Monday, August 9, 2010

The Man with the Cloak - 1951

The Man with a Cloak (1951) is a deft melding of equal parts historical drama and film noir. Set in New York City in 1848, we follow the cloak-(literally) and-dagger schemes of a wealthy, aged, and dying rapscallion played with superb aplomb by Louis Calhern, and the sycophantic but secretly devious household staff.

Joe De Santis plays his thuggish-looking butler with the threat of violence beneath a thin veneer of servitude. Margaret Wycherly is the comically frumpy, ineffectual but surprisingly knowing cook and housekeeper. Barbara Stanwyck, yes, Barbara Stanwyck, is Louis Calhern’s hostess and most prized possession. She is a former actress whom Mr. Calhern has collected, now reduced to playing the role of devoted dogsbody to a man she despises. All three are tired of playing the waiting game for their exasperating master to die, and are plotting to hurry him along to his final reward.

Enter Leslie Caron, in her second film after An American in Paris, with her wide waif’s eyes and determination to appeal to Louis Calhern for his financial support. She has just arrived from Paris, where her lover, who is Calhern’s grandson, leads a revolt against the current Orleans monarchy to establish the Second Republic. Grandpa Calhern, however is on the opposite political side, having fought for the Emperor, escaping to the United States when Napoleon was ousted. He has been estranged from his grandson, but his heart is softening as he realizes he has little time to live.

And Calhern, still the rogue, is captivated with Mademoiselle Caron, which drives Miss Stanwyck up a tree.

On the outskirts of this mélange, but soon to be an integral part, is Joseph Cotten, the man with the cloak. Though he gives his name to the affable bartender played by Jim Backus, we nevertheless come to understand early in the film that he is a man of mystery, and that this is likely not his real name.

In this film, Mr. Cotten plays a real historical figure. We get a few clues throughout the movie about his identity, but his name, finally revealed at the very end of the movie when his signature is scrawled on an I.O.U., may still come as a poignant surprise.

The movie’s film noir aspects include a score by David Raksin that at some points sounds almost like it would belong with a 1950 police drama. However, Raksin also wrote the 19th century-flavored tune “Another Yesterday” which Barbara Stanwyck sings. It’s her own voice, low and with limited range, but very smoothly and pleasantly done. Mr. Raksin also wrote the tune “Laura” for the other famous detective drama, so he’s no stranger to mood pieces.  We discussed his work in this previous post on The Next Voice You Hear (1950).

The bulk of the 19th century is carried on the shoulders of costumer Walter Plunkett. The costumes and sets seem both spot-on for the period.

The mood of Dickensian grimness and 20th century noir is woven together as well in the damp nights on cobblestone streets lit by gaslight, the layers of deception, the bungled plot that results in not one dead body but two, and a very crisp and literate script that concludes with a surprisingly wordless and violent fight scene.

Perhaps the signature of film noir is represented in this costume drama in the character played by Joseph Cotten, who is the original anti-hero, the man down on his luck, a slave to drink, who roams with bitter failure on his back, his own worst enemy, and yet who with cunning and cynical savvy, becomes Leslie Caron’s knight in shining armor.

Leslie Caron, however is not the typical damsel in distress. Here she plays a courageous young woman who is Cotten’s intellectual equal and together they solve a few riddles before the game is done. Mademoiselle Caron, in this and in many of her films, seems to exude a unique serenity, a confidence and sureness despite her youth that results in her characters looking completely natural. There is no staginess, despite the precision of her speech and her movement.

Mr. Cotten’s relationship with her is not romantic, nor is it particularly fatherly, but there is a comfortable confidentiality to their scenes together.

Another fine aspect of this film is that it manages to be an ensemble piece. Jim Backus, as the philosopher bartender, who remarks, “Some men leave good will. Other just a will,” is as important to the plot as the brutish butler, and as important as Miss Stanwyck, who with her customary professionalism, seems content to be a team player. She also has the guts to play a woman of a certain age with fading charms, who desperately uses everything left in her arsenal.

To be sure, however, she takes center stage easily when sparks fly in her scenes with Joseph Cotten, when the tension builds and the stakes are higher. They size each other up like they are about to have a knife fight instead of kiss. Stanwyck is as still and cold as a statue, playing the grand lady and every inch a woman of another era. One can see early shades of her Victoria Barkley character from The Big Valley television series here, only evil. And no horse. But, boy howdy (as Heath would say), she can descend a staircase with the best of them.

Cotten remarks of Louis Calhern, “He was a roué in the grand manner. A connoisseur of wine, women, and wit. Now he’s an ancient ruin with one arm paralyzed and one foot in the grave.” Cotten, who sees through just about everybody, makes cutting, sarcastic remarks, but is a foremost gentleman who after each dig mumbles a perfunctory, “Forgive me” in between sips of wine.

One of my favorites is when he brushes by the hateful butler and murmurs, “Try to get the murder out of your face.”

While Joseph Cotten and Leslie Caron are attempting to protect the old man’s life against his murderous household servants, the old man pulls a fast one on everybody, writes a new will, and then attempts to end his life with poison.

In the grand manner of a horror tale, the poison is consumed accidentally by another, while Calhern, silenced by another stroke, must watch helplessly.

In the end, the reluctant hero solves the riddles, and the Parisian waif may return home triumphant, and the household staff…they receive a most ironic and fitting legacy from their master.


Free Movies said...

My grand Maa is the big fan of this film. She used to tell me about this movie. And after reading the reviews, I am very much excited about this film..

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Another interesting movie that I'm going to have to find.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth. I hope you get to see it soon.

John Hayes said...

This is beautiful writing even by your high standards--you had me at "rapscallion!" Definitely a wonderful argument for seeing the film.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you so much, John. I've heard of the line "you had me at hello", but "you had me at 'rapscallion'" is a new one. Your sensitive appreciation of language is one of the most terrific of the many terrific qualities about you.

Old Movies Online said...

Great writing. That only made me want to watch the movie all the more.

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