Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cry Danger (1951)

Cry Danger is an effectively low-key film noir that works rather well without making too much fuss about it.

Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) has just been released from prison after serving five years of a life sentence for armed robbery and murder. Mulloy was innocent of the crime, although he had originally intended to be involved but backed out. Mulloy is not perhaps an entirely law-abiding citizen but he’s still rather bitter about serving five years for a job he didn’t do.

What really puzzles him is that after five years he was suddenly offered a full pardon. At his trial his alibi had failed to convince the jury. He claimed to have been drinking in a bar with a group of Marines at the time of the robbery, but he couldn’t produce any of the Marines at the trial. Now one of those Marines has come forward and confirmed his alibi. Delong (Richard Erdman) explained that he’d been serving overseas at the time of the trial and lost a leg in combat and as a result has only just returned to the States and only just heard about the case. Naturally he immediately stepped forward to clear Mulloy’s name.

This is all fine and dandy, but there’s only one problem. Mulloy has never set eyes on Delong before and he’s absolutely certain that he was not one of the Marines he was drinking with on that fateful night. In fact Delong cheerfully admits he has never set eyes on Mulloy before either. He simply assumed Mulloy was guilty and that in gratitude for getting him the pardon he would share some of the loot with him. Mulloy is rather amused by Delong’s explanation and although he points out that not having committed the crime he has no idea where the stolen $100,000 is he’s happy for Delong to tag along with him.

The odd friendship between Mulloy and Delong is typical of the wry but understated humour that lightens a movie that could have been merely grim and cynical. Neither is exactly a solid citizen but neither is exactly an out-and-out criminal either. They’re slightly shady figures on the edge of the underworld but basically they’re both fairly decent guys underneath.

Mulloy had not taken part in the robbery but since he was originally slated to be the getaway driver he knows who did pull the job. That person was Castro (William Conrad). Mulloy figures that Castro owes him for the five years he lost out of his life. The trouble is that Castro doesn’t exactly see it that way. Castro explains that he is now “60% legitimate” and a big shot and he’s not happy about giving up a share of the loot to Mulloy. Mulloy’s efforts to get what he believes he is entitled to will get him into deeper and deeper trouble and will also cause problems with Nancy Morgan. Nancy’s husband was involved in the robbery and he’s still in prison. Mulloy is hoping to find evidence to prove his pal’s innocence but the complication is that Mulloy and Nancy used to be a hot item before her marriage and it soon becomes obvious that the flames of romance are still smouldering and could easily erupt into a full-blown forest fire.

Despite the humour this is still a genuine film noir and it has the classic noir themes of betrayal and it gets pretty downbeat at times. It’s an odd mix that works surprisingly well.

Screenwriter William Bowers doesn’t make the mistake of over-complicating things. If you throw in too many cynical twists and too many betrayals then the effect of the twists and betrayals that really matter, the ones that need to have a real impact, are likely to be dissipated. Bowers is content to save his big twist until the end while doing his best to distract the audience’s attention in the meantime.

Providing an ending that would satisfy the Production Code and the studio while still remaining truthful to the material was always a difficult juggling act. The ending in this case works well and it feels right.

Dick Powell had been a popular juvenile lead in the Warner Brothers musicals of the 30s. By the 40s it was obvious that that was going to become a bit of a dead end so he set about reinventing himself as a serious actor in tough guy roles. The change of direction was fairly successful and Powell played a number of notable film noir roles including the 1944 Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet and the excellent 1948 Pitfall. Powell adopted the minimalist acting style that proved so successful for actors like Alan Ladd in the 40s. By that stage Powell had the craggy slightly ravaged looks to carry off such roles. He was never a great actor but in the right part he could be quite effective and he did the tough guy thing very convincingly. He works well for him in Cry Danger.

Rhonda Fleming does well enough as the woman who introduces such complications into Rocky’s life. Jean Porter provides some delightful light relief as the light-fingered but likeable good-time girl Darlene who takes a shine to Delong. William Conrad was always reliable as a heavy and his performance is a major highlight. Regis Toomey is fine as the unsentimental but basically honest cop.

Robert Parrish’s career as a director was not especially distinguished although it included some interesting oddities such as the quirky heist/caper movie Duffy (1968) and the underrated 1969 Gerry Anderson-produced science fiction movie Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun). And it also included the pretty decent 1951 gangster flick The Mob. He does a competent if not overly inspired job with Cry Danger.

Olive Films have released Cry Danger in a characteristically barebones edition on Blu-Ray. The transfer is a good one although I’m not entirely convinced the Blu-Ray release is necessary for black-and-white movies of this vintage which generally look just fine in a good quality DVD release.

Cry Danger is not quite a film noir classic but it’s a somewhat overlooked and rather satisfying example of the genre. Highly recommended.

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