You know the type of films Hollywood holds up as examples of the cheesy filmmaking of the classic era? Ones where dialogue is especially pointed for maximum impact, or the acting is remarkably monotone and automated? Actually, just watch the scene in The Iron Giant where Hogarth Hughes watches a 1950s sci-fi movie…that’s the type of movie I’m talking about.
I say all this because that’s the image that popped into my head during A Cry in the Night. This film is pure entertainment, but entertainment in a comedic fashion, a far cry (pun quasi-intended) from the tone the filmmakers are obviously going for; and once you realize the level of A-list talent in an otherwise delightfully cheesy and inept police thriller, you’ll be mesmerized by the inanity. This is a film you watch with your friends and make fun of, good in its own way.
Kidnapped by a deranged mama’s boy (Raymond Burr), a young girl (Natalie Wood) hopes her police captain father (Edmond O’Brien) is able to save her.
Again, it’s puzzling to watch this movie and see the talent involved. Natalie Wood was fresh off her work in The Searchers and Rebel Without a Cause had come out the year before; Raymond Burr was working steadily, while Brian Donlevy had seen much of his success a decade prior. Their work in this comes off as little more than a studio commitment or a paycheck. Either way, none of them phone it in, especially Burr projecting the requisite amount of terror as Harold.
It’s actually sad watching Burr waste his time he; he’s too good for an otherwise tepid drive-in feature. His Harold is a precursor to the sociopathic scheming of Anthony Perkins’ Psycho. Both Harold Loftus and Norman Bates are mama’s boys who can’t communicate with women. But where Norman kills women at his “mother’s” behest, Raymond kidnaps Wood’s Elizabeth and hides her in a shack like a doll he’s not allowed to play with. Burr turns Harold into a sensitive, puppy dog character desperate for love…he’s just going about it the wrong way. Taking into account his life and his servitude to his mother, you end up rooting for him more than the cops coming to Elizabeth’s aid.
The rest of the cast are dramatic as the plot requires. No one violates the conventions of the dramatic tone, but it’s doubtful this ended up on anyone’s resume. Natalie Wood is “the girl,” and it’s pretty offensive how unnecessary someone with her level of talent is for the character required (and strengthens the theory that Natalie Wood leaving her house in movies always signifies trouble). This is a no-name part any C-level actress of 1956 could have tackled. With all the personality of a broom Elizabeth does little more besides being kidnapped, and spending the rest of the film sucking up to Harold before being inevitably rescued.
Edmond O’Brien’s tortured father/police captain, Dan Taggart is our hero and he’s good. Donlevy’s Captain Ed Bates helps Dan out, and is the lone character with an ounce of self-awareness. Dan and Elizabeth’s 35-year-old looking boyfriend, Owen (Richard Anderson) bicker constantly during the investigation. As if Elizabeth’s kidnapping isn’t dramatic enough – further emphasizing Wood’s needless presence – her boyfriend and father insist on quibbling about why Elizabeth was out in Lover’s Lane in the first place. Here’s where the 1950s is in full force. Any self-respecting good girl wouldn’t dare be out in a Lover’s Lane. And what type of guy is Owen that he would take a girl there? Later on, Dan wonders why anyone would want to go there in the first place? Considering Dan has two children I can’t imagine any reason young hormonal teens would want to hang out in an isolated area away from their parents. After thirty minutes of this Bates finally tells the two men now really isn’t the time…don’t they have to answer that cry in the night?
Dan’s narration conveys this is a cautionary film…and yet it’s unsure what it’s cautioning against. Dan tells us the film’s events take place in a sleepy little town that “could be your town, or my town.” Obviously, the question of whose town we’re in is answered by Dan’s narration. But, as Dan says, “What’s there to worry about?” Cut to Burr standing in the bushes waiting for his mark. So is the moral never have sex, because you will go to a Lover’s Lane, be kidnapped and die?
A Cry in the Night is such a prototypical encapsulation of 1950s cautionary schmaltz I can’t help but recommend it. Raymond Burr is fantastic, but his performance reminds you of how, from a technical standpoint, the film is a failure. Instead, watch it for the insane stupidity it espouses. Various isolated moments say it all: Elizabeth is kidnapped and screaming only to have a nearby teen – who assumes she’s being lovingly slapped around by her boyfriend – yell “Sock her again, they love it;” Dan finds out about Harold because Harold’s mother called 911 to complain he wasn’t home with her nightly slice of pie. My personal favorite, the perfect moment to describe why you should watch this: When Owen is found by the police after Elizabeth’s kidnapping they believe he’s drunk. One of the cops warns the other: “He might be on the goofballs.” Yes, he might be on the goofballs, indeed.