Hostage dramas usually represent good value as they tend to focus on the trials experienced by the kind of ordinary, everyday people an audience can identify with. Director Andrew L Stone had already explored this theme with The Night Holds Terror, but in Cry Terror! (1958) he mixed in elements of a terrorist/extortion racket too. It’s this aspect which provides the motivation for the whole captive scenario of course, yet it’s also the least plausible part of the story. Thus the whole basis of the drama has a flaw at its heart. Still, the film generally holds together, mainly as a result of an especially strong cast and a couple of extremely well-handled sequences.
Things start off in semi-documentary fashion, detailing a warning delivered to an airline that one of their planes is carrying a bomb on board. This is all seen through the eyes of the airline executives, the FBI and the media before the focus shifts to a television set reporting the breaking story. Jim Molner (James Mason) is watching the broadcast in the shop where he works, and his combined fascination and shock at what he’s hearing makes it abundantly clear that this man has a personal interest in the story. Well, maybe he knew someone travelling on the threatened flight, his frantic dash back home being consistent with that theory. However, his arrival there and the sense of alarm his wife, Joan (Inger Stevens), detects leads to a revelation – Molner was the man who designed and built the sophisticated, high-explosive device. The thing is, Molner is no terrorist or blackmailer; he was suckered into this by Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger), who intimated that a government position might be available to the designer. Now at this early stage – we’re really only a matter of minutes into the film here – my credibility was stretched. I mean, despite being told of Molner’s military experience, we’re asked to believe that a guy working in a store would be approached out of the blue by a man he once knew in the army with a proposition to build a bomb on this basis alone. Others may not be fazed by this, but I was left scratching my head. Anyway, it’s here that the plot starts to take shape, with the arrival on the scene of Hoplin and his three associates (Angie Dickinson, Jack Klugman and Neville Brand), and the news that another device has been put in place. Having already thrown down the gauntlet, Hoplin intends to extort money from the airline while holding Molner and his family hostage both to ensure his identity remains a secret and to force one of them to act as his courier. So, Molner, his wife and little girl face a twin dilemma: how to wriggle out of the clutches of Hoplin unscathed while averting a disaster. As the Molners cast around for an opportunity to be free of their tormentors, the Feds are painstakingly building up a profile of the criminals from the few scraps of evidence available to them.
As writer and director, Andrew L Stone must take responsibility for both the good and bad parts of the movie. I’ve already mentioned the early strain placed on logic by the script, and there are other instances throughout. There’s also an issue with the tone and focus of the picture: Stone can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants it to be a documentary style police procedural or something more personal, and the emphasis is continually shifting. Additionally, there are two separate voiceovers used at various points (both Molner and Joan) depending on which character is dominating the scene. All of this has a slightly disorienting effect as it’s difficult to get a fix on any one person for a significant period of time. Leaving aside the duelling voiceovers, the scenes involving James Mason and Inger Stevens are easily the most successful. While I acknowledge that this may be no more than a stylistic prejudice on my part, I found the sections with Kenneth Tobey’s dogged Feds a bit tedious – rather like a 50s version of CSI. Instead of adding to the tension of the story, these parts actively drain it away. It’s only when we cut back to the hostages and their tribulations that the movie finds it feet again. The best sequence involves Inger Stevens in a race against time, having just taken receipt of the ransom money. This is a wonderfully realized piece of filmmaking, where the increasingly distraught woman finds herself mired in New York traffic as the seconds tick away and her husband and child’s lives hang in the balance. Although I was yearning for a release from the suspense another part of me was so taken with the skillful execution of the scene that I wanted it to go on a little longer. While it’s not in quite the same class, Mason also gets to play out a tense escape attempt in a perilous elevator shaft.
James Mason got top billing and he turns in a typically smooth and graceful performance as the man whose lack of foresight has pitched his family into a nightmare. Without criticising his playing in any way, I’d say this is not one of Mason’s most memorable roles, perhaps because he’s handed an essentially passive role until late in proceedings. The more active duties were passed to Inger Stevens, and she handled them very well. Apart from the aforementioned race against the clock, she also had a couple of decidedly uncomfortable scenes where she has to deal with the unwanted attention of Neville Brand’s Benzedrine-addicted rapist. Brand nailed his character’s sleazy creepiness perfectly and the very real threat that he represents brought out both the vulnerability and resourcefulness of Stevens’ harried suburbanite. Rod Steiger’s tendency to chew up the scenery can be a little wearing if it’s given free rein, but he keeps himself under control most of the time here. The calmer face that he displays carries far more menace, in fact I’d say he gets the chilling, calculating quality of Hoplin spot on. Angie Dickinson and Jack Klugman round out the supporting cast nicely as Steiger’s increasingly anxious cohorts.
Cry Terror! is available in the US as a DVD-R from the Warner Archives, but it’s also out as a pressed disc in Spain from Llamentol. The Spanish release boasts a nice tight anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s in pretty good shape. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and the Spanish subtitles can be switched off from the main setup menu. On the whole, the film works well enough as a suspense drama. The idea of an ordinary guy being duped into a nightmarish situation that starts to spiral out of his control strengthens its credentials as a late entry into the fading noir cycle. Plot holes and logical inconsistencies can be found in many a movie, so I can live with those. I think the biggest fault is the script’s failure to stick with the plight of the hostage family and instead take regular detours charting the progress of the FBI investigation. It upsets the balance of the picture and lessens the tension at the wrong moments. Even so, the end product is still satisfying enough. Worth checking out, especially if you can get the very reasonably priced Spanish release.