loved one. It follows, therefore, that few subjects are better suited as the subject matter for drama. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the recently released "Along Came a Spider" is by no means the first to be built around a kidnapping. If this tense story of a senator's daughter falling into the hands of a deranged kidnapper didn't satisfy your craving for vicarious worry, you're in luck. There's plenty more where that came from down at the corner video store. For a nail-biting sampling of earlier kidnap capers, look for these titles.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934). The essence of kidnapping dramas is, of course, suspense. Let's begin, then, with the acknowledged master of cinematic suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In this early British film, made before he came to America, Hitchcock tells us the story of an average British family on holiday at a resort in the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, they have the ill luck to befriend a Frenchman who is murdered by spies. With his dying breath, he tells them of a secret plot to murder an important diplomat. To keep the family quiet, the spies kidnap their daughter. This leaves the agonized parents in the position of choosing between betraying their country with their silence or endangering their child by passing on what they know.

"The Atomic City" (1952). Gene Barry stars as Dr. Frank Addison, a nuclear physicist working on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos. In an attempt to blackmail him into giving up his formula, a group of terrorists kidnap Dr. Addison's son. Sydney Boehm's tense script was nominated for an Academy Award.

"High and Low" (1963). Japanese director Akira Kurosawa excels at translating story material from other countries into Japanese settings. Here he adapts an American novel, "King's Ransom" by Ed McBain, changing its setting from "Isola," the thinly veiled New York City of McBain's 87th Precinct novels, to Yokohama. Toshiro Mifune plays industrialist Kingo Gondo, whose son, Aoki, is reportedly kidnapped and held for ransom. Having just sunk all available capital into a business deal, Gondo is in no position to pay the ransom, but since his son's life is at stake, he has no choice. But then he learns that it was not, in fact, Aoki who was kidnapped. Instead, the abductors mistakenly took Aoki's playmate, the son of Gondo's chauffeur, as their hostage. Now, Gondo faces a moral dilemma: will he ruin himself financially to ransom his chauffeur's son, or allow the boy to die in his son's place?

"Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" (1981). Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's film is similar in some respects to "High and Low." Again we have a wealthy industrialist, Primo Spaggiari, facing the nightmare of a son who is taken hostage. His business, however, is not on solid financial ground, leaving him scrambling to raise the ransom money. When he is told that his son has been killed, Primo keeps the information to himself, hoping to use the money he has raised as a ransom to prop up his failing business. The plan seems workable, but a couple of his son's friends seem to know more than they're telling.

"Adam" (1983). Based on the real-life abduction of six year old Adam Walsh, this TV movie features Daniel J. Travanti and JoBeth Williams as John and Reve Walsh. When their son disappeared from a South Florida mall in July of 1981, the Walshes were dismayed to learn that the FBI's National Crime Information Center data bank could not be accessed to pursue the case. Unless there was a ransom note or evidence of transportation across state lines, the FBI could not intervene in any way. The publicity generated by the case of Adam Walsh, including this docudrama, led to the passage of the federal Missing Children Act, the establishment of a Florida Missing Children Information Clearinghouse, and a revision of the FBI's policies regarding the investigation of missing children cases.

There's a certain justice to the progress that emerged from the tragedy of Adam Walsh. It is entirely fitting that the movie industry, which had profited so often from the dramatic portrayal of kidnap victims' families, finally found a way to return the favor by contributing in a small way to their cause.

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