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A Cry in the Night

A Cry in the Night(1956)


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teaser A Cry in the Night (1956)

There didn't used to be teenagers. Sure, children turned into adults, but that was nothing special. One day you'd trade in your short pants and join the ranks of the grown-ups, and that was that. But a curious combination of factors in the postwar years led to the creation of a new kind of American-the teenager. They had their own music, their own fashion, their own slang, and their own sense of rebellion. And all of it made their parents' generation feel alienated and threatened. That is, except for those older folks who worked in pop culture, who realized that marketing to this new cohort could be big business.

Rebel Without a Cause [1955] was a product of this new age. It spoke deeply to American teens-it got them. Its stars became instant icons of teen angst. As you probably know, one of those stars died just before the film was released. James Dean's death only increased his allure, and brought extra attention to the film. That cultural spotlight burned ever brighter, then, on the remaining star, Natalie Wood.

If anyone knew how to withstand public scrutiny, it was her. Hers was no overnight success. Wood had been in movies since she was a toddler. She lived in a bubble, controlled by agents, managers, and confidants who kept her insulated from the outside world, and every move she made was calculated for publicity purposes. As Warner Brothers began their campaign to get her performance in Rebel nominated for an Oscar (it was), her agents renegotiated her contract with the studio, nearly doubling her fee. Because she was still a minor, she had to go to court to finalize the new agreement-and she sashayed into the courthouse, posing for the paparazzi with her toy poodle Fifi. Natalie Wood was the prototype of a new form of manufactured celebrity that would eventually overtake Hollywood. She would do anything to be a star.

This was the essence of her complicated screen persona. Natalie Wood was the opposite of Ginger Rogers, whose weary tough-girl exterior masked an inner vulnerability. Natalie might look like a doe-eyed innocent, but displayed womanliness beyond her years. The grown up woman in the little girl's body. It could get creepy at times-hence the need for her handlers to moderate her public image, and conceal her tendency to hook up with older men.

The seventeen-year-old girl had been sexually violated by one of Hollywood's more powerful men, and the identity of her rapist would remain the subject of speculation forever after. Perhaps it was with this haunting memory in mind that Natalie sought out her follow-up to Rebel Without a Cause, the low-budget crime thriller A Cry in the Night [1956]. According to Cry's screenwriter David Dortort, Wood had read the script and decided she should play the role of the police captain's daughter, kidnapped by a sexual predator, who forms an uneasy bond of sympathy with her attacker. Dortort says that Wood spent days lobbying him and the producers to hire her for the part. Wood's biographer Suzanne Finstad speculates that Wood felt the need to exorcise some of her inner pain by working through it on screen.

Or there is the other possibility; that Natalie Wood was merely assigned to the film, and Dortort made up his self-serving anecdote. It certainly strains credulity to imagine Dortort and his producers would somehow waffle on Natalie's offer for days on end, making one of Hollywood's hottest stars jump through hoops to prove she really wanted to play a supporting role in their B-movie. Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Rebel Without a Cause, having agreed to nearly double Wood's salary, Warner Brothers sought to leverage their star's drawing power by dropping her into various TV shows and low-budget productions where her popularity could provide a boost to otherwise struggling material.

However it was that Natalie Wood ended up cast in A Cry in the Night, her presence there would contribute to a fundamental creative contradiction that would hobble the film rather than help it. To understand this paradox, we need to jump back to 1942, to a film called This Gun for Hire. It was a brilliant film noir about a nightclub singer-cum-secret agent tasked by the Feds to uncover a traitor selling out America's defenses to the Japanese. She strikes an unexpected alliance with a contract killer out for revenge, who just happens to be stalking the same quarry for his own reasons. This Gun for Hire made an overnight star out of Alan Ladd, who debuted as the hired gun. The film also turned around the fortunes of its director, Frank Tuttle, who was frustrated at being repeatedly hired for nothing other than simple-minded comedies. Tuttle had in fact originated the project, explicitly to prove himself worthy of bigger and more important pictures. Tuttle and Ladd had good reason to credit each other with their new success, and a lifelong partnership was born.

