Monday, October 18, 2010
Cry Wolf - 1947
In “Cry Wolf” (1947), we have another look at a non-swashbuckling Errol Flynn, this time as the master of a gloomy country estate where family secrets are deadly.
We’re dovetailing themes here, concluding a two-part look at Flynn’s non-Errol roles, and beginning a couple of weeks of Halloween-themed offerings. This movie even starts with credits printed in an exaggerated font that wipe mistily away, evoking the melting style of 1930s monster movies. We might even wonder if the title, “Cry Wolf” infers the presence of werewolves on this foggy bit of real estate. However, Maria Ouspenskaya is nowhere to be seen, so you may rest easy. No werewolves. They’re all at casting calls for other movies.
Instead, we have a spirited Barbara Stanwyck as woman on a mission, part Nancy Drew and part commando.
Mr. Flynn is Mark Caldwell, whose nephew and ward has suddenly died. Miss Stanwyck barges in on the preparations for the funeral announcing she is the bride of his nephew. She’s come for the inheritance.
I wonder if this is the last time we would see Barbara Stanwyck with light brown, shoulder-length hair? She soon adopted the 1950s shorter cuts and famously let her hair turn gray. Perhaps the longer, darker hair was used in this film purposely to emphasize her youth. She is supposed to be a woman possibly in her late 20s, who has just completed her doctoral studies in Geology.
When Flynn, obviously suspicious of her abrupt presentation, questions her on her supposed secret marriage to his nephew with the enormous trust fund, she replies in quite an open and businesslike way that she and the nephew, who is named Jim Demarest, were not in love. They were good chums, and he asked her to marry him so he could circumvent the rules of his trust fund, which stipulated that he could not get any of his money before the age of 30, unless he were married. Jim promised to give Stanwyck $2,000 to use for her doctoral studies if she helped him out by becoming his bride. They intended to divorce after the check cleared.
I think if any other actress gave this astonishing speech, we might cringe with disgust or laugh with incredulous disbelief. Barbara Stanwyck has that take-no-prisoners glint in her lovely brown eyes that makes you not only believe her wild tale of practical avarice, but admire her for it as well. Rarely does a gold-digger earn such respect.
Or, is she truly after the millions in the trust fund? Is there something else? Miss Stanwyck hints that Jim told her of his scheming Uncle Errol, a control freak who tightly held the reins on the family and the family money, who might stop at nothing to keep what’s his. Is she here really to investigate the suspicious death of her college chum?
It is, like “That Forsyte Woman” (1949) discussed in our last post, a departure role for Errol Flynn. He is anything but swashbuckling or even energetic in this film. He displays restraint, coolness, and many layers of a mysterious man. It is perhaps as equally challenging a role as the one he played in “That Forsyte Woman” because it is cerebral, but he gets less opportunity here to display his terrific acting range. This is a more muted role.
Because this is a creepy mystery movie, we are more plot-bound and less delving into character here. If the actors open up too much and allow us to think we know them, there is no mystery. We have to be as uncertain about their integrity and motives as we are about what’s going to happen next.
So does young Geraldine Brooks, but in her case it is with fascination and with needy affection, that can be as pitiful as it as manipulative. Big sister Barbara takes her in hand, reassures her anxieties, and listens to her complaints about Uncle Errol. She listens hard. She also asks questions. What, for instance, is that closed-off wing of the house used for?
Why, it’s only Uncle Errol’s LABORATORY, silly.
What’s a gloomy mansion without a laboratory? Look in any real estate ad, you’ll find that listed as one of the perks.
Barbara discovers that Uncle Errol is some kind of scientist, and that he works mainly at night.
Working in a home laboratory mainly at night usually raises eyebrows among the neighbors.
This mansion set, by the way, is a great piece of work. Several levels, grand staircases, dark wood paneling. It must have been used again for another film; it’s too good not to use again.
We are never told the exact location of the estate, but it is mentioned that a nearby town is called Salem, and the family owns a townhouse in Boston, so I’m assuming this is probably the North Shore of Massachusetts. Maybe so. All I can say is Flynn’s Tasmanian accent fits in better here than in Dodge City.
When Miss Brooks shows her Jim’s bedroom, Barbara notices that his collection of pipes, and his clothes are missing. She begins to wonder if the screaming at night has been coming from a still very much alive Jim. She wonders if he is in the LABORATORY.
Morphing into Nancy Drew, Barbara decides to sneak a look in the second floor LABORATORY. It is locked, so she waits until the dead of night, and hauls herself up in the dumbwaiter.
Now that I’ve thoroughly distracted you, the dumbwaiter scene is quite tense, because she’s timed her entrance wrong, and Flynn is still in his lab. He discovers her presence (with the help of her reflection in a water cooler, and a missing hair comb), but does not let on he knows she is there. He plans to reel her in later.
Barbara Stanwyck loved doing her own stunts, and did them right on through her “Big Valley” days when she was in her early 60s. All the fence climbing, falling from a horse, running through a dark mansion in this movie was probably child’s play to Barbara.
Another round of subtle cerebral sparring with Errol over a round of cordials he makes himself according to an old family recipe called “tears of blood”, (yikes) we are confronted with new suspicions about both of them. Who has whose best interest at heart? We may wonder if Errol intends to poison her. But he kisses her.
Then Geraldine Brooks is found dead on the terrace outside her bedroom window. Miss Stanwyck believes Mr. Flynn has killed her for her share of the inheritance.
Overhearing a conversation between him and his gamekeeper, she thinks she knows where Jim is being hidden on the estate, and she sets out to find him. When she does, we see her chum/husband is Richard Basehart, so fine at playing sensitive, even emotionally brittle roles, but his part is unfortunately small in this movie. At first he does not remember her, and he tells her he is being drugged.
The movie ends with a bold escape, a recital of hushed-up family scandals involving a history of hereditary insanity (as common a plot device in old movies as creepy mansions and secret laboratories), and a final showdown between Miss Stanwyck, Mr. Basehart, and Uncle Errol.