Sometimes, a film comes along that seems to think of itself as far cleverer than it may actually be. I find this to be particularly true when considering some of the more popular films to come out of the past decade; ever since 90s hits like The Usual Suspects (1995) and The Sixth Sense (1999) delighted many viewers with their final, nifty twists, it seems like every Tom, Dick, and Shyamalan has tried to shock the audience with surprise endings. In fact, it seems damn near close to cinematic law nowadays that every horror movie released in the United States must feature a surprise ending in order to break even at the box office.
But the trend goes back much further. Filmmakers have long sought to excite audiences through trickery and surprise endings, and several notable classic films are marked by unforeseen twists. Some of these (Psycho, Chinatown, Les Diaboliques) are true shockers, while others fall decidedly flat by either not being all that surprising, being slightly more disappointing than they were built up to be (Rosebud was a f&*#%$g sled???!?!?!?), or by telegraphing the ending so blatantly that any element of surprise is lost well before the climax.
Such is part of the problem with 1951’s The Man with a Cloak, which attempts to leave the viewer with a serious “wow!” moment, and instead just invokes an eye-rolling “well, duh.”
[I’m going to throw up a little “spoiler alert” warning here, just in case it’s not yet obvious that I’m going to over-analyze the crap out of this movie’s ending.]
The Man with a Cloak sets up its mystery from the opening seconds–we see a darkened city street, and a title card informs us that the setting is New York City in 1848. Another title card appears to loosely set up the plot, stating: “In the lives of all men there are moments of mystery–for man often years, and sometimes chooses, to wander alone and nameless. This is the tale of such a wanderer, once little known and less respected, whose real name later became immortal.”
The wanderer in question watches young Frenchwoman Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron) pass by in a horse-drawn carriage before he enters a bar and orders a bottle of wine. The bartender, Flaherty, (Jim Backus) gently tries to get the man, who identifies himself as “Dupin,” to pay his increasingly large bar tab, but Dupin insists he is waiting on a check and has no money. Flaherty allows him to drink anyway.
Meanwhile, Madeline, believing she has gone to the wrong address, finds her way to the bar while looking for directions. Dupin rescues her from the unwanted attentions of several drunks and asks how he can help her. Madeline reveals that she is looking for a man named Thevenet. She has traveled to New York to solicit money from Thevenet on behalf of her fiance–his grandson, Paul–a young revolutionary and supporter of the Second Republic in France who is danger of being jailed for participating in the uprising.
Upon returning to Thevenet’s house, Madeline is first denied entry by the butler, Martin (Joe De Santis), and then again by the glamorous and steely Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck), the manager of Thevenet’s house (“manager” being code for “lover”). But she manages to force her way in to see the man of the house, and Thevenet (Louis Calhern) takes a liking to her and invites her to stay, angering the servants, who have spent years waiting for Thevenet to die so they might finally get their hands on his money.
But Thevenet is not ignorant of his servants’ plans; he visits Madeline in the middle of the night and warns her that she may be in danger in the house. He gives her a key to lock her door before bidding her goodnight. In the morning, she witnesses the cook, Mrs. Flynn (Margaret Wycherly), doctoring a glass of milk with a bottle of medicine. Suspecting it to be poisoned, Madeline sneaks the bottle out of the house and enlists Dupin’s help. When a pharmacist reveals it is nothing but sugar water, Madeline is initially relieved, until Dupin explains that giving Thevenet sugar water in lieu of his prescribed medication is just as deadly.
Dupin decides to investigate and goes to Thevenet’s house, encountering all three servants. Lorna is immediately attracted to the mysterious man in the cloak, much to Martin’s disgust, but she is disconcerted when Dupin recognizes her as a former critical darling of the stage. Later, Dupin crashes Thevenet’s booze-soaked Halloween party at Madeline’s behest. Dupin and Lorna flirt with one another, and she seductively sings a song to him.
Thevenet takes a liking to Dupin, and they wax about poetry and money–a rather philosophical discussion that, combined with the alcohol, encourages Thevenet to summon his lawyer, Durand (Richard Hale), so he can change his will and leave his money to Madeline and Paul. The combined efforts of Lorna and Martin temporarily delay Thevenet’s efforts, but eventually Durand is able to craft a new will in which the old man leaves all of his money to the young couple, and the house to the servants.
