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Olive Films is back in action again, with an enviable release slate that includes titles at one time or another difficult to see. Just this month we have The Bamboo Saucer, Anthony Mann's Men in War, Douglas Sirk's Sleep My Love and a bona-fide rarity, Joseph Losey's Stranger on the Prowl. Originally an RKO Radio Pictures release, 1951's topnotch noir thriller Cry Danger is one of the many (too many) productions that reverted to its original production company and was been in danger of extinction before the intervention of archivists and organizations like the Film Noir Foundation. Although apparently screen-able on TCM cable, a disc release has been delayed until now, after a full restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Actor Dick Powell made a startling career transformation, from apple-cheeked crooner for Busby Berkeley to one of the better screen Philip Marlowes. He followed that hit with a score of interesting films noir: Cornered, Johnny O'Clock, Pitfall to name three. His last contemporary tough guy noir assignment, Cry Danger is a real winner, a low-key thriller soaked in Los Angeles realism and spiced with slick, classy hardboiled patter. It's also the auspicious first directorial credit for Robert Parrish (The Purple Plain, The Wonderful Country), a former editor for John Ford and Max Ophuls.
Most of Cry Danger takes place in the one mile between Los Angeles' Union Station and the legendary, long-lost Bunker Hill. After serving five years of a life sentence, Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) is sprung from prison by Delong (Richard Erdman), who just learned of Rocky's plight and came forth with an alibi. Detective Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey) isn't convinced that Delong's testimony was truthful, and has Rocky tailed from the get-go. Rocky claims he and his buddy Danny Morgan were framed, and after losing five years of his life he's determined to free Danny and clear his own name by nailing the real thieves and murderers. As it turns out, Delong did lie - in the hope that Rocky will give him a cut of the loot, when he recovers it. The new friends hang out together just the same, and take a rickety trailer at a hilltop motor court where Danny's wife Nancy (Rhonda Fleming) lives. Delong nurses his alcoholism and romances Darlene (Jean Porter), a flirtatious girl he meets sunning herself by a trailer. Rocky finds that Nancy wants him to think of the danger involved and forget about going up against the mobsters. Trailed by Gus, Rocky goes right to the source of his troubles, bar owner & racketeer Castro (William Conrad), demanding $50,000 to compensate for his five years in prison. Castro has no intention of doing Rocky any such 'favor.'
Aficionados of film noir love Cry Danger, a tight little thriller that manages to convey the lax, drifting flavor of living in Southern California when one is between jobs, or 'working on a sure thing.' Rocky Mulloy's mission of vengeance is an almost casual pursuit -- he packs a .45 auto yet is too cool to openly display his obsession. Having not had anything to do with the robbery (or so he says) Rocky could go after Castro and his cronies with his gun blasting, but he's retained his sense of decency despite being trapped in a strange moral limbo. The cops are convinced he'll go for the money. His alibi Delong is a great guy, but he's also not above chicanery to get some quick cash. Mostly Rocky wants to do right by his pal Danny, who is looking at another five years in the pen. Detective Gus is no ruthless Javert figure but a family man who responds to Rocky's sense of decency. Gus perceives it through the hardboiled smart talk, yet.
The patter is terrific in that it's like something real quasi-cynics might say, as opposed to Raymond Chandler dazzlers that need hours of writing and rewriting. Rocky, Delong and Gus trade remarks as deadpan conversation, not punch lines on a noir vaudeville stage. Take a tip from Savant -- whenever a non-lawman seems to be talking straight, it's a sure bet that he's a crook running a scam. Just sayin'.
A certain amount of wish fulfillment is involved. Delong is not the most attractive man alive, but he perks up when his come-on line to the sunbathing Darlene is answered with what sounds like an amorous green light. Of course, Darlene becomes more interesting when she continually lifts Delong's wallet. Is she genuinely hoping that the forever inebriated Delong will pass out, or is her intention to just hold his bankroll for safekeeping, as she claims.
