In the beginning of Cry Terror!, an electronics expert named Jim Molner (James Mason) turns on the TV and sees a crisis happening: someone has planted a bomb on an airplane to extort a ransom from the airline. (It’s called 20th Century Airlines to emphasize the plight of modern life as the source of our fears.) We’re told that the bomb was found and “thrown out of the window” of the craft in flight and that it exploded on impact with the ground below; this detail is supposed to be swallowed whole because it’s delivered through the mode of news anchors like Chet Huntley playing themselves.
Jim freaks out because he realizes he made that bomb. He was persuaded to do it by an old army buddy (Rod Steiger in early quiet psychopath mode), and said buddy now kidnaps Jim, his wife Joan (Inger Stevens, excellently desperate) and their little daughter as hostages to his elaborate plot. It’s best not to think about this allegedly brilliant scheme too closely, and the Molners don’t have time to.
In a type of thriller I call “middle-class jeopardy”, a family in a nice suburban home has its peace threatened by evil. It doesn’t come from within, as in Bigger Than Life (also starring Mason), but from some malevolant outside force: a handyman (Beware My Lovely), a presidential assassin (Suddenly), the other woman (Fatal Attraction), the psycho babysitter (The Hands That Rocks the Cradle). In many cases, it’s someone who’s been invited in and represents a crack or flaw in the surface ideal.
In this case, the old army buddy who turns out to be a sociopath (taking advantage of the skills they learned in the fight for democracy) leads a prize posse of jailbirds: his no-nonsense girlfriend (Angie Dickinson), a sullen worry-wart (Jack Klugman), and best of all, the eerily affectless serial rapist addicted to benzedrine (Neville Brand) who’s left alone to guard the wife. They’re not so much terrorists as a gang pulling a heist. They’re convinced of their own coldness and brilliance and how perfectly worked out everything is, which only makes them scarier and more grotesque as the Molners evolve from paralysis and hapless frazzle to their own cock-eyed determination.
This is one of several ‘50s middle-class jeopardy items produced by the husband and wife team of Andrew and Virginia Stone. Andrew wrote and directed while Virginia edited. It shouldn’t be confused with The Night Holds Terror, another of their hostage-family outings.
The suspense here comes not only from the situation but the tension between a disorienting collage of styles held together seamlessly. Much of the film is in the mode of ‘50s semi-documentary realism, shot out on the streets or in low-key scenes of brightly lit rooms where Dragnet-like officials in suits co-ordinate leads with terse efficiency. The scenes with the criminals are in well-appointed sets where the melodrama is underlined by competing styles of acting between the Molners and their New-York-TV-method cast of captors.
Joan’s major sequence of trying to reach a deadline is mostly shot from the back seat of her convertible as she races through the streets, and is continually narrated by herself, apparently recollecting this nightmare from some future tranquility for the official record; this footage of pure time-and-motion is intercut with all the other segments. Strangely, Stevens is most effective in these bits of physical acting when we only see her from behind, her hair blowing in the wind and her hands frantically twisting the steering wheel. I’d like to spend the whole movie like that, looking around at the big-finned Chryslers and the brownstone shopfronts while the driver panics. That’s a high concept.
Then comes Jim’s turn to narrate his own segment of essentially wasted yet strenuous effort, again intercut with the objective scenes of police procedural closing in. The subway ending is abrupt, indicating that the Stones pieced it together without enough coverage; apparently Stevens and Steiger were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes.
Overall, the film works as a compact exercise in tension and controlled hysteria, with the reassurance of the forces of order continually balanced or interwoven with the tangible threat to same by Steiger’s group. Mostly it’s a vision of sleek, busy, late ‘50s America held together by many fraying, criss-crossed threads: electricity, TV, radio, highways, telephones, airways, and bureaucratic systems.
The Stones also made Julie with the excellent Doris Day, whose major contribution to middle-class jeopardy is The Man Who Knew Too Much from the very same year. Julie, like Day’s later Midnight Lace, uses the woman-in-jeopardy template, specifically the paranoia of marriage.
