[20 June 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
In 2011, at the behest of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Festival of Preservation, with funding provided by the Film Noir Foundation, Cry Danger was given a sterling digital transfer, bringing to life 60-year-old celluloid that, in the end, remained as shadow-drenched as it ever was.
As is often the case with restorations of lost or overlooked older films, Cry Danger benefits from this revisitation. The film’s DVD release, done in a spartan package by restoration-centric label Olive Films, presents it merely as it is, with no bonus features (not even a commentary track). To look back on Cry Danger is to take it simply as it is, which is a taut, no-frills film noir of the old school.
The plot is as basic as noir can be—which is to say, still fairly complicated. Tropes like the double cross and mistaken identity are key players in Cry Danger. However, the film is about as breezy as deception-centric cinema can get, which makes the story both enjoyably snappy and memorably insubstantial. By the time all the pieces begin to fall into place, it’s easy to see where all the mechanisms of the plot are clicking into gear; there’s no big “aha!” moment, as is often the case with great noirs. Yet even in its streamlined construction, Cry Danger displays all the things that make noir the legendary film genre that it is, all the while raising the same philosophical questions that have come to be expected of the noir style, be it in literature or in film.
Without giving anything substantial about Cry Danger’s story away, the film begins as many noirs do: a man is let free from jail. Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) is released from prison after serving time for a robbery and homicide he didn’t commit. His release was aided by the testimony of Delong (Richard Erdman), a crippled army vet who vouches for Mulloy’s innocence. (Erdman gets the best lines of William Bowers’ quick-witted script, including sly hard-boilers like, “Occasionally, I always drink too much.”)
Unfortunately for Mulloy, he meets not just Delong after being released, but also Detective Lieutenant Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey), who informs Mulloy that he will be tailing him out of the suspicion that he will go straight for the money that he once allegedly stole. Things get complicated when Mulloy reads right through Delong, a man who he has never met, and suspects the veteran’s testimony was not a purely altruistic act.
As it is with life, it is in noir: it’s all about the money. Delong wishes to take a cut of the money from the heist all those years ago, which has yet to be accounted for. As it turns out, his provision of Mulloy’s alibi was not only conditional but false: he doesn’t believe Mulloy is innocent at all.
This tension is where Cry Danger gets the most mileage. As Mulloy, Powell is classic tough-guy, stone-faced noir man’s man, one who rattles off dark threats as easily as he does witty quips. (To a bartender after tipping him: “I got that [money] from a typhoid carrier”; to a woman that rebukes him after a failed bout of flirtation: “Someday, Alice, you and I are gonna have a nice long talk. And you’ll really do some talking”).
The situation he is in, however, is far more interesting than his character. With existentialism having seen its glory days not long before noir’s prime years, it’s no surprise that echoes of that philosophical umbrella can be seen and heard in Cry Danger and the other noirs of its time period.
In their impositions on Mulloy, both Detective Cobb and Delong represent one asserted fact about Mulloy coming from both sides of the law. In either case, whether it’s Detective Cobb’s tailing or Delong’s belief that Mulloy is guilty of the crime he was jailed for, Mulloy is always viewed as criminal. Even though he is set free from the confines of the concrete jungle, he is perceived as someone that will always be on the wrong side of the law. No matter what he may to do exonerate himself, both the law that suspects him and the criminals that think him one of theirs will attempt to suck him back into the underworld that embittered noir protagonists so frequently occupy.
Cry Danger depicts the ever-so-thin tightrope Mulloy must walk across as he attempts to find out who stole the money so he can free his wrongly accused friend, Danny Morgan, from prison. Even as he attempts to do the right thing, to all the observers around him, he only appears to be acting as the criminal he always was.
As Nancy Morgan, Mulloy’s former flame who ended up marrying his friend Danny, Rhonda Fleming becomes what seems to be his only way out. During his numerous attempts to set the record straight by attempting to expose seedy bookie Louie Castro (William Conrad) as the real mastermind behind the heist, Nancy tells him that by remaining proximal to those potentially culpable for the crime, he will only appear to be acting criminally.
Unfortunately, noir has a rocky track record with its female characters, and Nancy is no exception; Mulloy’s greatest folly, aside from risking another stint in jail, is underestimating Nancy. Though in many instances she appears the archetypal damsel in distress, she is every bit as cunning and methodical as her male counterparts.
Cry Danger thus becomes a minor examination of how the consequences of choices and actions can limit a person in the future. Fatalism, one of the common undercurrents in noir philosophy, comes to the forefront here: Mulloy may think he has the ability to determine his new life, but choices made both by him and others have already set his life in motion. He is condemned to criminality, no matter how he moves.
Cry Danger is not a long investment time-wise, and its twists and turns can be foreseen with relative ease as the end approaches, but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t leave numerous probing dilemmas in its wake. A simply arranged complex film, Cry Danger is a low-key example of noir elegance.