By Eddie Muller
The Film Noir Foundation re-premiered its latest preservation project on January 23, 2010 at the NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco. The unjustly rare 1951 noir Cry Danger, starring Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming, has been completely restored in 35-millimeter through the joint efforts of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservationist Nancy Mysel, who last year managed the FNF-funded restoration of the 1951 classic The Prowler, once again supervised the restoration.
Although Cry Danger’s plot is fairly routine—a framed ex-con (Powell) seeks revenge on the crooks who set him up—William Bowers’s witty, well-honed script, Joseph Biroc’s atmospheric location shooting, and the sharply realized performances of the entire cast make Cry Danger a film deserving of more recognition than it has received.
“Cry Danger might be my best work on screen, and it is a personal favorite due to my close friendship with Robert Parrish,” said actor Richard Erdman, who plays Powell’s rummy buddy DeLong. “It was Bobby’s directorial debut, and I was in the first setup that was shot along with Jeanie Porter. Nothing happened for a moment, and then Dick Powell whispered to Parrish that he had to say ‘action’ in order for matters to commence! I am tickled to death that Cry Danger has been restored to its original 35-millimeter glory.”
Actress-philanthropist Rhonda Fleming, Cry Danger’s female lead, was also ecstatic about the news: “Cry Danger has become one of my very favorite films in spite of the pain and heartache I endured while filming it,” she told the Sentinel. “I had an emergency appendectomy, which held up filming for a week, and at the time of the opening in San Francisco, my father, who lived there, suddenly died. Obviously I did not attend the premiere. In fact, I couldn’t bear to look at the film for over a year, and when I was finally able—I loved it! I only wish my father, who would have loved it, too, could have been at the opening.”
Fleming, whose founding of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, among many other charitable works, has made her a philanthropic legend, generously made a financial contribution toward the restoration of Cry Danger.
She notes that Cry Danger, “was filmed in old Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, so it has a historical aspect, as well. Plus the story is strong and catches you off guard at the ending. It’s a perfect film noir.”
In my estimation, it’s also the best of many noirs made by leading man (and uncredited producer) Dick Powell. It was a good movie for first-time director Robert Parrish to cut his teeth on. His leading man doubled as a smart, savvy, and sympathetic producer who didn’t screw around. Powell knew that Bowers’s script was a dynamic balance of revenge drama and smart-ass humor, and he played it that way. But it’s also a pivotal film in certain ways: It shows the embittered noir antihero of the 1940s moving from the darkness into the light, figuratively and literally. It’s sunnier and funnier than most film noir, while still retaining its punch.
It is also, unfortunately, one of the most difficult noirs to see—especially in its original 35-millimeter format. We’ve shown it twice at NOIR CITY festivals, and both times we’ve had to resort to 16-millimeter prints—one of them Dick Powell’s own personal copy, which was deposited long ago at UCLA.
A Twisty History
Tracking the work’s convoluted rights history explains why some films—even ones with great reputations—are at risk of slipping through America’s cultural and commercial cracks.
Powell, operating independently of any studio, originally secured financing for Cry Danger from a pair of Midwestern investors, Sam Wiesenthal and W. R. Frank, whose Olympic Productions company has no screen credits beyond this film. Powell set them up with a distribution deal at RKO Radio Pictures; its boss, Howard Hughes, put up the completion guarantee. After the RKO pact ran its course, the film’s reissue rights were sold to Republic Pictures. The studio’s entire library was, in turn, purchased in 1957 by National Telefilm Associates, an independent distribution company that dealt in theatrical re-releases and television syndication packages. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cry Danger could be seen with some regularity, bearing the NTA logo, on daytime and late-night television.
In 1984, NTA formed a home-video division, which it eventually renamed Republic Pictures. It was under this banner that, 19 years ago, a VHS version of Cry Danger was released. (It’s now out of print, with used copies fetching top dollar on the Internet.)
After that, things got complicated. NTA/Republic was bought by Viacom, and all the theatrical rights for its film library were shifted to its subsidiary, Paramount Pictures. However, no 35-millimeter prints, or even preprint elements (negatives, duplicate negatives, soundtracks), survived the three-decade Republic-to-Paramount sojourn, though low-contrast, 16-millimeter, made-for-television prints occasionally surface in the collectors’ market. The only surviving 35-millimeter elements resided with the film’s original distributor, RKO. That entire film library was purchased in 1986 by Turner Broadcasting, and when Turner merged with Time Warner in 1996, the latter corporation’s Warner Bros. subsidiary assumed control of the RKO archive.
Although no 35-millimeter prints of Cry Danger remain in the Warner Bros. archive, the preprint material, fortuitously, was retained. Now noir fans will understand why Cry Danger was never included in Warner Home Video DVD collections, and why it’s not available from Paramount Home Entertainment: one studio (Paramount) claims rights to Cry Danger, and another (Warner Bros.) possesses the only existing physical elements.
That’s where the Film Noir Foundation came in. It fostered a campaign on the film’s behalf that resulted in Warner Bros. agreeing to let the UCLA Film & Television Archive borrow the surviving elements for the project.
“We couldn’t be more thankful to Warner Bros. for its enthusiastic cooperation and access,” added UCLA motion picture archivist Todd Wiener, who spearheaded the transfer process. I heartily concur. The Film Noir Foundation fully funded this restoration, and we can now return Cry Danger to the big screen as part of our NOIR CITY festivals in 2010 and beyond. l
Eddie Muller is a versatile, award-winning author whose works include the well-regarded mystery novel The Distance and Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which he cowrote with the actor. He produces and hosts NOIR CITY: The San Francisco Film Noir Festival, the largest noir retrospective in the world, which now has satellite festivals in four other U.S. cities. As founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, he has been instrumental in rescuing America’s noir heritage. In 2011, he will present a month-long series of rare film noir at the Cinematheque Française in Paris.