Notes on “Cry Danger”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

cry danger

“Cry Danger,” the first film directed by Robert Parrish, may come closer to the wry, frugal tone of Dashiell Hammett than even Huston’s adaptation of “The Maltese Falcon,” which leans rather heavily — and quite successfully — on comic grotesqueness. There’s little that’s grotesque in “Cry Danger,” though there’s plenty that’s comic: Screenwriter William Bowers salts the action with one-liners, and the actors reliably underplay them, winking at you through their readings. The picture has an air of studied nonchalance, one that seems to emanate from star Dick Powell. You’d call him cool if he weren’t so grave.

Noir fans often debate whether Powell or Bogart best embodies the qualities of the genre’s archetypal leading man. Powell has none of Bogart’s romanticism, which is really a sort of idealism that’s been allowed to decay and marinate in its own putrescence. He also lacks Bogart’s sadism. Rather, his toughness and cynicism are aspects of his wariness, and admissions of his vulnerability. It’s hard to separate Powell’s peculiar self-aware quality from his looks, which even in the raggedness of middle age carried the residue of collegiate cheer. Powell’s later performances are nothing if not negotiations with his ‘30s persona, and the way in which he allows you to sense that internal parley is sympathizing; it draws you into his humanity.

The plot features the expected skullduggery, yet the impression the movie leaves is one of cramped and curdled domesticity. The sets — a rinky trailer park, an apartment filled with atrocious knickknacks, a bookie’s den with its too-neat stacks of anonymous documents — are flatly lit and have a dime-store fatigue, and the Bunker Hill locations look sort of phony even in the scenes that are shot plein-air. Cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc keeps the framing tight, so that everyone seems slightly uncomfortable, as though they’re guests at a party that’s started to wind down. This is probably what makes the movie feel so anxious, itchy, unsettled. It’s a hang-out picture in which relaxation isn’t an option.

All the secondary players are good, especially William Conrad, with his menacing smarm and eyes that blink off the beat, and Richard Erdman, who is unforgettable as a lame wino, the Panza to Powell’s Quixote. Like Lew Ayres’ sozzled heir in George Cukor’s great adaptation of “Holiday,” Erdman’s drunkard has a tenderness that affects the fabric of the surrounding picture. By the movie’s end we’re convinced of Powell’s fortitude, of his ability to stick around, but Erdman we’re not so sure about. He seems in danger of sliding right off the face of the world.

Related

  • There’s a nice, bare-bones Blu-ray from Olive Films.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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