Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cry Vengeance (1954)

Cry Vengeance is a 1954 Allied Artists crime thriller with more than a hint of film noir. Allied Artists had been Monogram Pictures but with the change of name came a change of approach. They started making what they called B-plus pictures - movies with bigger budgets and higher production values than the usual run of B-pictures, and generally of surprisingly high quality. Cry Vengeance is a good one.

Mark Stevens had pursued a moderately successful acting career in the 40s but with stardom eluding him he thought he might find more success behind the camera. Cry Vengeance was his first effort as director and he stars as well.

The movie opens in the small Alaskan town of Ketchikan. Two guys, guys the townspeople had assumed were just regular guys, get some bad news. Vic Barron is about to be released from San Quentin. Barron had been a cop but he’d been framed on bribery charges and sent to prison for three years. But the mobsters who had been out to get Vic Barron weren’t satisfied with just framing him. They tried to kill him by putting a bomb in his car. Vic escaped, although with his face badly scarred. His wife and daughter weren’t so lucky. They were killed. As you might expect, when Vic Barron leaves San Quentin he has one thought on his mind - finding the mobsters who killed his family.

You might be wondering what this has to do with those two very ordinary guys in Alaska. Those two guys are in fact racketeers Tino Morelli (Douglas Kennedy) and Johnny Blue-Eyes (Mort MIlls). They’re the men who murdered Vic Barron’s family. At least that’s what Vic Barron believes. The truth is that even though they were certainly mobsters they were not the ones who killed Vic’s wife and daughter. The real story was much more complicated.

Vic however has spent three years in a prison cell thinking about vengeance and he has no doubts in his mind that Morelli and Johnny Blue-Eyes were responsible, with Morelli being the man mainly responsible.

Vic arrives in Ketchikan and he doesn’t take long to find the men he’s after. He doesn’t kill Morelli straight way though - he wants to make him sweat. Another thing Vic doesn’t yet know is that Roxey Davis (Skip Homeier) is also in Ketchikan. Roxey is a hoodlum, and a particularly nasty one. He’s been sent to Ketchikan to take care of the Vic Barron-Tino Morelli situation. Roxey is accompanied by his drunken girlfriend Lily (Joan Vohs), who knows more about the whole situation than is good for her.

Vic is now in a position to get what he wants - vengeance. But will it be worth the cost? And is it what he really wants? He can have his vengeance, but only at the price of becoming the same sort of monster as the men he’s come to kill. 

This movie inevitably gets compared to The Big Heat and the superficial resemblances are certainly striking - the car bomb that kills the cop hero’s family, the psychotic sadistic hoodlum, the psychotic sadistic hoodlum’s boozy girlfriend who will get a shot at redemption. The message of the two movies is also similar - both are concerned with the effects that violent crime has on people. However there are enough differences to make Cry Vengeance more than just a knock-off of The Big Heat. The hero follows a very different trajectory. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) in The Big Heat is just as driven, but he’s driven by an icy determination to see the job through and catch the bad guys. He suffers, but he’s never in danger of self-destructing or losing control. Vic Barron is driven merely by blind hate and he’s not just in imminent danger of self-immolation, he’s also in serious danger of becoming the very kind of monster that he hates.

One nice touch is that our two mobster friends hiding out in Alaska, Tino Morelli and Johnny Blue-Eyes, have been playing the roles of regular decent guys for so long that they have actually become regular decent guys. They just want to forget the past. They have realised that being ordinary decent citizens in a nice little town is actually a pretty good way to live your life. They don’t even want to hurt Vic Barron. They just want him to believe them that they didn’t kill his wife and kid and for him to leave them alone. They’ve forgotten how to hate.

And that is exactly what Peggy (Martha Hyer) spends the whole film trying to persuade Vic Barron to do. Peggy owns the saloon in Ketchikan and she takes a shine to Vic the first time she sees him. She knows the truth about him - that he was once a very decent guy and that the decent guy is still there, buried under all the hate.

The usual criticism of this movie is that it starts out as film noir but fails to follow through on the noirness. Which is rather absurd since no-one in America in 1954 was consciously making film noir. They were just making films. Cry Vengeance might not be full-blooded film noir but that’s not what it is trying to be. It’s trying to be an exciting crime thriller combined with a story about not letting an obsession with revenge destroy you, and on its own terms it succeeds extremely well.

While Mark Stevens is no Fritz Lang it has to be said that as director he doesn’t really put a foot wrong. The movie is well-paced. The contrast between the idyllic life of Ketchikan and the hatred consuming Vic Barron from within works very effectively (and justifies Allied Artists’ bold decision to stretch the budget enough to allow for some actual location shooting in Alaska). The crucial scene in which Vic sees the monster he is in danger of becoming is handled skillfully and sensitively and without excessive sentimentality. The climactic action sequence is effective.

As actor Stevens does well also. One of the most notable features of this movie is that nobody in the cast is just going through the motions. They’re all doing their best, they’ve clearly put some thought into their performances, and they’re all very effective. Martha Hyers makes Peggy sweet without being insipid. Joan Vohs handles her big scenes well. And Skip Homeier pulls out all the stops making Roxey a very convincingly crazy vicious hoodlum.

Olive Films have, as usual, offered us a very good anamorphic DVD transfer.

Cry Vengeance is a well-crafted thoughtful crime thriller with sufficient noir elements to please noir fans. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Don't know this one but I like Mark Stevens. Thanks for your in depth review.