Raymond Burr + Natalie Wood = Cute Couple

You probably couldn’t find a more unlikely friendship in Hollywood during the fifties than the one between Raymond Burr and Natalie Wood but most biographies of Wood document this little-known period of the actress’s life. The 38-year-old actor and the 17-year-old ingenue became close friends and possibly more during the making of A Cry in the Night (1956), in which he played an unhinged stalker and she was his victim.  

Here’s the basic premise of the film: a mentally unstable Peeping Tom (Burr) prowls a secluded parking spot in the woods for teenage lovers and attacks a young couple, kidnapping the girl (Wood) and holding her captive in a deserted brickyard. The dazed boyfriend, who’d been conked on the head with a metal lunchbox, is mistaken as a drunk by two police officers and locked up at the local precinct. Eventually his concussion subsides and he remembers what happened, revealing the identity of his missing date, Liz Taggart, who just happens to be the daughter of precinct captain Dan Taggart (Edmond O’Brien). Soon a police manhunt is underway to find the jeopardized teenager and her weirdo abductor.

Although A Cry in the Night (1956) sounds like the type of youth exploitation picture that played drive-ins in the late fifties and sixties along with titles like The Girl in Black Stockings (1957) and The Girl in Lovers Lane (1960), it is actually a mainstream commercial thriller from Warner Bros. produced by Alan Ladd (who also provides the introductory Jack Webb/Sgt. Joe Friday-like voiceover). It is directed by Frank Tuttle (This Gun for Hire, 1942) and, in addition to the high profile marquee names of Wood, Burr and O’Brien, it also provides prominent supporting roles for Brian Donvevy and well-known character actors like Richard Anderson, Irene Hervey, Anthony Caruso and George J. Lewis. Despite the high gloss though, A Cry in the Night is less than stellar B-movie fare which, as you can tell from the official film poster, spins a cautionary tale about middle class morality in the manner of a live action educational short with the blame falling equally on parents and their children.

Natalie Wood and Richard Anderson play a young dating couple who go parking in lover’s lane and are attacked by a psycho in A Cry in the Night (1956).

While a kidnapping and potential rape/murder drive the narrative, the real issues revolve around police captain Taggart’s homelife and his absolute domination of his wife, daughter and sister. Liz is so fearful of him that she is afraid to bring dates home and have them subjected to his interrogations so she resorts to seeing her current beau in “Lover’s Loop,” as the locals call it. Dan’s embittered sister is now resigned to her life as an “old maid” since her brother chased her former fiancee off as not good enough for her. In addition, Dan’s wife Helen can barely broach the subject of Liz’s dating without her husband going ballistic. She finally retaliates, saying, “How many times have I asked you to stop being a policeman at home? Just be a father, a good father.”

Raymond Burr has Natalie Wood in his clutches in this publicity still from A Cry in the Night (1956).

As for the lurker in the wood, later identified as Harold Loftus, his problems clearly stem from a mother who still calls him “Baby” and psychologically chains him to a daily routine where he comes home at a certain hour, bearing a desert of some kind for her, usually apricot pie. Calling Dr. Freud! Completing the circle of cause and effect are the teenagers who put themselves at risk by necking in well known parking spots, the type of place that attracts perverts, voyeurs and worse. As one of the patrolling police officers says while making the rounds: “Lover’s Loop. Busy little birds and busier little bees. What’s wrong with their homes that they have to hit this kinda place?”

Capt. Ed Bates (Brian Donlevy, left) questions Mabel Loftus (Carol Veazie), the mother of the main suspect, as Capt. Dan Taggart (Edmond O’Brien) looks on in A Cry in the Night (1956).

Considering the cast and the premise, I probably expected too much and was ultimately disappointed by this overwrought melodrama that is ploddingly directed with trite dialogue to match. Yet, A Cry in the Night occasionally works on a lurid level – Harold’s grim hideaway would make an ideal setting for any modern day serial killer horror film.  I’m a big fan of Raymond Burr and his mere presence in a film can usually elevate it – Borderline [1950] and Crime of Passion [1957] are two examples – but this might be his worst performance. It’s also Burr at his most emotional and unhinged and a far cry from his stolid Perry Mason character so Burr fans need to judge for themselves. Edmond O’Brien’s blustery, volatile father-on-the-rampage runs a close second in terms of overacting and this was just two years after his Oscar-winning supporting role in The Barefoot Contessa.