Eventually, Alan Ladd and his wife Sue formed their own production company, Jaguar, and started making their own movies, many directed by Tuttle. For tax purposes, it benefited the Ladds to occasionally produce a film that did not feature Alan in it. While on the lookout for just such a property, they found a book by Whit Masterson called All Through the Night. It told the story of a sexually frustrated man, henpecked by his shrewish wife, who seeks release by kidnapping a teenager girl. His hastily executed abduction goes wrong, however, and he is soon the subject of a manhunt led by the girl's father, a police captain. It was a suitably pulpy thriller concept, but there were details that would need to be adjusted to turn it into a proper movie. The girl in the book was knocked out early on and treated like a piece of furniture from then on. Her boyfriend wanted to help rescue her, but was sidelined by her bullying father, an unsympathetic brute in pursuit of an equally monstrous villain. There just wasn't much there for any actor to grab a hold of. David Dortort took the book's outline and reconfigured its details to make the characters more compelling: the sex fiend was now a repressed mamma's boy. This 32-year old virgin has no other way to spend time with a woman aside from abducting her to a secret lair. And the object of his rapacious attention would no longer be an unconscious object, but a girl equally frustrated by the smothering attention of an overprotective parent, and capable of recognizing some humanity in her attacker. The boyfriend would no longer be relegated to the margins of the story, but would join the father in the hunt, where the two would have plenty of dramatic tension and mutual disrespect crackling between them.

Tuttle put together an impressive cast to tackle this material. In addition to Natalie Wood as the abducted girl, he cast Edmond O'Brien as her father and Brian Donlevy as the lieutenant in charge of the case. These were film noir veterans so accustomed to this kind of film they could do it in their sleep. Richard Anderson was borrowed from MGM to play the boyfriend, and Tuttle arranged a completely non-sequiter cameo appearance for his friend Tina Carver, playing a woman arrested for bigamy. As the would-be rapist, they turned to Raymond Burr.

Like O'Brien and Donlevy, Burr was an old hand at this kind of thriller, but like Tuttle he was a man eager to break out of his box. Burr was a big man, with deep, soulful eyes and a richly sonorous voice. He had the right physical attributes to play both heroes and villains, but by the mid-50s he was firmly stuck in that latter category. He had been typecast as the burly henchman, a menacing figure without any character depth. Then in 1954, Burr caught a break. Alfred Hitchcock still cast him as a killer in Rear Window, and for that matter barely included him in the film at all-seen at a distance, through a window-but if you appear in a masterpiece, no matter what your contribution, there are glories to be reaped. Burr's role in Rear Window was a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic kind of killer, and it suggested untapped talents in the actor.

Seeking to capitalize on this breakthrough, Burr and his agent Lester Salkow formed their own company, Bursal Productions, with the aim of producing three independent features that Burr would write for himself. Such ambitions quickly sputtered out, but the makers of A Cry in the Night felt he was the prefect choice to play opposite Natalie Wood, to give that character the necessary sympathetic qualities.

Wood was a famously gregarious actress. She invited Richard Anderson to rehearse with her in her trailer, a gesture of uncommon familiarity. The time she spent with Burr, however, was of a different degree altogether. The gossip columns were not sure what to make of their dates-and portrayed the relationship as one of the worldly older man tutoring his younger protg, like Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Wood's closest friends knew better than that: Natalie described their relationship as a genuine romance, and dropped hints to the columnists that they were to be married soon. When the executives at Warner Brothers heard that their 17-year old ingnue was dating a man twice her age, and not just that but the man who played her abductor in the picture, the PR alarms went into Def-Con 4. Studio officials were sent to the set to keep the two apart, but Natalie insisted on continuing to see Raymond secretly.

The biggest obstacle to their relationship, however, was not the age difference or studio interference, but the simple fact that Raymond Burr was gay. One couldn't be open about such things in those days, and some cynics wonder if Burr merely used his younger co-star as a "beard" to disguise his sexual orientation. Burr's partner, Robert Benevides, says that Raymond told him he really loved Natalie. Certainly even a gay man would find much to enjoy in the company of a charming young woman like Natalie Wood.

The publicity surrounding the Natalie Wood-Raymond Burr affair, and the chance to see the star of Rebel Without a Cause in person, brought a huge crowd to the premiere of A Cry in the Night in the summer of 1956. The lights dimmed, and the grim tale of sexual repression and revenge started to unfold... but the audience started to laugh and jeer at the movie, not at all the expected reaction. In later years, Frank Tuttle would claim the picture was a hit, but this is an exaggeration. It was made on a miserly budget such that making a profit was all but guaranteed, but critics and movie-goers alike were unimpressed.

