Our conversations always go better when you’re on your back.
One of the things that makes film noir tricky to classify is that it was a label applied after the fact, an outgrowth of the série noire Parisian reprints of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. At the time, they were just the quick-and-dirty B pictures shot on back lots and corner alleys of Los Angeles. As such, plenty of actors who later went on to have long and storied careers passed through them.
Take Cry Danger, a 1951 thriller directed by Robert Parrish. It stars Dick Powell, who was even at the time known for crime flicks such as Murder, My Sweet. It also stars Rhonda Fleming (Spellbound, Out of the Past, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), William Conrad (later the titular Fatman of Jake and same), and Richard Erdman (of Community; yes, that one; look him up). The studio system gave work to a lot of people, cranking out pictures on short notice with tight turnaround.
Like many noirs, Cry Danger begins with trouble coming to town on a train: Rocky Mulloy (Powell), recently out of the joint. He served five years of a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit—trigger man on a payroll heist gone wrong—sprung only when a Marine recently returned from the war (Erdman) confirms Mulloy’s alibi. The Marine never saw Mulloy, and both Mulloy and the Marine know it. He just wants a piece of the hundred grand from the heist, and figures the alibi puts Mulloy in his debt. A persistent cop (Regis Toomey, once again playing a detective) also figures Mulloy knows where the hundred grand is, and lets him know he’ll be tailed until he leads the cops to it.
Mulloy only wants his buddy Danny, who was similarly framed, to get out when his parole comes in six months. He figures that implicating the fixer who first came to him with the job, Castro (Conrad), might help. He shows up at Castro’s office, flashing a gun and demanding restitution for the five years he’s lost. Castro claims not to have the kind of money Mulloy’s demanding, but he’s got a can’t-miss tip on a horse. And here the trouble really cranks up.
The screenplay comes from William Bowers, one of those workhorses with a lot of credits but few huge hits to his name; his most recognizable work might be Gregory Peck’s The Gunfight, David Niven’s My Man Godfrey, or James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff. He’s produced the ideal noir screenplay: sharp without being posed, clever without being quippy. Erdman, as the crippled Marine limping between one drink and the next, is given some of the better lines. When his current fling needles him for hitting the bottle before noon, he replies, “When you drink as much as I do, you’ve got to start early.” But Powell has not only the coolest dialogue but the coolest delivery. A tailing cop crashes his dinner celebration after he comes into some dough, and Powell nods to an empty chair: “Sorry we got started without you.”
Rhonda Fleming, as the wife of Mulloy’s buddy behind bars, proves that the women of noir don’t need to wear slinky black dresses in order to tempt men astray. She gives Mulloy plenty of warm glances and fond remembrances of the past that they had together—before she married Danny—and proves that a lady doesn’t need to be a vamp to put a little heat under our hero. I’ve also been neglecting a young Jean Porter as Darlene, a boy-crazy “part-time model” with a habit of lifting Erdman’s bankrolls when he’s in his cups. She and Erdman cut up as the needed comic relief.
There’s not much of the iconic cinematography we associated with the genre. Given that Cry Danger was cranked out in twenty-two days—and given the rumor that Powell himself did a lot of the directing—that’s not surprising. Aside from one inventive shot while a gangster is being interrogated through a game of Russian Roulette, the camerawork is stable and unsurprising. But the plot moves at a ceaseless clip: lots of sharp repartee, casual hustles, and two gunfights that startled me with their intensity. It’s as efficient a piece of thriller filmmaking as the old studio system ever produced, and it holds up well.