Likewise, Nancy Morgan seems a little too eager to re-ignite her romance with Rocky, seeing as how her hubby Danny is stuck in prison. Both men have had their postwar lives squashed by a frame-up, and Nancy seems to have suffered collateral damage as well. She obviously liked both men and life has been plenty lonely, so it seems natural that she'd gravitate toward the first one to get out.
The violence warms up as soon as Mulloy visits the gangster in his nightclub lair. Castro uses a highly clever ruse in an effort to get Rocky sent right back to jail, and almost succeeds. That's when the nighttime gunshots out of the dark begin. Gus the cop shows remarkable leniency in allowing Rocky to run free, and even loans him some money at one point. None of these plot developments are typical of less accomplished thrillers. Even when Rocky resorts to rough stuff to make his point, we consider him human and vulnerable. He does seem to be extraordinary powers of resistance when it comes to women, however. Besides indulging Nancy, and dusting Darlene off as if she were a fly, Rocky finds it easy to fend off the calculating advances of yet another woman in his path. Cry Danger is just ambiguous enough for us to believe it might be moving to a grim conclusion -- with Rocky becoming yet another of the then-popular noir "loser heroes."
Critic Richard Corliss lauded Cry Danger's screenwriter William Bowers, who proved a sure talent in comedies and noir pictures alike, although his contributions weren't always credited. Bowers also has an enviably low ratio of flops and dogs in his writing resume.
Rocky Mulloy is a thematic fit with several of Robert Parrish's other 'damaged' screen heroes trying to regain their pride and sense of personal integrity. Perhaps it fortunate in that all of the film's exteriors use authentic, everyday Los Angeles locations, as director Parrish makes us feel we're on the sunny L.A. streets, about a year before the smog began to choke the skies. Except for Union Station, I didn't recognize any standout landmarks that make some noirs seem like urban tough guy travelogues. Parrish's direction is so good, that part of a climactic shoot-out happens off camera, yet the result is entirely satisfying.
Dick Powell is a solid screen presence as the earnest, street-wise Rocky, a man trying to reassemble his broken life. This is also a good role for Rhonda Fleming. She tones down the glamour angle just enough to come across as a pretty lady that must live in the real world and hold down a boring job. You know, if Nancy Morgan were a dental receptionist, the movies might take note of her beauty, as happened to Jane Russell.
Richard Erdman started with a comic role in both home front themed "Janie" movies, and has memorable parts in pictures like The Men and Stalag 17. He's marvelous in Cry Danger as an ex-Marine nursing a round-the-clock drinking habit, the attractive and unrealistic movie kind of alcoholism that never leaves one addled, disoriented, comatose or dead. Erdman and Powell play well off each other, and Delong's pursuit of Jean Porter's opportunistic Darlene is almost touching. She sees Delong coming a mile off, yet works up something of a real affection for him. William Conrad is predictable but convincing as a rat's rat, and Regis Toomey lends a solid law 'n' order center to what otherwise might be a movie with a serious MPAA Production Code morals problem. Fringe benefits are oily Lou Lubin as a newsie, and sweet Kathleen Freeman in a tiny bit as a clerk.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Cry Danger is from a new restored negative, and looks pretty clean throughout. Contrast and detail are also excellent, and because Olive does not use automatic digital tools to obliterate imperfections, the sharp picture retains its original granularity. Joseph Biroc's B&W cinematography makes one wish that monochromatic films were still in style.
Cry Danger is definitely a happy arrival for noir fans. It takes its place with Olive's lengthy list of prime-quality noir winners, among them Appointment with Danger, Body and Soul, Private Hell 36, Plunder Road, The Big Combo, Force of Evil and The File on Thelma Jordon. We're hoping that Olive will soon give us a promised disc of another Film Noir Foundation /UCLA Archives restoration, Cy Endfield's disturbing noir Try and Get Me!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cry Danger Blu-ray rates:
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