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The husband and wife team of Andrew and Virginia Stone wrote, produced and directed a number of successful thrillers in the 1950s, hiring name stars to be threatened by cruel thieves or cunning blackmailers. Doris Day was terrorized by Louis Jourdan in Julie, in a prime example. The Stones were known for a literal approach to their subject matter -- the mechanics of the villain's diabolical plans were always stressed, and most scenes with cars, boats and airplanes in jeopardy were not faked with models. The most elaborate A & V Stone attraction was The Last Voyage, where in the name of verisimilitude an actual ocean liner was partially sunk.
1958's Cry Terror! delivers fairly well on its promise of realistic thrills and unbearable suspense, but its appeal today lies mostly in its powerhouse cast. It's easy to say that none of the actors are used to their full potential, and that typecasting lessens the film's impact somewhat. But like most of the Stones' movies, Cry Terror! is highly watchable, the matinee equivalent of a drugstore page-turner.
The action is split between federal agents investigating a high-powered extortion scheme, and a criminal who forces an innocent couple to do his bidding. Ruthless schemer Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger) tricks music store owner and TV repairman Jim Molner (James Mason) into manufacturing some small but very potent bombs, and directs his girl friend Eileen Kelly (Angie Dickinson) to plant them on commercial airliners. Federal cops and other officials (Kenneth Tobey, Barney Phillips, William Schallert) scramble to fulfill Paul's extortion demands. Meanwhile, Jim has no sooner told his wife Joan (Inger Stevens) that he's been duped, when Paul shows up with his henchmen Steve (Neville Brand) and Vince (Jack Klugman). The gang threatens to kill the Molner's young daughter unless Joan picks up the extortion payoff money. Joan is given three hours to drive into Manhattan and return to Brooklyn with the cash, following a complicated set of instructions. Will the plan work? Can Jim find some way of escaping with his little girl? It seem obvious that Paul will have them killed after he gets his hands on the money.
The operative word for Cry Terror! is efficiency. Andrew Stone's script can be praised for not depending on wild coincidences, but its suspense is the mechanical kind. James Mason's hero faces a problem (example: how to escape down an elevator shaft) that for a few minutes becomes a close-call drama of its own. Likewise Inger Stevens, already terrified by the threat to her daughter (and the creepy advances of Neville Brand's rape-minded thug) panics when mid-town traffic fouls up her narrowly timed cash pickup. The movie makes extensive use of scenes showing Ms. Stevens driving through real New York traffic. With the road blocked by a truck not two blocks away, she's stuck while Rod Steiger's heartless Paul dials the number to have the little girl killed.
In 1958 Cry Terror! didn't have to put the Molner's child in direct jeopardy; just the threat was enough. The film gets away with a edgy content that couldn't be exhibited just five years before. This show has Inger Stevens all but assaulted by the frightening Neville Brand not once but twice. The greasy Steve pulls half of Joan's dress off, as he pins her against a wall. Movie ads had threatened helpless heroines with rape for ages, but the films themselves could do little more than tease.
Andrew Stone's experience with no-nonsense police dramas (the brutal Highway 301) informs the official efforts to catch the crooks. To my mind the federal agents spend too much time discussing the morality of the situation, making it seem unrealistic that they can also visit all of the investigation sites in such a short period of time. Today's audiences will derive a good laugh from the airline official who overrides objections to paying out millions to an unknown extortionist: "The life of a child is at risk!" Were it that easy, everybody would grab a corporate phone directory and start dialing for dollars.
