Cry of the Hunted

It could be argued that every story is at heart a tale of pursuit, a fictional quest where the prize sought might be material (money, treasure, etc) or spiritual (love, contentment, redemption, revenge, and so on), or the quarry might be of the classic, and slipperiest variety: a human being. For the viewer, the race to capture or recapture a fugitive always tends to raise the dramatic stakes, providing scope for shifting sympathies and asking questions about the role of, and indeed the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Such should be the case with Cry of the Hunted (1953), where both parties involved in this particular game of hide and seek come to realize that their objectives might be different to what they had initially believed. Yet this is only partially fulfilled and the result of it all is that the movie ends up pulling some of its punches.

Speaking of pulling punches, there’s not much of that in the early stages, when Lieutenant Tunner (Barry Sullivan) tries to get convicted getaway driver Jory (Vittorio Gassman) to dish the dirt on his accomplices. The outcome is a bruising and punishing encounter, but one which makes it clear that both men, despite their entrenched positions on opposing sides of the law, have a grudging mutual respect. A traffic accident in downtown Los Angeles affords Jory the chance to escape, making use of the iconic Angels Flight in Bunker Hill, and he grabs his opportunity with both hands. The galled lawmen now have red faces to go with their grey suits and the only way to cool this situation is to arrange for the recapture of the prisoner as soon as possible. Jory is a man of the Bayou, the Louisiana marshland where the alligators aren’t the only threat, and it’s not hard to figure out he will be heading back there, back to his home and his wife. And so it is that Tunner is sent across the country to bring the fugitive back. He’s on top of things soon enough, almost laying Jory by the heels when he intercepts the freight train he is riding, and then tracks him to his shack in the swamps. A shade too much overconfidence is his undoing though, turning his back at the wrong moment leads to a concussion, a bellyful of filthy water, and a stay in hospital. All of this means the trail will need to be picked up once again, this time in the company of a colleague (William Conrad) who is keen to grab his job.

The entire setup here is most promising. The plot has a good deal of potential, the setting offers danger and atmosphere, and Joseph H Lewis as director always holds out the hope of some interesting visual flourishes. Lewis does get some value from the swampy surroundings, and the short sequence involving Sullivan’s fever dream (a shot from which can be seen above) is attractive even if it doesn’t actually add much to the story. However, for all that promise and potential, the finished movie falls a bit short. Now, it is never boring and Lewis keeps the pace up and the running time down, but the development of the plot is rather flat and predictable. Even a low budget effort such as The Ride Back (coincidentally, also featuring William Conrad in a prominent role) flips expectations to an extent by having hunter and hunted virtually changing places and gaining some personal insight as a result. In Cry of the Hunted, however, there is none of that.

Sullivan starts out as a well-meaning and conscientious guy with a hard edge and he never wavers or strays from that path, winding up in essentially the same place as he began. The part is a solid one, playing up the brash needling side of himself that Sullivan often showed and shoring it up with a strong core of decency and humanity. I haven’t seen a lot of Gassman’s work, which probably says much about my limited exposure to Italian cinema, but his character does get to undergo a touch more growth. I emphasize the fact that it is only a touch more though; there’s never really much doubt that his heart is in the right place or that he has it within him to come good. I reckon the writers missed a trick in the last act and should have had Sullivan laid up with an injury and needing to be saved by Gassman rather than the other way around. I seem to be on a bit of a William Conrad kick just now and he is good value as Sullivan’s subordinate and competitor. He seems to have been set to take on a meaner role (goading Gassman in the early stages, beating up a witness) but the script only leads him a short way down that particular path before allowing his better nature to take charge. Polly Bergen (Cape Fear, Escape from Fort Bravo) drifts in and out of the picture in a small role as Sullivan’s wife.

Cry of the Hunted is an MGM production, but it was not one of the studio’s top line pictures. It’s a small affair with some attractive location shooting and a tight, self-contained cast. Even second string movies from such a big studio have a fair bit of polish and it’s interesting to see MGM branching out into this more socially aware material, although it is nowhere near as challenging as it could have been when one takes into account the strong initial premise. I think it is fair to say it never really fires on all cylinders and it feels like a minor work from Lewis. Nevertheless, any opportunity to spend an hour and a quarter or thereabouts in the company of actors like Barry Sullivan and William Conrad is not something I would ever consider a chore. As for availability, it should be easy enough to locate seeing as the Warner Brothers Archive released a good-looking copy a few years ago. So, it’s definitely worth checking out and enjoyable enough as far as it goes, as long as it is approached with realistic expectations.

