The Man With a Cloak
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The Man with a Cloak (1951) belongs to a small subgenre of films about real-life authors placed into fictional situations that resemble the ones they write about in their books. A good example is Steven Soderbergh's second feature, Kafka (1991), which almost shot down the career that his first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), had so energetically launched; like the real Franz Kafka, the movie's Franz Kafka is a bureaucrat who stumbles into a mystery that threatens to take over his life. A more recent example is The Hours (2002), wherein Virginia Woolf works on her novel Mrs. Dalloway, which deals with depression, while struggling with her own depression, which will later end her life. And then there's Charlie Kaufman, who has built a career by putting himself into his stories, turning the line between fiction and reality into a continually shifting blur. Movies in this category aren't biopics, but they aren't totally made up by their screenwriters, either. At their best, they explore the Neverland that stretches between artists and their works. At their worst, they're just silly.
This brings us to The Man with a Cloak, based on a John Dickson Carr story and released by MGM in 1951. The identity of the eponymous hero isn't revealed until the final shot, but if you haven't guessed it a few reels before that, you weren't paying much attention in junior high. In the spirit of the film, I'll give a brief summary of the plot and spring the revelation on you at the end of the next paragraph. A spoiler alert would normally be appropriate, but with a mystery this easy I think we can do without one.
The year is 1848 and the place is New York City, where young Madeline Minot has just arrived from France to make the acquaintance of Charles Thevernet, her fiancé's grandfather. Thevenet is a crusty old codger who served under Napoleon in his youth, and Madeline needs some of his money to help out the fiancé and the future of the French Republic, which he's fighting for across the sea. Madeline locates Thevernet's house easily enough, but decides she must be in the wrong place, because some sort of riotous party appears to be raging inside. Doing what any decent nineteenth-century woman would do, she heads for the local saloon to rest and get her bearings. There she meets Flaherty, the kind of fatherly bartender you only find in movies, and the Man with a Cloak, who calls himself Dupin and spends his days drinking Flaherty's liquor on credit. Returning to Thevernet's home, Madeline finds him living in a state of constant emotional warfare it wasn't a party she heard, it was an out-of-control brawl with his household staff, who can't wait for him to die so they can get their hands on his fortune. Madeline instinctively sides with Thevernet, earning the wrath of his insidious foes; when the old man dies, unable to speak but signaling that he might have been murdered, she makes up her mind to find out the truth, joined by (you guessed it) the Man with a Cloak, who seems to have a knack for detective work. That's the storyline, so put together the clues sprinkled through it: the cloak, the booze, the detective work, the nineteenth century, and the name Dupin, borne by one of crime fiction's most famous sleuths in stories still avidly read by admirers of the one and only...Edgar Allan Poe. Oh, did I mention that Thevernet keeps a raven in his bedroom?
The best asset of The Man with a Cloak is its cast, and its biggest shortcoming is how that cast is used. As the fortune-hunting housekeeper, suspiciously named Lorna Bounty, the marvelous Barbara Stanwyck does her best to blend wily charm with thinly veiled menace in the manner of, say, her Double Indemnity (1944) performance a few years earlier. Although she doesn't quite succeed, she manages to give the only portrayal that's even a little bit complex. Joseph Cotten has the right looks to play Dupin/Poe, and he's always fun to watch, but unfortunately he forgot that actors are supposed to act, even in pictures with weakly written scripts. He bends his elbow incessantly, hoisting vast quantities of alcohol to his mouth, and never once displays the slightest sign of inebriation, intoxication, or even tipsiness. Poe was only 40 when he died, and while the cause of his death has been disputed, it's likely that drinking played a significant part, if not a leading one. Since the movie takes place just one year before the real Poe's death, shouldn't he be showing a least a few signs of wear and tear as he downs glass after glass of Flaherty's stock?
On a brighter note, Louis Calhern has obvious fun playing old Thevernet, scowling and growling and rolling his eyes a lot. I thought Jim Backus was having fun as Flaherty, too, but a biography of Stanwyck says he hated the picture, remembering it as "a pretentious piece of merde." As for Leslie Caron, who plays Madeline, it's hard to tell what she was thinking because she speaks her lines as if they'd just been handed to her. To be fair, this was only her second movie, but her first movie was An American in Paris (1951), and the promise she'd shown there is nowhere to be found.
The culprit behind the movie's flaws is the unimaginative style of director Fletcher Markle, who had learned his craft as a writer-director for Canadian television. Perhaps he couldn't get over the disappointment of losing his first-choice actors Lionel Barrymore as the codger and Marlene Dietrich as the housekeeper because Barrymore was sick and Dietrich wasn't interested. Whatever the reason, even the first-class cinematographer George J. Folsey turns in second-rate work; judging from comments he made later, his main concern seems to have been making sure Stanwyck's makeup was on right. At least the music has touches of genuine freshness, marking a big step in David Raksin's campaign to revitalize Hollywood scores with the edginess and dissonance of modernist composing. The best reasons to watch The Man with a Cloak today are to remember Poe's ingenuity, enjoy Raksin's originality, and wish the movie as a whole had more of both.
Director: Fletcher Markle
Producer: Stephen Ames
Screenplay: Frank Fenton, based on a story by John Dickson Carr
Cinematographer: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: Newell P. Kimlin
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Arthur Lonergan
Music: David Raksin
With: Joseph Cotten (Dupin), Barbara Stanwyck (Lorna Bounty), Louis Calhern (Thevernet), Leslie Caron (Madeline Minot), Joe De Santis (Martin), Jim Backus (Flaherty), Margaret Wycherly (Mrs. Flynn), Richard Hale (Durand), Nicholas Joy (Dr. Roland), Roy Roberts (Policeman), Mitchell Lewis (Waiter).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.
by David Sterritt