Richard Erdman was born June 1, 1925, in Enid, Oklahoma, and was raised in Colorado Springs. After his high school drama teacher told him that he might have what it takes for movies, he and his mom moved to California, where he enrolled in Hollywood High. While still a teenager, he was offered and accepted a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.
Erdman racked up 177 credits in his 73-year career, working as an actor for the better part of eight decades, and averaging at least a few roles per year, including a six-year stint on the TV series “Community” (2009-2015). As Slate pointed out when he passed away in March 2019, there were just seven (7) years between 1944 and 2017 that Erdman didn’t have at least one credit. He was a frequent guest at conventions and film festivals well into the 2010s and his “Community” character, Leonard, had his own YouTube channel. The LA Times characterized Erdman as “the consummate ‘that guy’ — a difficult-to-identify-but-recognizable supporting player,” but they forgot about his distinctive, croaky voice, one that I would know anywhere.
Many are the times Richard Erdman played a member of the military — from one of his earliest uncredited roles in 1944’s Hollywood Canteen (sailor) to Danger Signal (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945), The Men (1950), You’re in the Navy Now (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Francis in the Navy (1955), and Tora Tora Tora (1970), among others…he did a lot of serviceman roles.*
Erdman’s character in Cry Danger (1951), a heavy-drinking ex-Marine named Delong, is my favorite though, and possibly my favorite sidekick in all of film noir (so far). The term “sidekick” is maybe a misstatement. Delong is the cynical soul of the film, the catalyst for the entire plot, and the audience’s surrogate for purposes of exposition.
Ex-boxer Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) has served five years of a life sentence for armed robbery when Delong goes to the cops and provides Mulloy with an alibi. True to noir form, Delong doesn’t know Mulloy. He only spoke up because he fit the description of the guys Mulloy was with on the night of the crime, and he (Delong) thought he could get a hold of some of the take, which was $100,000. But Mulloy says he knows nothing about the whereabouts of the hot money. He wants to clear his and his alleged partner-in-crime Morgan’s good names. Delong doesn’t quite believe Mulloy about the $100K so he’s along for the ride. And so begins their journey into the deceptively bright labyrinth of long-gone downtown Los Angeles (specifically Bunker Hill).
The jailbird and the drunk move into a trailer park where Mulloy reunites with Morgan’s wife Nancy (Rhonda Fleming) and Delong meets “sort of a part-time model” Darlene (Jean Porter). Soon all four are experiencing the danger promised in the film’s title, but there’s a lot of humor along the way. Per Eddie Muller, screenwriter William Bowers was a wizard with the wisecracks, providing “some of the punchiest dialogue ever.” Add in a low-key producer (Powell, breaking out of his own prison — acting) and an easygoing director (first-timer Robert Parrish), and Cry Danger becomes a perfect balance of noir nastiness and low-key humor. Erdman is a big part of the humor. With his dry delivery, impeccable timing, and sad-sack charm, he steals every scene he’s in. Delong may be an ethically questionable drunk, but he’s likable. He’s been through some stuff, and by the time he gets shot at, we are invested in his fate.
Erdman’s performance isn’t all Cry Danger has going for it. The film possesses all the other mainstays of a proper noir: relentless villain, suspicious cop, shady ladies, and plot twists you might not see coming, plus the backdrop of historic LA locations. If you like noir and you haven’t seen it, or you haven’t in a while, check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
*According to Erdman, he was slated to play Homer in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) until Harold Russell was cast. Like BYOOL, Cry Danger is one of those post-WWII films in which former servicemen struggle to reintegrate into a society that has no idea what to do with them.
This post is part of the 11th Annual What A Character Blogathon hosted by myself, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled.