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'Cry of the Hunted' Is a Little Movie With a Lot Going On

Cry of the Hunted is an intriguing B film with homoerotic subtext galore.

Cry of the Hunted

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Cast: Vittorio Gassman, Barry Sullivan
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1953
USDVD release date: 2015-10-13

Now available on demand from Warner Archive is Cry of the Hunted, an intriguing B picture from MGM directed by Joseph H. Lewis, most famous for such tough and vigorous noirs as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. Not quite a noir, this film is a hybrid of several genres, and its unpredictability is one of its attractions as it moves from hard-edged urban settings to a more dreamlike, symbolic realm of personal psychological struggle in the swamps.

It starts as a prison story establishing Tunner (Barry Sullivan) as a progressive official in charge of the joint's maximum security section. Goaded by his laidback boss (Robert Burton), Tunner tries to make a surly Cajun convict named Jory (Italian import Vittorio Gassman, all tight T-shirt and puppy eyes) fink on his companions in robbery. The tension between Tunner and Jory can only be expelled in hard-smacking fisticuffs in the cell, after which they collapse side by side, out of breath and smoking cigarettes because it was evidently good for both of them. So you don't think we're just reading that in, a smirking deputy (William Conrad) later asks if they're "going together".

Every scene introduces some new element. There's Tunner's wife (Polly Bergen, her low breathy voice sounding post-dubbed), whose function is to trade arch remarks and establish her husband's hetero credentials. There's exciting location work at Los Angeles' Angel's Flight streetcar, and much rear-projection work for the non-location sections set in Louisiana bayou country, where the narrative takes a swampy turn with hostile locals and Jory's fierce wife (Mary Zavian) and a spooky swamp woman (Sonia Charsky) of indeterminate race. There's an unlikely wrap-up cementing the whole notion of better male bonding through whaling the tar out of each other, the better to treat each other tenderly afterwards.

For good measure, there's an expressionist dream sequence where Tunner rises from his bed to be stalked and teased by Jory's huge shadows. This is after Tunner's gone feverish and delirious from drinking swamp water, and later Jory contracts the same delirium when he's under Tunner's power after getting sharply stuck in the back during another fight. Tunner chose to send his wife on her way in order to pursue Jory, and the latter's wife also mysteriously drops out of the picture after questioning his manhood. Throughout the film, the two men are presented as doppelgangers who virtually blend into one person; while this encourages the homoerotic subtext, it also conveys the idea of struggling against oneself, as each man expresses dissatisfaction with his lot.

Jack Leonard's script (from a story by himself and Marion Wolfe) is full of clever lines and, more importantly, characters who don't speak and behave exactly as you'd expect, such as Conrad's ambiguously crude and helpful deputy and the local weary sheriff (Harry Shannon) who's disgusted by Tunner's lily-livered ways. He asks Tunner exactly how he got this job, to which the latter replies, "I bribed a guy, the same as you."

Best of all is Lewis' direction, not only of actors but in how he stages the action for photographer Harold Lipstein to shoot as many scenes as possible in single smooth takes that dolly forward and back as characters enter and exit the frame, an effect that somehow combines the claustrophobic with plenty of elbow room and allows scenes to unroll naturally.

Not that Lewis makes a mania of it, because there's some standard editing as well. It's just that he knows the value of this visual economy and elegance, and how it lends interest to the most standard expository scene. This film is less flashy than some of his works, but it still shows his dynamism and tendency to unbalance the viewer. Even without a trailer or any other extras, it's good to have this obscure movie available in an excellent print that shows off the richly shaded black and white.


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