What the difference between a first time directorial outing by a former film editor versus that of a movie star? In general, about 10-20 minutes of unnecessary footage. As directors/producers, movie stars tend to have too much sympathy with the actors (especially if they have cast themselves in the film) and not enough with the audience. A number of good films with actor-directors, for example Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, Ed Harris’ Pollock and Jack Nicholson’s The Two Jakes, did not achieve greatness simply because they were far too long.
Former film editors tend to understand that most movie scenes can be shorter and some movie scenes can be eliminated entirely. That doesn’t stop them from making long movies (David Lean was a former film editor) but it usually prevents them from making flabby ones. A background as an editor was thus ideal for making an economical film noir in just 22 days, which is what Robert Parrish did in Cry Danger. I highlighted Parrish’s Oscar-winning editing in my recommendation of Body and Soul and am happy to report that he also clearly knew what to do behind the camera.
The plot of the 1951 film is near-boilerplate for these sorts of cinematic outings. Two noir staple characters, an ex-con named Rocky Mulloy who was wrongly convicted of a crime (Dick Powell) and a disillusioned ex-GI (Richard Erdman), team up to find the still-hidden loot from the robbery for which Rocky was framed. They tussle with the crime boss whom they suspect of being behind the original job (William Conrad, as usual a welcome film noir presence). Meanwhile, Rocky comforts his ex-girlfriend (Rhonda Fleming), who is now married to his best friend, who was sent upriver with Rocky and still remains in the Big House. Rocky is tempted by his alluring ex- in more ways than one, but never lets himself be dissuaded from his mission of taking vengeance on those who framed him.
I have written about how former song-and-dance men Dick Powell and John Payne repackaged themselves as noir tough guys after the war, and how Payne did so more credibly. Powell always seemed to me too Father’s Knows Best-ish to carry off morally murky or cynical noir roles, and his mien of near-continual faint amusement undermined his efforts to be an intimidating tough guy. But those problems are irrelevant here due to Erdman’s well-scripted part as Powell’s alcoholic friend, which in Erdman’s hands is extremely funny (Fans of the TV show Community will not be surprised). Powell’s efforts to get his friend to sober up, and to be wary of the floozy (Jean Porter) who keeps stealing his wallet, turn Powell’s paternal demeanor into a strength rather than an annoyance, and the humor of these exchanges is only better for Powell’s frequent smirks.
Despite those light elements, there is still plenty of noirish content and mood on display here, as well as some pleasing mystery and action elements. The “surprise resolution” of the story is not hard to guess, but that will not diminish enjoyment of this tightly-constructed, well-directed crime melodrama.