The road that ultimately leads creative people in the filmmaking business to the highly coveted director’s chair is rarely the same from one candidate to the next. Some are fortunate enough to direct a feature from the get-go. The number of directorial debuts from stunningly young men and women premiering at festivals is a testament to that journey. Others take the long road, filling in a great many roles on movie sets, learning the ropes of many trades before they finally helm a project. Robert Parish’s journey began at age 11, when he appeared in the 1927 short Olympic Games. After years of acting and editing, his directorial debut finally came in 1951 with the mobster film Cry Danger.
Unexpectedly released from prison after 5 years courtesy of an alibi from someone he has never met, infamous hoodlum Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) is soon hounded by Lt. Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey). Cobb remains convinced of the theft and murder attempt Rocky and his former partner in crime, still locked away, were accused of. Also sticking close to Rocky’s side is one Delong (Richard Erdman), a young sailor who provided the surprising alibi in the hopes that Rocky will reciprocate by paying him some of the reportedly stolen $100,000. Rocky claims his innocence with respect to the murder and heist but Delong, a decent if stubborn fellow, holds his ground. To top it off, Rocky is compelled to provide support for his partner’s wife, Nancy Morgan (Rhonda Fleming), for whom he still holds strong feelings. Maybe, just maybe, one of his old gangster connections, Louie Castro (William Conrad) can help him find the money and clear his friend’s name.
Robert Parish breaks the ice with a film that, in many ways, exemplifies a unique vision and voice while exhibiting a few signs that he is a little bit green as a director. Impressively, the awkward moments and slip-ups are few and far between, unmistakable though they may be. There are a couple of shots in the early going when Rocky is walking the streets as a free man that employ some appallingly noticeable rear projection footage. This technique is typically exercised in scenes where actors are driving vehicles, yet here it is for what should be perfunctory street scenes. Additionally, the climax is lacking in dramatic heft the script seems to believe it warrants, not to mention throwing in what could have been an easily exorcised shoot-out. Parish may have realized no shots had been fired for a significant amount of the film and felt compelled to punch things up, although the effort is mostly misguided given how it serves strictly no purpose.
All is forgiven, however, considering the highly enjoyable set-up, characters, and Kafka-esque episodes the central figure lives through as the unseen tentacles of greed and corruption try to overpower him. It is not often that the majority of a thriller transpires on a lot where people can rent out trailers apartments in the middle of the city, yet such is the case with Cry Danger. When her husband was sent off to prison, Nancy began renting out a small trailer, thus propelling Rocky to rent one out none too far in vicinity to keep an eye on her, repressing his feelings for her as best he can. The location’s spatial restrictions, both inside and out of the homes, lend these scenes a different variation of intimacy from regular apartments, alleyways, or fancy homes owned by gangsters. Trailers are more often associated with vacations, camping sites, and notions of leaving the big city to visit the country, which creates the sense that Rocky, Nancy, Delong, and the latter’s comically gifted girlfriend Darlene (Jean Porter) are secluded somehow from the going-ons of downtown Los Angeles. When hoodlums try to slow down Rocky’s progress by performing a drive-by shooting, it is doubly shocking because one does not associate gun fights with trailer parks.
Parish gets fabulous performances from his cast and extracts as much mileage as he can out of what the script provides in terms of character buildup. Dick Powell, no stranger to films of this ilk, is his own special brand of cool and confident. He does not exude the same brashness that the Bogarts or the Cagneys did. His seems steeped in a more subdued, almost paternal attitude toward life. Rocky knows what is on the level and how to circumvent a problem, but he never does so in an abrasive manner. He accepts that there are bad people in the world, people worse than him, and copes with that reality. Adding another dimension to the character is the movie’s omission to reveal just how bad or good Rocky is. It is hard to believe that he could have been a criminal mastermind or killer in the past, yet he does not project the aura of a Boy Scout either. Why is he intent on making contact with Louie Castro, a man he knows he should not trust, to get his hands on the money? For himself? For Nancy? To set the record straight? The way his character is portrayed, all those options are legitimate possibilities.
Making matters more interesting are the bizarre occurrences that keep on throwing Rocky off course, the most perplexing being when he, at Lt. Cobb’s insistence, guides the latter to meet all the people who led him to winning marked bills after betting on a horse race, only to find that no one recognizes him or said people have vanished into thin air. Parish tosses in a few of these oddball choices throughout the film, making Cry Danger resemble at times a Twilight Zone episode as much as a gangster picture.
All the supporting players have their rightful place within the story, each emphasizing in their own way how the world operates in different shades of grey. Fleming plays Nancy as someone glad to have Rocky around again, but hesitant to back him up fully in his investigative endeavor to uncover the truth about his friend’s potentially criminal past. Delong, played with a delightful mixture of slyness and sliminess by Erdman, is at first just out to get his hands on major cash but forms a genuine bond with the determined protagonist while working on his alcoholism. Conrad is always great casting for a treacherous mid-to-high level crook masquerading as a legitimate businessman, doing what he does best here. Porter is a riot as the blonde, sunbathing babe who, deceptively, is not as ditzy as she appears on first glance, proving to be alarmingly skilled at slight of hand.
Cry Danger is an imperfect film but also very easy to enjoy. It plays its card just a little bit differently from most other movies in the genre, finding new, inventive ways to land its leading figure into more trouble than he bargained for. Robert Parish would go on to direct films well into the 1970s; judging by this debut, it is easy to see why studios would put their trust in him.