Immediately after signing the new will, Thevenet poisons a glass of liquor, intending to kill himself, but before he can drink, he suffers a stroke. Frozen and unable to speak, Durand drinks it instead and dies while Thevenet watches in horror. To top it off, Villon, Thevenet’s pet raven, flies off with the new will and hides in the fireplace in the bedroom. When Dupin comes to see Thevenet one last time, the old man tries to tell him with his eyes where the will is, but Dupin is initially unable to grasp Thevenet’s intent.
Despite the best efforts of the servants to impede his detecting work, Dupin solves the mystery of Durand’s death, finds the will, and restores order. And once his “job” is done, Dupin bids Lorna a bittersweet farewell and disappears. When Madeline tries to find him in order to thank him for his help, she discovers that Dupin left behind an IOU at the bar. A final close-up of the signature reveals the cloaked man’s true identity: Edgar Allan Poe.
This is the moment in the film where you, the viewer, are supposed to gasp in shock and awe and say to yourself, “What a marvelous twist!” But if you’ve been paying attention, that’s not bloody likely.
And that, for me, is the biggest problem with The Man with a Cloak. The movie relies so heavily on trying to set up this big surprise ending that, when it doesn’t pay off, it leaves you with a sense of “Huh?” Besides, for many viewers–even those with only a rudimentary familiarity with the real-life Edgar Allan Poe–the payoff just doesn’t suffice. There is no other mystery to the film–we know who the “bad guys” are from the start, and we know things that Dupin does not–the location of the will, for instance–so watching him “solve” the crime lacks a true sense of excitement or dramatic tension. Instead, the ending of Cloak hinges on the supposed mystery of Dupin’s true identity. But with so many BLATANTLY OBVIOUS clues hurled at us throughout (Dupin reads from “The Raven!” And there is an actual raven in the house! And for crap’s sake, the man’s name is DUPIN!), that mystery is ultimately no mystery at all, and because the ending is no huge surprise, the movie ends with a whimper, not a “bang” of revelation.
Furthermore, for those who are more familiar with the author’s life and work, watching the film–and accepting the denouement–requires a more-than-typical level of suspension of disbelief. Poe was far from unknown by this film’s time frame of 1848. His first collection of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was published in 1827, and his short stories began popping up in newspapers and magazines as early as 1837. The character of detective C. Auguste Dupin was first introduced in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, seven years before the same-named character in the film, and was featured in two other well-received, popular stories in 1842 and 1844. And Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven” (referenced quite obviously through Thevenet’s pet bird, and in the snippet of the poem which Dupin reads to Mrs. Flynn), was published in 1845, and its popularity brought him great fame–though the film gets it right by painting him as being overly fond of booze and virtually penniless, as Poe’s literary success never translated into financial security.
As it remains, it is incredibly unlikely that none of the characters populating this film would know who “Dupin” really was the whole time. Madeline and Thevenet, particularly, should recognize him easily–recall that in their first meeting, Thevenet asks Madeline who the popular French artists and authors are. This indicates that both of them are familiar with the popular and learned writers of the time, of which Poe most definitely was one.
“But,” one might ask, “Thevenet and Madeline are French! So how can you expect that they would know an American author such as Poe?”
“Ahh,” I might reply, “but Poe’s work had been translated into French years before!” And it’s true–“Rue Morgue” was one of Poe’s first works to be translated into French, and was published in a Parisian newspaper in 1846, two years prior to the events of the film. Furthermore, the story was the subject of a legal dispute several months after its initial publication, when a rival newspaper tried to plagiarize Poe and published the story under a different title. The resulting trial garnered a great deal of publicity for Poe in France. And while Thevenet lived in New York, it stands to reason that Madeline, at least, should have been aware of the case, considering how much attention it received in her home country–indeed, in the very city in which she lived!
See, this is what you get when you allow English majors/nerds to critique films.