The movie makes a nearly fatal mistake when Joan and Jim are left on their own to carry out Paul diabolical instructions: it adds a numbing, suspense-killing narration. Either the filmmakers or MGM decided that audiences were too stupid or inattentive to watch extended suspense scenes without expository dialogue to tell us what's going on. Joan Molner gets into her car, and suddenly we're hit by her voiceover, telling us why she's doing what she's doing and how she feels about it. As Joan describes her own actions, we're relieved of the necessity of paying close attention. The same thing happens later when Jim wanders off alone to look for an escape route from a penthouse apartment-prison. The narration kicks us out of the "this is happening now" groove that builds audience identification. Worse, the voiceovers aren't first-person stream of consciousness testimony, but statements made in the past tense. This implies that Jim and Joan are speaking from some future time frame where things have settled enough to allow them to collect their thoughts. In other words, we have proof that they're not going to die. The film's psychological tension (audience connection-wise) goes out the window during these scenes. Just some tense music, and maybe a few cutaways to a clock face, would have made them unbearably suspenseful.
The excellent cast compensates quite well. It's always a pleasure to see James Mason, even if his character's problem seems much less complex than the pickle he gets into in Bigger than Life. Frankly, Mason isn't at his best playing "ordinary guys", if only because he can do so many things with more flamboyant characters. The actor communicates so much innate intelligence that we have a hard time believing he'd be fooled into building a bomb for a stranger with a slick story. Rod Steiger probably gets the most screen time, and does a fine job of adjusting his talents to the task of playing such a slimy, but charismatic bad guy. His cohorts place a lot of faith in his ability to get the job done. Their characters aren't written in depth, but the actors flesh them out well. Weak sister Jack Klugman (in his first picture since 12 Angry Men) wants the big payoff but balks at the idea of killing women and children. We'd have to say that he's a curious choice for the gang member whose job is to serve as a lethal babysitter. Neville Brand plays strictly to type, grinding through the same mentally challenged goon role that he did so well in noirs like D.O.A.. There's a touch of feeble-mindedness here too -- Brand's Steve is hooked on Benzedrine and goes into a convincing rapacious trance when left alone with the blonde Joan Molner.
Never did a casting choice promise so much, and then pull back our hopes, with the appearance of Angie Dickinson. We can see immediately why this woman excited casting directors. Her entrance is her best scene in the picture. She immediately convinces that she's an intelligent mantrap who worships Paul Hoplin's criminal genius. "Eileen" also persuades us ... how does one say this ... that she really enjoys going to bed with men. This is conveyed simply by her presence and attitude. The movie has her do little except baby-sit the hostages alongside Klugman's stubbornly asexual Vince. Cry Terror! misses some great opportunities by following its clockwork story to a doggedly realistic end. Jim Molner never confronts the villain Paul Hoplin on equal terms. And Ms. Dickinson's role is not allowed to develop. Her bad girl and Inger's good Mom are both energetic and determined women... a showdown between the two of them over the life of the child, would have been sensational.
Actually, my imagined optimal Cry Terror! would swap actors and roles to make things less predictable. Imagine James Mason as the calculating extortionist, Rod Steiger as the tormented fool tricked into making a bomb, Jack Klugman as the can't-help-it rapist-junkie and Neville Brand as an unexpectedly meek thug who doesn't want to hurt anybody. Everything would become more interesting, and the actors would probably be enthused as well.
Cry Terror! gains a lot of realism by being shot on location; the production is very impressive for 1958. The ending (with the help of a split-screen effect or two) takes place in what looks like a real subway tunnel. This kind of true-crime tale was once strongly discouraged, with the moral argument that young punks might see it as a blueprint for copycat criminal capers.
Something got scrambled in the film's main credits, which list former silent actress Mae Marsh. She either couldn't film or was replaced, by Marjorie Bennett. Newscaster Chet Huntley is seen on the TV, reporting the airline bomb threat news story.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Cry Terror! is a very clean Remastered Edition transfer of an element in good shape, minus a couple of damaged frames. The 1:85 enhanced image looks very wide; this show must have seemed very small on old TV broadcasts, which open up the mattes. An original trailer is included.
Cry Terror! is a straight jeopardy narrative, with plenty of tension but little to say beyond the immediate concerns of its desperate characters. It's an example of a good crime thriller that is not a film noir.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cry Terror! rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.