East Side, West Side

Crime has always acted as an effective hook to snare an audience. The reason? I guess it comes down to the challenge of being presented with a puzzle, even when it’s not an especially taxing one, that helps to draw in so many people. Even when the crime is not the principal feature of the movie it still adds a little spice, maybe broadening the overall appeal. East Side, West Side (1949) is at heart a slick melodrama, the kind that MGM was adept at making. Somewhere around the halfway mark it manages to work in a murder mystery, administering a shot in the arm to a plot which had been in danger of growing slightly listless and predictable.

The voice-over narration which introduces the movie has Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) maintaining that the New York she inhabits is nothing special really, a place where people’s lives are mapped out in much the same way as they are in less celebrated towns. Yet the New York we are subsequently drawn into is different, it’s stylish and sophisticated and sleek, with well-to-do types very obviously doing well. Jessie Bourne is the daughter is one of the great ladies of Broadway, her husband Brandon (James Mason) is a successful financier with blue blood and all the polish and accomplishment it brings. The conversation appears as bright and dazzling as the crystal and china on her mother’s supper table, and every bit as brittle. That bright glaze that surrounds the Bournes is but a thin veneer, a superficial sheen that is riven with the kind of hairline cracks that are only visible when viewed outside of the honeyed glow of pampered privilege. You see, Brandon Bourne is an incorrigible philanderer and something of a lost soul, a man floundering in a sea of temptation, ostensibly in love with his wife yet powerless to resist the lure of forbidden fruit. The most persistent interloper in the Bournes’ garden is the relentlessly sexy Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), a supreme huntress in the field of seduction. She had an affair with Brandon in the past before moving away but has now been let loose once again to prowl the streets and clubs of Manhattan. That she is stalking Brandon mercilessly is never in question, and his assertions that he’s a reformed character have a hollow ring, not least to his own ears.

Jessie Bourne’s wronged woman is on a different path though. Frustrated by her husbands serial infidelity while simultaneously paralyzed by her love for him and her inability to envisage a life without him, she appears to have reached an impasse. By a convoluted mix of coincidence and curiosity, she encounters mannequin Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse), who in turn brings her into contact with Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Dwyer is a former policeman now working in some ill-defined role as an intelligence operative in post-war Europe. His arrival on the scene has a twofold effect, affording Jessie a glimpse of how her life could be without the constant fear of abandonment by her wayward husband and then later assuming a more professional role as an impromptu investigator when murder gatecrashes this elite atmosphere.

“That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!”

Those words, spoken with passion and animation, by Ava Gardner’s character at a decisive moment go some way towards clarifying the hold she has over Brandon Bourne. It’s a superb piece of casting really, Gardner was near her peak at this stage and commands attention whenever she is on screen. It is quite impossible to take your eyes off her and it’s very easy to see how Mason’s playboy is drawn inexorably to this smouldering siren. She is earthy and forthright, candid with regard to what she wants and every bit as frank in her assessment of herself. Essentially, she is the polar opposite of Jessie’s contained refinement. Even though the main focus of the story is on Jessie’s three day trek to self-belief and her realization of her own worth as an individual, it’s not the most compelling feature. The part is well enough defined and Stanwyck’s work is up to her usual standard, but it’s a relatively straightforward one. It would be unfair, I think, to refer to it as bland but there’s a touch of inevitability to the path traced, not to mention a dearth of internal conflict.

James Mason, on the other hand, does get something meatier and more complex to sink his teeth into. This was one of his earliest Hollywood films and his suave ambiguity was well used. His character’s acknowledgment of his flaws and weaknesses invites the viewer to weigh this man up, to consider him rather than merely sit in judgement. It’s the cocktail of arrogance, insecurity and self-awareness that lends a wretched and abject aspect to the final image we have of him, a portrait of vanity bereft.

Van Heflin’s role is a little odd or contrived. It’s almost as though he is parachuted into the picture as some transient righter of wrongs, a bluff and hearty action man, ace investigator and sage with a neat sideline in homespun philosophy and cooking skills. His determination to brush off a deeply smitten Cyd Charisse for, let’s face it, some pretty spurious and unconvincing reasons is difficult to swallow. Then after assuring Stanwyck he is not in the business of wooing other men’s wives he proceeds to do just that before departing the scene again. I can’t fault Heflin’s playing but I have to scratch my head over some of the logic surrounding how his character is written. That said, I’m never displeased to see him in a movie and there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not every day you have the opportunity to see him involved in a punch up with Beverly Michaels. Married to the producer Voldemar Vetluguin and making her screen debut, Michaels arrives fairly late in the story but is pivotal in bring about the resolution. And finally, there’s some well crafted support offered by Gale Sondergaard, Nancy Reagan (still Nancy Davis at this stage) and William Conrad.

East Side, West Side was released on DVD years ago as part of a Barbara Stanwyck box set by Warner Brothers so it shouldn’t be that hard to locate. There are undoubtedly better melodramas around but it has that MGM sheen that is certainly attractive, boosted by Mervyn LeRoy’s tight direction and a Miklos Rozsa score. The crime element lifts it in the latter stages and there’s a lot to be said for any chance to spend an hour and three quarters in the company of a cast as classy and accomplished as this picture boasts.