Besides the pseudonym of “Dupin,” the presence of the raven, Villon, is quite obviously meant to be the biggest clue as to the impoverished writer’s real identity. But the name of the bird indicates yet another literary influence on the plot. The raven is named after François Villon, the French poet/criminal whose life was heavily fictionalized and romanticized in the films If I Were King (both the 1920 silent version and the 1938 talkie with Ronald Colman) and the musicals The Vagabond King (a 1930 version with Jeanette Macdonald and a 1956 version with Kathryn Grayson). Villon was a criminal mastermind who plotted several robberies in his lifetime and wrote some of his most celebrated poems while incarcerated in various prisons around France. It’s appropriate, then, that the raven is named after Villon; after all, it is his “stealing” (read: hiding) of the will that precipitates the climax of the film and ultimately allows Dupin and Madeline to foil Lorna’s plans. And just in case there’s any question about the matter, Thevenet evens indicates the provenance of the raven’s name when he asks it, “Ou’ sont les neiges d’antan?” which roughly translates to “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Thevenet invokes this phrase, a refrain from Villon’s poem “Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” in the wake of his first meeting with Madeline, as a bittersweet remembrance of times long past, and Dupin repeats it later in the film with an expression of cynical regret.
I refer you to my previous statement regarding English nerds and film criticism.
The non-eventful conclusion and inaccuracies about the titular character aside, The Man with a Cloak is not a bad film, regardless of what the TCM article about the movie would have you believe. Yes, the ending is a clunky attempt at revelatory wonder, and yes, Joseph Cotten cuts a somewhat awkward figure as the erstwhile detective/writer (and it pains me to admit that, because I do adore Joseph Cotten so). He doesn’t resemble Poe all that much even with the author’s ubiquitous mustache–Cotten’s coloring is much lighter than Poe’s, and his manner is decidedly genteel for being as drunk as the character must have been. Despite these weaknesses, however, the film has some strengths, due largely to Stanwyck, a mostly able supporting cast, and some well-crafted, witty dialogue.
Was there ever anyone as good at playing the “bad girl” as Barbara Stanwyck? She has the Herculean task of taking a thoroughly unpleasant, scheming character and making the audience feel a measure of camaraderie with her despite her plotting nature. And damned if Stanwyck doesn’t pull it off, and then some. Lorna is reprehensible, true, but seeing her vulnerable side emerge with Dupin makes the character much more sympathetic. The relationship that develops between Lorna and Dupin is quite effective, due in large part to the great chemistry between Stanwyck and Cotten, and the scenes in which the two of them interact are some of the most entertaining of the entire film.
Despite this, Lorna is no innocent flower: in many ways, she is a half-sister to Phyllis in Double Indemnity–intent on willing a man to death, though not entirely evil as she refrains from actively raising a hand against Thevenet, preferring to allow him to commit suicide through drink and ill health (as Martin says, “Manners! You have to do everything politely. You even have to murder a man politely”). In the end, it is Stanwyck’s strong performance that anchors Cloak and ultimately makes it work despite its issues. The director of the film, the rather green Fletcher Markle, originally wanted Marlene Dietrich for the role of Lorna, but I just can’t imagine that Dietrich could have brought the same mix of quiet menace and regretful longing to the part that Stanwyck does.
The supporting cast, particularly Calhern as the recalcitrant expatriate and De Santis as the most unfaithful of manservants, hold their own admirably with Stanwyck; Calhern is especially deft in the role of Thevenet, and his French accent is surprisingly believable for a Brooklyn-born contract player. The only real downer among the cast is Caron; her Madeline has little to do, and yet comes across as nothing more than a mealy-mouthed bore. Frankly, Caron looks all of twelve years old as she wanders aimlessly through her scenes in flowered hats and hooded cloaks. And while this (at least visually) sets up the dynamic between strong-willed Lorna and the meeker young Frenchwoman, in the end, Caron is simply overshadowed, both physically and performance-wise, by the far more seasoned and–let’s face it–far more talented Stanwyck (don’t shoot me, Caron fans).
Later this month, on April 27th, Poe will once again be featured as a fictionalized, big-screen detective with the release of The Raven, a thriller in which Poe (John Cusack) must help the police track down a murderer who uses Poe’s stories as inspiration for his crimes. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it has received predominantly negative reviews thus far from critics in the UK, where it was released last month, which indicates that it’s likely not going to be all that good. But from the looks of the trailer, I think I might go see it anyway (provided it’s not too gory). Actually, the film sounds a bit like the premise for the pilot of the ABC series Castle—one of the collective favorites of the True Classics crew–which makes me wonder if the Raven screenwriters were more than a little influenced by their television precursor (and just to wrap up the whole, geeky circle, the show’s main character, Richard Castle, fittingly adopts the middle name Edgar in honor of–you guessed it–the honorable Mr. Poe).