“I’m 60% legitimate,” brags William Conrad (as the slimy nightclub owner Castro) in Robert Parrish’s stunning debut film, Cry Danger (1951). That line’s implications that this underworld denizen has actually sat down, done the math, and determined how crooked he really is, typifies the wry tone of this overlooked film noir gem.
As a classic noir, Cry Danger is 100% legit. Its mingling of typical noir signifiers with refined sitcom humor is unique to the genre. Many noirs have witty banter galore (Murder My Sweet, Nocturne, The Big Sleep, Ace in the Hole). An acerbic wit is part of the arsenal of the school-of-Chandler gumshoe. Seldom has broad comedy so thoroughly mingled with the darker themes of film noir than in Cry Danger.
In the wake of Murder, My Sweet (1944), Dick Powell re-invented his screen persona as a world-weary, acid-tongued noir deadpan. He was more likely to deliver a devastating put-down than a gun-butt or upper-cut. It was enough to make the post-war movie audience forget his Depression-era ingénue roles, and Powell doggedly stuck to this new POV.
In Cry Danger, Powell pushes this persona to its reasonable limits. As ex-convict Rocky Mulloy, he seems more like a displaced stand-up comedian than an underworld denizen. Rocky quips, sneers and word-slaps his way through the film’s 79 minutes. Whether he’s addressing cops, ukulele-toting landlords, slatternly hotel clerks, passive-aggressive bookies, amiable barkeeps or Neanderthal paperboys, Mulloy has a bad word for everyone.
Sent up for a heist he didn’t commit, and sprung from prison, after five years, on the testimony of a one-legged ex-Marine (played with liberal comedy by Richard Erdman), Mulloy attempts to collect a cash settlement from sweat-soaked racketeer and nightclub-owner, Castro (played with anxious, petty flair by noir stalwart William Conrad).
Tailed 24/7 by LA cops, including Detective Lt. Gus Cobb (a world-weary Regis Toomey), Mulloy is expected to uncover the loot from this crime he didn’t commit. Even Delong, the false witness who freed him from prison, stitches himself to Mulloy’s side, just in case that heist money pops up.
Mulloy is, understandably, ill-tempered. Although never explicitly stated, it’s hinted that he once held a high rank in L.A.’s underworld. What a come-down, then, to shack up in the filthiest Air-Stream trailer on Bunker Hill with the boozy chatterbox Delong.
Mulloy has chosen this miserable locale due to the presence of neighbor Nancy Morgan (Rhonda Fleming). The wife of his best friend, also wrongly sent up for the heist, Nancy is a link to Mulloy’s better days. They obviously carry torches for each other, although they keep one another at arm’s length.
Mulloy is determined to find out who framed him—and why. His first, most logical suspect, is the slimy Castro. Mulloy is hoodwinked by the crafty Castro into accepting some marked money from a payroll robbery. Castro erases all evidence of his treachery. Rocky seems destined to return to prison, one day after his release.
Mulloy is cleared by Lt. Cobb, due to a sloppy oversight of Castro’s. Mulloy then does what most noir anti-heroes would, in such a situation—he beats the crap out of Castro. While satisfying, this revenge angle doesn’t clear things up for him.
As a result, Mulloy is now a moving target for Castro’s on-call henchmen (part of that un-discussed 40%!). When Delong is nearly killed by gunmen, who think the lush is Mulloy, the feces hit the fan blades. Rocky uncovers who’s behind this double-cross. It’s enough to make him a permanent cynic, but he walks away exonerated, and alone, to somehow pick up the pieces of his life and make them fit again.
Dick Powell’s Rocky Mulloy is among the biggest sour-pusses in film noir. He’s got a right to be sore. Five years in stir have taught him the fine art of tongue-lashing. He is, perhaps, too good at it. He drops verbal bombs left and right, not caring about their half-life—or their threat to his social standing.
Only Powell—and Robert Mitchum—could make such a jaundiced male Cassandra work in the classic films noir. Powell digs into Rocky Mulloy. He plays him flat as pavement, and twice as hard.
