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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.