Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cry Danger (Olympic Productions/RKO, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched two movies last night that were linked (by me and a happenstance of my videotaping, not by TCM this time) by the appearance of the word “danger” in their titles. One was Cry Danger, a 1951 RKO release directed by Robert Parrish (he’d written the screenplay for the 1947 film Body and Soul and this was his first time out as a director) and starring Dick Powell as Rocky Malloy, an ex-con who was unjustly convicted of killing a guard during an armored-car holdup that netted $100,000 and served five years in prison. His alibi was that he was on a drinking binge with a bunch of Marines who couldn’t be located because they shipped out (“were deployed” would be the current argot) the next day. A Marine veteran, DeLong (Richard Erdman), surfaced and claimed to be one of Rocky’s drinking buddies, and though he actually wasn’t that was good enough to get Rocky pardoned and released.

Once he’s out he arrives in L.A., from whence he came (and of which we get quite a few nice cityscapes from cinematographer Joseph L. Biroc) to try to trace the rest of the money and also to contact Nancy (Rhonda Fleming), the widow of the man who was convicted along with him. He and DeLong move into the same trailer park where Nancy lives and they rekindle their romance (the backstory is that Nancy had dated Rocky before they quarreled and she married his partner Danny — whom we never see — on the rebound). Meanwhile Rocky is tracking down Los Amigos nightclub owner Castro (William Conrad in one of the best of his early performances), who masterminded the holdup and presumably still has the $100,000; while Rocky is in turn being tailed by Cobb (Regis Toomey), a Javert-like police detective who’s convinced Rocky was in on the holdup and will lead him to the never-recovered money.

The plot goes through quite a few turns and twists — including a car accident in which DeLong is mistaken for Rocky and nearly killed, while his morally ambiguous girlfriend Darlene Lavonne (Jean Porter in a surprisingly Monroe-ish performance well before Monroe’s mannerisms became clichés), whom he continued to date even after she picked his pocket (or tried to) during one outing, is killed — before the all-too-predictable resolution in which Nancy (ya remember Nancy?) turns out to be a bad girl after all; she, her husband Danny (whom Rocky had assumed was also innocent) and Castro plotted the robbery in the first place and she and Castro split the loot and sat on it for five years.

The plot (the script is by William Bowers from a story by Jerry Cady) really doesn’t make much sense, and Powell turned in other tough-guy performances that were better than this (notably in Murder, My Sweet and Cornered), but what saves this film is the atmospherics: the quirky supporting players (including the trailer-park manager, a middle-aged eccentric who’s shown constantly strumming a ukulele and usually singing wordlessly and out-of-tune to his own accompaniment), the effective use of actual L.A. locations and some of the studio noir setups, notably a great depth-of-field shot in which DeLong (who’s by far the most interesting character in the piece, reminiscent of Van Heflin’s alcoholic supporting character in Johnny Eager that won him an Academy Award and stole the film right out from under its nominal leads, Robert Taylor and Lana Turner) is shown in the background and a liquor bottle looms in the foreground, dwarfing him and vividly dramatizing his compulsion to drink.

There’s a curious anomaly in the credits — we’re promised a song called “Cry Danger,” music by Hugo Friedhofer and lyrics by Leon Pober — but no such song materializes. Perhaps one of the nightclub sequences originally contained a performance of a song based on the main theme of the background score (also by Friedhofer), but it was deleted from the final cut. — 6/19/04


I showed Cry Danger, a 1951 semi-noir (it qualifies thematically if not visually) from RKO in partnership with “Olympic Productions” (probably a “collapsible” company formed to make just that one film) that stars Dick Powell as “Rocky” Mulloy, a convict, recently released after serving five years for a robbery he didn’t commit. He returns to Los Angeles from wherever it was he was incarcerated — in an otherwise deserted railway station (a location Charles recalled and said still looks the same) in which he appears to be the only person getting off his train — and hooks up with the man who got him released, DeLong (Richard Erdman). It seems that Rocky’s alibi was that he was out drinking with a group of Marines when the robbery occurred, but he was never able to find any of them. DeLong, a Marine himself, decided to come forward and identify himself as one of the Marines who were Rocky’s drinking buddies that night — and claim that all the others had been killed in the war — because, even though he wasn’t, posing as Rocky’s alibi witness and getting him sprung would presumably lead him to the $100,000 in proceeds from the robbery, which had never been found.

Also in search of the $100,000 is police detective lieutenant Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey), who busted Rocky in the first place, and despite his official exoneration is still convinced of Rocky’s guilt and sure Rocky will access the money sooner or later — thereby allowing Cobb to recover it and send Rocky back to prison. Rocky and DeLong move in as roommates to a seedy trailer in a trailer park, where DeLong starts dating one of the residents, blonde pickpocket Darlene LaVonne (Jean Porter) while Rocky hooks up with Nancy Morgan (Rhonda Fleming, second-billed). Nancy is the wife of Rocky’s supposed confederate in the robbery; he’s still in prison and, though he’s scheduled to be paroled in six months, Rocky wants him released free and clear because neither of them were actually guilty. Rocky mounts his own investigation of the crime, which takes him to a wide variety of places and hooks him up with people like Castro (a young but already corpulent William Conrad), the gangster he figures masterminded the robbery he got nailed for.

Rocky makes a bet on a horse race with one of Castro’s bookies — only to realize he’s been set up when the money he’s paid off with turns out to be “hot” money from the original heist. Eventually he realizes that the real mastermind behind the robbery is Nancy Morgan, whom he’s already started falling for — setting up a potentially interesting conflict between sex and loyalty to his still-incarcerated friend writers Jerome Cady (story) and William Bowers (screenplay) don’t do justice to. What the writers are clearly interested in is yet another recycling of the Maltese Falcon gimmick of having the hero’s girlfriend turn out to be the crook he’s after, and the film ends with a bittersweet scene in which Rocky is finally exonerated but also alone and emotionally devastated.

Cry Danger has the moral ambiguity necessary for film noir, and William Bowers’ script abounds in marvelous wisecracks which Powell delivers in the world-weary tone he brought to his breakthrough noir role as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, but where it differs from most of the previous noirs is that it takes place mostly during daylight and is largely shot outdoors on real L.A. locations — and cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc seems either unable or (more likely) just uninterested in creating the rich, chiaroscuro nighttime atmosphere of the classic noirs. But what this movie loses in atmosphere, it gains in you-are-here realism — both Charles and I recognized some of the locations from modern-day L.A. — and overall Cry Danger emerged as a workmanlike thriller.

Incidentally, a “trivia” item on the film on imdb.com says that Tom Weaver did an interview with Jean Porter, who said that though Robert Parrish (who the same year made The Mob, which was even better) is credited as director, Dick Powell actually directed the film himself — he’d make his “official” directorial debut, also at RKO, two years later with the film Split Second, an explicitly anti-Communist thriller but one far better than the norm for that usually irritating sub-genre. — 8/18/09