William Bowers’ screenplay (one of at least a dozen in the noir genre) contains more wisecracks than a Marx Brothers picture, and has many farcical characters. Richard Erdman, a familiar face from his many TV roles, gives a strong taste of gallows humor to his role as ex-Marine (and full-time alky) Delong.
Jay Adler also mines comedic gold from his role as the oblivious trailer park manager, Williams. He’s like a character from an early ‘30s W. C. Fields comedy.
Jean Porter’s turn, as kleptomaniac sex kitten Darlene LaVonne, brings the film’s comedy into more modern context. Her character is almost as big as Erdman’s. Their scenes together threaten to turn the film into a screwball comedy with gunplay.
This odd mix shouldn’t work. Cry Danger is a rare example of a film in which every element is balanced just right. A pinch more comedy, a touch less drama, and the whole shooting match would collapse.
Director Parrish was blessed with writer Bowers, cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and dialogue director Rod Amateau. The latter’s lively touch accentuates Cry Danger’s verbal fireworks. He obviously helped the film’s performances achieve a sprightly sitcom polish that should be (but isn’t) perilously at odds with its more serious themes of betrayal and corruption.
Amateau moved over to TV, where he directed scores of sitcoms. Another TV habitué, Hy Averback, makes a strong, brief turn here as a grousing, self-pitying bookie who operates from the curtained back room of a dismal corner grocery.
Joseph Biroc’s cinematography, with its stunning verite shots of Bunker Hill and other Los Angeles environs, helps balance the felicities of Amateau and Bowers’ noir-com. As with Joseph Losey’s fascinating re-make of Fritz Lang’s M (also shot in and around Bunker Hill in 1950), Cry Danger offers modern viewers a tantalizing glimpse of Lost Los Angeles.
Although there are many obvious process shots in the film, it contains some beautiful moody views of LA. The opening sequence, in Union Station, gives us a haunting tour of its shadowy tunnels. Striking shots occur in day and night locales. (In one daylit exterior, the camera operator, and his camera, can be fleetingly seen in the reflection of a taxicab window!)
Cry Danger is cut from familiar noir fabric—LA’s criminal underworld, world-weary cops, allegiances that can be bought and sold for a shot of rye, complex female characters, betrayal, deception, gunplay, murder and fisticuffs. When the going gets tough, the film never shies away from it. This potentially jarring juggle of dark and light is thrilling and riveting.
Again, Bowers’ acid dialogue speaks for itself. Consider this terse exchange between Powell’s Mulloy and noir stalwart William Conrad’s crooked Castro:
Castro: (cowering at gunpoint) W-would you kill me, Rocky?
Rocky Mulloy: (without a hint of emotion) Wouldn't you?
This dialogue double-clouts the viewer. It’s as tough as film noir dialogue gets—yet it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.
At its best, Bowers’ screenwriting has a novelistic quality. His dialogue and characterizations offer more complexity and texture than most of his peers. Daniel Mainwaring and Jonathan Latimer could blend comedy and hard-boiled drama (Latimer’s script for 1946’s Nocturne is a superb example of his wit and skill). No one did it better than Bowers.
SPOILER DEPT.: Cry Danger’s one major flaw is its decision to make Rhonda Fleming’s character, Nancy Morgan, the heavy, in the film’s denouement. It’s a clever idea on paper, but we consider her a “good” character, and she is played as such by Fleming until the script demands she change horses. It is an awkward moment.
In a weaker film, this misstep would send the whole house of cards crashing down. At the tail end of this richly embellished, well-written, sharply acted noir, it’s forgivable. This narrative decision is a disservice to Fleming. She is required to make a self-conscious shift from doting gal-pal to craven, desperate vixen. Barbara Stanwyck could have handled it; Fleming takes it in the shins.
Cry Danger is a fascinating and successful example of how the film noir format sought to grow beyond its generic constraints as the 1940s became the ‘50s. Via Joseph Biroc’s visuals, this film also bridges the expressionistic shadows of ‘40s noir and the flat docudrama style of the 1950s.
Cry Danger has recently been restored, and was shown in a recent Noir City fest. With its verbal skyrockets, eye-popping LA locations, and strong cast (which also includes a striking one-scene performance by Joan Banks), this film is a prime candidate for DVD reissue.
-- Frank M. Young