A Cry in the Night was clearly a step backwards for Wood after her impressive work in Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers (both 1956). In fact, she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Rebel Without a Cause shortly after the making of A Cry in the Night.  Still, this film becomes more fascinating and even touching for completely different reasons once I learned what was going on behind the scenes from documented accounts in Wood biographies by Gavin Lambert and Suzanne Finstad and Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr by Michael Seth Starr. The latter is probably of lesser interest to movie buffs, since, as the title frankly states, it is focused more on Burr’s closeted life as a gay man in Hollywood and less about the making of his movies. If you’re looking for behind-the-scenes stories on the making of Anthony Mann’s Desperate [1948], The Whip Hand [1951], Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless [1948] or even Bride of the Gorilla [1951], co-starring the notorious Barbara Payton, you won’t find much in the way of details in Starr’s book.

Natalie Wood had actively campaigned for the role of Liz Taggart once she first learned of the project in development at Alan Ladd’s production company which was situated on the Warners lot. According to screenwriter David Dortort, who adapted A Cry in the Night from Whit Masterson’s 1955 novel All Through the Night, Wood pleaded with him for the role: “It was so absolutely unbelievable…She would come up, and practically break down the door, and say, ‘I want to play that girl!…she really had some deep feelings, and an emotional response, to the character for some reason…she convinced me that she not only could do this part, but she almost needed to do this part…She’d meet the Ladds on one of the studio streets and implore them, beg them, ‘I can do it. I was born to do this part.” (from Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad)

Harold Loftus (Raymond Burr) reveals his true feelings for Liz Taggart (Natalie Wood), the girl he kidnapped from lover’s lane in A Cry in the Night (1956).

Wood’s interest in the part may have stemmed partly from wanting to work with Raymond Burr, “who had infatuated her ever since she saw his deep-set bedroom eyes in A Place in the Sun,” according to Finstad. Once she won the role and filming began, Wood and Burr developed a close friendship that on first impressions appeared to be a mentor-student relationship. Co-star Richard Anderson, who plays Natalie’s boyfriend in A Cry in the Night, noticed an immediate attraction between the two actors, remarking that Burr “was just wild about her. I remember that. There was something going on there with the two of them. Natalie probably adored him. She was very young and getting started…he couldn’ve been the ‘older man’ thing but I think he just adored her and she adored him and it was one of those things when you are making a movie.” (from Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr by Michael Seth Starr).

The role of Harold Loftus, the lover’s lane voyeur whose obsession turns to physical violence, was a radical change of pace from Burr’s other screen villains in such films as Desperate (1947), Pitfall (1948), The Blue Gardenia (1953) and Great Day in the Morning (1956) – these were men who were brutal, cunning and completely amoral. But Harold, who is at first depicted as a dangerous pervert, turns out to be a much more pitiable and hapless character than his henpecked murderer in Rear Window (1954). In fact, his character can be seen as a more benign version of Anthony Perkin’s mother-dominated schizophrenic killer in Psycho (1960). And the course of action he takes with his captive prefigures the events of John Fowles’ novel and film, The Collector, but without any of the rich psychological nuances or disturbing detail of the latter.

Watching Burr and Wood in their scenes together in A Cry in the Night strikes me at times as an acting class exercise where the two actors go through extreme mood swings and emotions in a single camera set-up. At first Burr’s imposing physical presence as the highly disturbed Harold is exploited to creepy effect, especially when you see him lurking in the dark and the camera pushes in on his agitated face as he spies on Liz and Owen (Richard Anderson) kissing. But once he holes up with Liz in his dingy hideaway, complete with a straw covered floor and a recently strangled dog by the bed, the movie dissolves into a passive/aggressive struggle between the two characters with Liz progressing from victim to combatant to sympathetic bystander. Nevertheless, our sympathies toward Liz are mixed because she is anything but quick-witted and continually muffs her chances to get away while antagonizing her jailer. At one point she even tries to shoot him without checking to see if the gun is loaded. Not smart.

Harold Loftus (Raymond Burr) tries to stop his captive (Natalie Wood) from screaming and attracting attention to his hideaway in A Cry in the Night (1956).

