A man accidentally runs over and kills a pedestrian outside a small town. He begins to suspect that the locals, including the sheriff, are keeping secrets about the victim. Written by
What happens when someone hands a great idea for an existential film noir -- a lone traveler on a deserted highway runs over and kills a stranger, tries to tell the police, and isn't believed because the body disappears -- to a purveyor of processed cinematic cheese food like Aaron Spelling? The result is the inexplicably titled "Cry Panic," a cheapo ABC movie of the week from 1974 starring John Forsythe as the wanderer lured into a trap, Anne Francis as the de riguer bored sexy housewife, and Earl Holliman as the morally ambiguous sheriff of the small town where Forstythe collides with destiny.
The film should be tightly written, but it is not -- Forsythe's character can pursue his aim of proving that he's a killer thanks to a series of unlocked windows, open doors, and lucky discoveries, plus, we never know whether Holliman is acting alone to gaslight Forsythe, or is being manipulated by the other has-been actors who run the town. Such slack storytelling would be forgivable if the movie were atmospheric, but it is not -- it looks like a cop show and makes very little use of the emptiness and darkness that creeps into view now and then, and the director tosses in twangy, generic country music where silence might be more effective. Such bland filmmaking would be forgivable if the movie were perfectly cast, but it is not. There are actors who can portray the kind of dogged existential hero who will save his sanity by proving he's a killer, but John Forsythe ain't one of them. The scriptwriters make it easy for him to play a rootless nobody by giving him no past and no future aside from a potential job interview in San Francisco, but Forsythe, ever suave and even-tempered, still looks like a disgruntled suburban Dad whose Corvette ran out of gas on the way to his country club, more the kind of man who'll make trouble go away with a firm handshake that conceals a Benjamin than a relentless pursuer of truth at any cost. There's also the fact that his character seems way too stupid to figure out a junior-level crossword puzzle, let alone a convoluted mystery. He keeps trusting the wrong people, and when he discovers a dead body while eavesdropping on his pursuers he screams and runs out of his hiding place like a hysterical preteen girl. Anne Francis wanders on and offscreen looking like she doesn't quite know what she's doing there, which kind of works for her character. That so flawed a movie should still make such an impression is a testament to the great idea on which it's based, you just wish it could have been a little better.
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