The Man with a Cloak (1951) ***
By now, everybodyís heard the clichť advice to aspiring authors: ďWrite what you know.Ē Cinema tends to take an unimaginatively literal interpretation of that dictum, however, assuming that all fiction is actually thinly veiled autobiography. If you see a movie in which one of the characters writes for a living, itís a safe bet that their stories are all just disguised versions of things that have really happened to them. Iím not sure why that should be, since screenwriters, by definition, are writers of fiction themselves, and should therefore know better. Perhaps itís a matter of assuming that the viewers are too dim to grasp the concept of making stuff up. In any event, youíll notice that the foregoing applies even when the author in question is a genuine historical figure, with a biography that can be established not to include recognizable analogues for this or that story, and weirder still, that it applies perhaps most firmly of all to writers who specialize in genre fictionó which is to say, to exactly those authors whose lives we should least expect to resemble their work. Again and again, weíre asked to believe that H. G. Wells could invent a time machine, that H. P. Lovecraft could discover and study the Necronomicon, that Ambrose Bierce could tangle with vampires and gunslingers in the Wild West, that Dashiell Hammett could untangle a criminal conspiracy just as well as Sam Spade. But in my experience, at least, nobody has a longer track record of being shoehorned into his own stories (or into stories of the kinds he was most famous for writing) than Edgar Allan Poe.
Iím committing first-degree spoilage just by mentioning Poeís curious second career as a fictional character in a review of The Man with a Cloak, because the revelation that its version of C. Auguste Dupin (Joseph Cotten, from Journey to Murder and Latitude Zero) is really Poe traveling incognito comes as a final-shot twist, but that doesnít bother me. For one thing, modern audiences will begin to suspect whatís up the moment they see what the hair, makeup, and wardrobe people have done with Cottenís appearance. By the time Dupin has claimed poetry as his profession, displayed both his money troubles and his prodigious appetite for wine, and recited a few lines of ďThe RavenĒó all of which occur well before the halfway pointó no one more than passingly acquainted with the authorís life and work will fail to get the hint. But beyond that, the twist basically demands to be spoiled now, since this deeply obscure gaslight noirís strongest claim to significance is precisely that it may be the very first film to portray Poe as a Dupin-like amateur detective. The Man with a Cloak is the missing evolutionary link between 1915ís The Raven and the one from 2012.
Wide-eyed French innocent Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron, of Nicole and Surreal Estate) arrives in New York on an urgent mission from her boyfriend, Paul de Large. Itís 1848, the year of continent-wide revolution in Europe, and de Large is a partisan of republicanism. Revolution is expensive, though, so he has dispatched the girl to America with a letter for his wealthy grandfather, Charles FranÁois Thevenet (Louis Calhern). Hitting the old man up for money is hardly a sure thing, of course. First of all, Thevenet seems determined to drink up every penny of his considerable fortune, but more importantly, before settling in New York, he was a marshal in Napoleonís army. This is an American movie, and Americans on the whole canít tell the difference between a king and an emperor, nor the difference between the second French Revolution and the first, so for our present purposes, that service under Napoleon makes Charles an instinctive enemy of republican ideals. Oh, a republic is good enough for the descendants of English malcontents, he supposes, but itís no system of government for Frenchmen! Still, de Large is gambling that family comes before politics, even for unreconstructed monarchists.
Anyway, it would appear that Madeline was not warned that the marshal has devolved in his dotage into a scoundrel, a drunk, and a brute, for her immediate reaction upon arriving at his house and hearing sounds of ribald revelry from within is to go down the street to Flahertyís Tavern to inquire after a corrected address. Thatís where she meets Dupin, who intervenes to save her from the crass taunting of a few of his more loutish and ill-mannered countrymen. Sadly, Dupin must confirm that the big house at 211 is indeed the Thevenet residence, and imagining such a sheltered girl in a place like that leads him to take an interest in Madelineís wellbeing even after she mentions her lover back home.
Itís a good thing, too, because Madeline has walked into a nest of vipers. Marshal Thevenet, cantankerous as he is, isnít really the problem, although his money is at the root of it. In his estrangement from all his family and associates in the old country, Charles became infatuated with an actress and society darling by the name of Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck, from Taste of Evil and The Night Walker). Fashionable young women had as short a shelf life in the 1820ís as they do today, however, and the time eventually came when Lorna was no longer either young or fashionable. Charles was still smitten, though, and when Lornaís acting career fizzled out, he took her on as a housekeeper. She still works for him in that capacity, and sheís due to inherit most of the old manís wealth under the terms of the current will. As Thevenet grows older, sicker, and meaner, Lorna increasingly has her eyes on that bequest, and somewhere along the line, she and the other servantsó Martin the butler (Joe De Santis) and Mrs. Flynn the cook (The Thirteenth Chairís Margaret Wycherley)ó got it into their heads to hurry the day of collection along. Theyíre not going to kill Charles directly, mind you (although thatís how Martin would rather proceed); no, itís just a question of making sure the master never actually takes the medicine prescribed him by Dr. Roland (Nicholas Joy). Keep replacing it with sugar water long enough, and Thevenetís well known infirmities will do him in, leaving the conspirators looking as innocent as Madeline Minot. And speaking of Madeline, her arrival is exactly what the scheming servants donít need right now. Itís bad enough that sheís panhandling for some who-cares foreign revolutionaries. Itís worse that the rebels in question include Thevenetís grandson, for whom he might indeed set aside both his political convictions and his normally impenetrable cussedness. But what really makes Madeline a threat is that sheís a pretty girl, and as Laura knows from personal experience, a pretty girl can talk the old goat into anything. Madeline and the marshal will simply have to be kept apart, and if that canít be done, then the conspirators may have to consider doing things Martinís way after all.