There are moments in the film that sparkle with promise, where the failure of the rest of the picture is thrown into relief. An example: The desperate father played by Edmond O'Brien has followed a lead to the home of the man he suspects of kidnapping his daughter. The man isn't home, but his mother, played by Carol Veazie, is. She's a soul-crushing force of selfishness masquerading as a loving mother, and it is immediately clear that no one could hope to live a life of their own while sharing a roof with her. The woman is horrified to hear that the cops think her boy has abducted a girl from Lover's Loop. "Not my Harold," she crows, "He's not that kind!" And the words smack us in the face-these are the same words, and the same indignant tone, that O'Brien spoke just minutes earlier, as he protested that his daughter could never have gone to Lover's Loop in the first place. The realization starts to dawn on him: "A man's mother is to blame for this?" he asks. When at last he finds the secret hiding place and confronts Raymond Burr, O'Brien lets his fists do the talking. And in one breath, both Burr and Natalie Wood cry out to their respective parents, plaintive cries in the night that will go unheeded by their respective parents. It is a potentially devastating moment.

In other words, it isn't devastating-it just could've been.

Teenagers in 1956 would have responded well to this theme of overprotective parents infantilizing and desexualizing their children until the kids are forced by nature to do stupid, self-destructive things in order to be free. The film shows the consequences of sexual repression: you may turn into a bitter spinster, a sex-starved maniac, or a victim. It is a breathtaking idea, expressed in a film made a decade before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The problem is, the makers of A Cry in the Night drag this subtext out into the open and proceed to beat it to death. O'Brien's uneasy reaction to the mother's "Not my boy!" speech is well-played, but a few minutes later the film grinds to a complete halt so that the characters can sit around and lecture didactically just in case you missed it. The film noir turns into an After School Special.

While some of the blame clearly lies at the feet of Dortort, who distrusted his audience to read between the lines, the film is also a disappointing coda to Tuttle's illustrious career. Tuttle got his start in silents, and stayed in pictures for 35 years. He was an ambitious artist who wrote short stories and plays as well as movies. He covered all genres, and made the most of nearly every opportunity. At his finest, he crafted some of the best crime thrillers ever made. A Cry in the Night is very nearly his last film, and it is the work of an old man going through the motions. The finale is staged in an industrial warehouse-a familiar setting that recalls the similarly staged climaxes of This Gun for Hire and Gunman in the Streets [1950]. What was once refreshing and innovative is now a tired gimmick.

Dortort's conception of the film as a statement of a generational conflict, enhanced by the casting of Natalie Wood, fights against the conventional thinking of Tuttle's direction. On one hand the movie claims "This is not your father's film noir!" but then trots out Edmond O'Brien and Brian Donlevy to shuffle through routine police procedural scenes that in every respect do seem like the work of a previous generation. The casting of Richard Anderson as the boyfriend is a perfect case in point. Anderson is as bland as they come-his character has no defining edge, no reality, nothing for the teens in the audience to connect to themselves. He is a traditional choice for this sort of role, and inhabits it capably, but in so doing he disconnects the film from its intended point. Anderson is no James Dean, and he represents the same world as O'Brien and Donlevy.

A Cry in the Night is a movie whose content is 10 years ahead of its time, but presented in the form of a film that feels 10 years past its sell-by date. It is the work of an extremely talented group of artists, variously moving upwards or downwards in the trajectories of their professional lives, and all of who did better work elsewhere. It is perhaps literally an adolescent film, part-child and part-adult, caught awkwardly between what was and what will be.

Producer: George C. Bertholon; Alan Ladd (uncredited)
Director: Frank Tuttle
Screenplay: David Dortort; Whit Masterson (novel)
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: Malcolm C. Bert
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: Edmond O'Brien(Dan Taggart), Brian Donlevy (Capt. Ed Bates), Natalie Wood (Liz Taggart), Raymond Burr (Harold Loftus), Richard Anderson (Owen Clark), Irene Hervey (Helen Taggart), Carol Veazie (Mabel Loftus), Mary Lawrence (Madge Taggart), Anthony Caruso (Tony Chavez).

by David Kalat

Suzanne Finstad, Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood
Gavin Lambert, Natalie Wood: A Life
Whit Masterson, All Through the Night
Michael Seth Starr, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr
Frank Tuttle, They Started Talking

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