Conflict

Film noir meets Freud, presented as an inverted mystery. I suppose that just about sums up what viewers can reasonably expect to take away from Conflict (1945). It might also be helpful to keep in mind that this is a movie where plausibility is going to be stretched. In short, if you are the type of person who balks at the unashamed use of contrivance, who yearns for grit and realism, then this almost certainly is not the film for you. On the other hand, those looking for a relatively undemanding confection that plays around the periphery of film noir will probably enjoy themselves.

There is something quintessentially noir about rain. Perhaps it’s down to the heavy, brooding skies, swollen and sullen with the weight within, or that sense of some indefinable force lashing at us. Or maybe it’s just the way the cinematic version seems to smear and blur the lens, leaving our perception of characters and situations, and indeed the entire ethical universe laid out before us, a little unclear. Such is the case as the credits roll, just before the camera zeroes in on the finishing touches being added to a letter of invitation to Richard and Kathryn Mason (Humphrey Bogart and Rose Hobart). It’s from their friend Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet) on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary. Even if it’s a couple of years early, Richard Mason is already starting to feel that famed extramarital itch, in this case prompted by the presence of his wife’s younger sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith). This unsavory fact has just been hauled out in the open and so it’s with a certain sourness that the couple, and the unsuspecting sibling, head off for a night of food, drink and the kind of brittle civility that only the well-heeled and dissatisfied can carry off with aplomb. Well, having dined under a cloud of charmingly concealed bitterness, the drive back home is interrupted by an accident that segues into one of those sequences that has the protagonist’s thoughts and experiences reflected through the images and words of others, spinning as a vortex before the camera, drawing both him and us ever deeper.

On awakening, as the faces of doctor and nurse swim into view, we learn that Richard was the only one who suffered any significant injury. While recuperating from the broken leg that everybody believes has left him temporarily incapacitated, he hatches a plan to rid himself of his wife and leave himself free to pursue Evelyn. It’s no spoiler to point out that this is where the inverted mystery kicks in. We see Richard Mason go about the plotting of his wife’s demise and then get to see the gradual chipping away at his confidence, the doubts that circle and creep ever nearer till, finally, he can no longer be entirely sure how firm his grip on reality or sanity is. It is somehow fitting that he is drawn down into the darkness and despair of a literal and figurative abyss to confront his guilt and culpability before heading back towards the light, back to the fate he richly deserves.

Conflict is derived from a story entitled The Pentacle, co-written by Alfred Neumann and Robert Siodmak. Siodmak’s name is enough to catch my attention, although I suppose it was mainly the casting of Bogart that drew me to the movie when I first saw it some time back in the mid-1980s. As with most inverted mysteries, much of the enjoyment lies in seeing how the best laid plans can unravel, and the clue that first sets the hounds on Mason’s trail grows out of a delicious slice of hubris. Curtis Bernhardt would have a very strong run of melodramas and films noir from My Reputation right through to Payment on Demand, although I reckon Sirocco (also with Bogart) is a misfire. His direction here is impressive at times, with a few showy tracking shots to pulls the audience into the picture, and of course the set piece of the murder on the twisty and mist shrouded mountain pass.

It has been said that Bogart was not keen on the film and was actually reluctant to make it, but he gives a fairly solid performance for all that. He is good at getting across the abrasive and impatient aspects of his character, and the transition from cocksure killer to desperate paranoiac is well realized. The only point at which I felt he hammed it up and lost some credibility was the scene where he tries to emotionally browbeat Alexis Smith, and even there one could perhaps argue that the whole point was to highlight the driven creepiness of Mason. Alexis Smith seems a bit wasted in a role that asks her to do little more than wring her hands on cue and prevaricate, none of which is the fault of the actress herself. Conversely, Rose Hobart is given a juicier part with at least some wounded pride and suspicion to sustain her, but her screen time is necessarily limited. Sydney Greenstreet is never less than a joy to watch in anything and his sympathetic part as the avuncular doctor with a piercing, probing intelligence and a penchant for cultivating roses feels like a dry run for his later role on radio as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe – just remove the avuncular aspect and swap out the roses for orchids. Charles Drake would go on to do better things in the 1950s at Universal-International but his young suitor in Conflict never rises much above the level  of “aw shucks” guilelessness.

Conflict ought to be easy enough to track down for viewing, either from the Warner Archive or from various European labels. It isn’t the best example of Bogart’s work but he’s good enough in it and he is always watchable anyway. Sure the plot is contrived and the whole thing is loaded with the cod psychology which was popular at the time. However, for those happy to embrace these features and just go with the flow there is quite a lot of pleasure and entertainment to be had.