You just never know who your husband is—that’s the terrifying, queasy fear of an era when women more or less depended entirely on making a wise decision in marriage. The pattern looks back to melodramas about a woman being driven crazy so she isn’t taken seriously by authorities (Gaslight), and forward to domestic-violence melodramas in which the woman must defend herself because authorities are helpless (Sleeping with the Enemy).
This particular example wisely avoids the build-up in which the woman is wooed and wed before she begins to realize something’s wrong while the audience was way ahead of her. Instead, the first reel establishes right away that Julie Benton (with her had-I-but-known narration) has reason to suspect that her handsome, French-accented, insanely possessive, concert-pianist husband (Louis Jourdain) knocked off her first husband and made it look like suicide. She should have known better than to marry a Frenchman; didn’t she see Charles Boyer in Gaslight?
The first scene is literally a thrill ride as hubby holds her foot to the accelerator while Julie’s driving their huge car down the coast highway (it doesn’t occur to her to stomp her left foot on the brake). And when she confirms his craziness to her satisfaction, as apparently that didn’t quite do it, she does what she should do—runs away from their stunningly fabulous summer home in Carmel (the town where Day really lives) and goes straight to the cops. This sequence, all cliffs and ocean and stone and glass, is a first class example of “consumerism as trap”, although one is rarely certain of the degree to which glamour-mad Hollywood intends that message.
The rest of the film concerns Julie’s attempts to avoid her husband. She becomes a nervous, hunted animal while the police patiently explain that there’s nothing they can do and that this kind of thing happens all the time. They quote statistics about wives killed by their husbands while police were powerless; at least they don’t disbelieve her. These scenes are shot with the low camera angled up to the ceilings looming over everyone’s heads; alas, many shots are distracted by the shadow of the boom mike.
Julie must depend on at least one man (friend Barry Sullivan) to help her get away, while the male security systems are not only helpless but potentially dangerous. Fortunately, Julie gets a job as a stewardess—they’re not flight attendants yet. As everyone knows from movies of this era, that’s a modern and glamorous career marked by traveling the world, chatting with handsome pilots, and now and then having to fly the plane in an emergency—all of which happens here.
This time the airline is called Amalgamated, one of those 50s corporate non-words that be equally satirical or sinister in its implication of faceless systems. By the way, not only is this a world without restraining orders but a world in which anyone can waltz onto an airplane at a moment’s notice. Ah, the good old days.
The last half hour of this trim suspenser takes place aboard a flight where Julie must use her stewardess skills to become “an instrument” for the control tower to help her land the plane. In other words, she must give herself up fully and trustingly to a male-controlled system and, by following directions, understand that she can become literally the pilot of her own life. The machine becomes a metaphor for that life, which can kill her unless she learns to take what control of it she may. She never invented the system in which she finds herself, but with determination and courage she might navigate it. (Compare this with Jodie Foster’s character in Flightplan, who did in fact design the system in which she finds herself trapped and must destroy it.)
As in Cry Terror!, the Stones shot in actual locations: Carmel, San Francisco, the airport, the airplane. All this verisimilitude, populated by gruff, paunchy, interchangeable men relaying orders to each other through phones, headsets and radios, lends its illusion of realism to the beautiful damsel’s melodrama.
It’s a melodrama that depends on little details of modern life—being put on hold, having to ask the operator for a number, catching a slow elevator or a fast taxi. There’s just enough of this black-and-white believability to keep us holding on through an unlikely ride, and there’s enough truth inside the core of the stalked-woman scenario to help us overlook the glamorous trappings and extravagant flourishes that go with the genre.
Here’s a final note on the film’s unconscious, unfortunate resonance. During the opening scene, as Day angrily flees her husband and he gets in the car, we see the credit “Produced by Martin Melcher”. This is the first movie to bear that credit, which would be on all Day’s films for the rest of her career. Melcher was her husband, and his name is on the picture because the Stones had to work through Day’s company, run by him and a partner. When he died, she discovered all her money was gone through bad investments and she was in tremendous debt. Let it be a lesson, women.