Operation Keep Madeline Away from Charles fails almost immediately, what with Thevenet insisting upon putting the girl up for the duration of her stay in New York. And just as close to immediately, Madeline notices the servants behaving strangely. As soon as she gets the chance, she pockets the old manís medicine bottle, and shows it to Dupin. Dupin takes both it and her to the local pharmacy to have the drug analyzed for poison; under the circumstances, the chemistís verdict that the fluid in the bottle contains no medically significant ingredients is just as damning as traces of arsenic or cyanide would have been. Meanwhile, the marshal is beginning to form suspicions of his own. That plus a drunken all-nighter with Dupin decides him in favor of helping out the cause of revolution in France, but Charles does considerably more than to write a check for Madeline to bring back to Paris with her. Knowing better than anyone that he hasnít long to live now, Thevenet summons his lawyer, Durand (Richard Hale, from Evil Town and Roger Cormanís Tower of London), to draw up a new will bestowing everything he owns (less the house in New York and a reasonable sum for its upkeep, which still go to Lorna, Martin, and Mrs. Flynn) upon his grandson. Then, just to make sure the servants have no opportunity to circumvent his wishes, Thevenet intends to take the very arsenic that his would-be killers have thus far been too timid to give him. That plan hits a blackly ironic snag, however, when Thevenet suffers a sudden stroke, paralyzing him before he can quaff the poisoned brandy. Durand, in his flusterment over having a client lose all motor function right in front of him, drinks it instead to fortify his nerves, and promptly drops dead. And then Thevenetís pet raven makes off with the newly revised will, hiding it where only the immobile and incommunicative Charles can see. So now Dupin has a bigger challenge in front of him than the simple albeit risky matter of exposing the plot against the marshal. Whatís more, heíll have the conspirators themselves seeking to enlist his aid, since they recognize that Durandís visit to their boss can have meant only one thing. Their motives may be directly opposed to Madelineís, but Lorna, Martin, and Mrs. Flynn have just as much reason to want that new will found as she does.
The Man with a Cloak isnít quite as successful at blending the gaslight thriller and film noir strains as Footsteps in the Fog, but itís pretty nifty just the same. Its primary weakness is a moderate-to-severe case of the MGMs, manifested most sharply in a too-pat happy ending, in Leslie Caronís gratingly childlike portrayal of Madeline Minot, and in the overwrought soapiness of Lornaís efforts to seduce Dupin. A woefully misplaced musical interlude doesnít help, either, and wouldnít even if Barbara Stanwyckís singing (or her vocal doubleís, as the case may be) didnít remind me so much of William Shatnerís rendition of ďRocket Man.Ē Thereís a lot of upside to this movie, however. Joseph Cotton gives an engagingly world-weary performance held to just this side of self-pity, and he does the hard-boiled detective thing quite well, even if neither of those is at all identical with a convincing interpretation of C. Auguste Dupin or his creator. Stanwyck is even more impressive. Lorna Bounty is something one rarely sees, especially in movies of this vintage; sheís a sympathetic villain, the natural counterpart to Dupinís dissipated, disreputable hero. I donít mean that sheís one of those characters you end up rooting for just because theyíre so good at being bad, nor do I mean that Lornaís villainy is mitigated somewhat by a vestigial conscience and rudimentary sense of honor. Both of those things could be said about her, but thatís beside the point. Whatís interesting about Lorna is that sheís one of those peculiar villains who come across as genuinely pleasant and likeable on a personal level, despite the occasional murder plot here and there. Thatís a hell of a tightrope to walk, and Stanwyck dances down the fucking thing. Lorna and her psychosexual sparring with Dupin are also where The Man with a Cloak is at its noirest, and feels the least like the work of its studio. Theyíre where this movie displays both its wit and its teeth to greatest effect, belying its first-brush appearance as a film unlikely to have much of either.
Similarly praiseworthy is how The Man with a Cloak switches tracks going into the third act. From Madelineís first interview with Thevenet, weíre encouraged to expect the main conflict to revolve around foiling the servantsí plot against the marshal. Indeed, that storyline gets as far as preparing Madeline for a visit to Durand, to whom she plans to present the bottle of bogus medicine as evidence of the conspiracy. But then Thevenet has his stroke, the lawyer drinks that poisoned brandy, and everything we think we know about whatís coming is called into question, if not instantly invalidated. Until that scene, The Man with a Cloak has a fairly serious problem, in that an intellect of Dupinís caliber hardly seems necessary to bust Lorna and her accomplices, who are barely even trying to keep their designs against their employer a secret. Then suddenly that doesnít matter anymore, and Dupin finds himself not only grappling with a deductive puzzle worthy of his skills, but doing so partly at the criminalsí behest. Best of all, when The Man with a Cloak so casually burns down its own central conflict, it comes across not as a cheat or an act of creative desperation, but as the sort of completely foreseeable turn of events that nobody, in practice, ever actually foresees. The effect is akin to that of the best twist endings, but the timing is such that the film has to live a lot longer with the consequences.