According to Starr’s Burr biography, screenwriter Dortort observed Burr’s performance on the set of A Cry in the Night and noted, “There was a considerable amount of talk about the dual nature of the man…In spite of his large size, he had certain feminine attributes that made for a very interesting actor, because he had to hold those [feminine attributes] back, in a sense, and push the image of a very strong, tough man – which he wasn’t…he was playing something very close to him. It was a tough role for him to play. What I wanted to do was to create some sympathy [for Harold], some understanding of him, and Raymond really appreciated that.” The problem is that Burr’s attempts to create some sympathy for this hulking man-child goes overboard in the infantile behavior department (Is he supposed to be mentally challenged?), resulting in embarrassing scenes such as the one where he offers Liz a present: “You’re nice. So soft and nice…I always wanted to give a girl a present. Something nice. Something she really likes. My mother, she mustn’t know about this.”  Or one where he sounds like a less benign version of Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my friend?”

A publicity photo from the 1956 suspense melodrama A Cry in the Night featuring Richard Anderson (left), Raymond Burr and Natalie Wood.

According to Finstad’s bio, “Natalie went out with Burr throughout the filming, and afterward. “Natalie was so crazy about Raymond Burr,” Jackie [Eastes, a friend of Natalie’s] recalls. “That was when she was kind of branching out, and learning more about literature. She said that when she would go over to his house, he could recite poetry. He was a real sensitive human being, and she had a wonderful time with him – fine wines, wonderful cook, extremely intelligent – but at the end of the day, he’d kiss her on the cheek and say, ‘Goodnight, Natalie.” According to Jackie, “It was the most devastating thing when she found that Raymond Burr was gay and there was no way they were going to have an affair, because she tried her darnest. She thought with her charm she could make the difference.” Burr’s preference for men stimulated Natalie’s tendency to “want what she couldn’t have.” She continued their relationship, in the hope she could “change” or seduce him, “like Elizabeth Taylor and Monty Clift.”

A CRY IN THE NIGHT, Irene Hervey, Edmond O’Brien, 1956

Warner Bros. executives couldn’t help but notice the budding Burr-Wood relationship since they were being reported as a romantic item by the Hollywood Press and soon Wood was being sent on dates arranged by the studio with young actors like Tab Hunter, her co-star in The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind. Despite this, Burr and Wood continued to see each other and planned to go to Korea together on a USO tour that Burr was organizing. Then, according to Finstad, “Natalie told columnist Sheilah Graham that she and Burr had “an understanding for the future,” with Graham reporting, “It’s beginning to look like a marriage for young Natalie Wood and Raymond Burr.” When Louella Parsons put an item in her March 15 column denying any romance between Natalie Wood and Tab Hunter, stating, “Her real heart is Ray Burr, who’ll escort her to the Oscars,” Warners took drastic action. Within a week, Variety reported that Hunter would be Natalie’s date to the Academy Awards on March 21, with Natalie retracting her comments about Burr to Graham, saying, “He just helps me with my acting.” Burr, who was cast within months as Perry Mason, said later, “I was very attracted to her and she was to me. Maybe I was too old for her, but there was so much pressure upon us from the outside and the studio, it got awkward for us to go around together.” According to Robert Benevides, Burr’s companion in the last thirty years of his life. “He was a little bitter about it. He was really in love with her, I guess.”

The Spanish film poster for A Cry in the Night (1956).

No one will probably ever really know the depth or intimacy of that relationship between Burr and Wood but it’s clear that Warners management put an end to it. It may have run its course naturally if the two actors had been left alone to come to the probable dissolution of their union or it might have ended in marriage. It’s intriguing to think about and the sight of the 17-year-old actress and the heavy-set, 38-year-old character actor out on the town, having fun, must have been both a puzzling and amusing sight to industry insiders and gossip columnists at the time. It all takes on a much more poignant resonance when you watch them together in A Cry in the Night and know that a unique and rare friendship was in bloom behind the scenes. Think about that when you watch Burr manhandle Wood in his grim torture shack and realize that probably after shooting the two of them would be spending their evenings together eating escargots at Romanoff’s Restaurant or sipping cocktails at Coconut Grove while listening to Peggy Lee.

A Cry in the Night was released by the Warner Archive Collection as a DVD-R in July 2016. It has yet to appear on Blu-ray.

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