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Tag Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

The Man With a Cloak (1951)

themanwithacloakIt’s difficult to know exactly what to call The Man in a Cloak. It’s not a mystery, it’s not a Gothic thriller, or a romance or a drama. It’s sort of a gaslight crime drama…except no crimes are ever actually committed…just skirted around. In fact, not much of anything happens.

Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron) arrives in New York from Paris in 1848 (a year of multiple revolutions throughout France, the Italian peninsula, the Hapsburg Empire and Prussia ). She is the fiance of a French revolutionary who is estranged from his Bonepartist grandfather, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern). She has come to ask that Thevenet leave his vast fortune to his grandson, who is in dire need of the money for his cause.

But Thevenet is not sympathetic to his grandson’s cause, though he is a sucker for a pretty face. But he also seems to owe his servants. It’s a peculiar arrangement. Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck) is an ex-mistress, sort of housekeeper, companion, and she has been living with him for ten years, along with the butler, Martin (Joe De Santis), who looks more like an ex-thug, and the cook, Mrs. Flynn (Margaret Wycherly). They are all waiting for Thevenet to die and do not welcome the intrusion of a pretty face to steal their fortune.

In the meantime, Madeline receives unexpected help from a mysterious stranger/poet (Joseph Cotten) who calls himself “Dupin” and spends most of his time getting drunk.

It’s an interesting premise, but somehow the film never quite jells or goes anywhere dramatically. We don’t even get a proper murder. There’s a lot of talk about danger and evil, but nothing very dreadful occurs. Mostly, it is a struggle with Lorna and the servants against Madeline and Dupin, each trying to ensure that Thevenet leaves their side the money.

I think the The Man in the Cloak is more interesting for the story it doesn’t tell than the story it does. Who are these three people, living together in the house for ten years, obviously from very different backgrounds, who don’t even like each other? Lorna was Thevenet’s mistress, once a star, but clearly seems to believe that he owes her for all he took from her. We don’t know how Martin and Mrs. Flynn came to work for him, but one cannot help but think there is a story there, too.

Lorna basically runs the house and I have to admit that it tickled my funny bone at the thought of a house full of evil domestics. Martin clearly hates Lorna, but can’t help desiring her at the same time. Lorna barely tolerates him, often mocks him and can’t stand the way he slurps his tea. Mrs. Flynn is always laughing at both of them. They are only united in their hatred for Thevenet and desire for his money.

On the other hand, Madeline feels sorry for Thevenet, but it feels misplaced, because Thevenet clearly committed many dark deeds in pursuit of his fortune. To be honest, it was hard for me even to cheer for Madeline to win the money. Perhaps I’m simply biased in Barbara Stanwyck’s favor, but Madeline’s fiance really had no more right to the money than anyone else.

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Leslie Caron, Louis Calhern, Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten

There are also some interesting parallels drawn that are never fully explored, especially between Dupin and Thevenet. Both men are drinking themselves ill, both men are suckers for Madeline’s pretty innocence, both are conscious of being rather disreputable, and both have people after them for their money. Except that Dupin has no money and Thevenet has too much. But both owe something which they do not repay.

Ultimately, Dupin’s character doesn’t seem quite dark enough. The film isn’t dark enough. Even Lorna seems rather cool about losing everything in the end. One can’t help but wonder what it all adds up to. Though perhaps that’s the point. The irony is that the money the Bonepartist Thevenet sentimentally leaves to his revolutionary grandson will help form the Second Republic that is taken over by Napoleon III in 1851.

The cast, however, is excellent, which makes one wish the film had been better. It is a great idea that is never developed. Leslie Caron seems somewhat overshadowed, but that’s not her fault so much as the plot’s. Barbara Stanwyck is the real force in the film…along with Louis Calhern. It’s unique…worth a look if you are into gaslight dramas or are a fan of Barbara Stanwyck.

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Posted by on November 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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Double Indemnity: Rivalry and Shakespeare

Edward-G-Robinson-%26-Fred-MacMurray-in-Double-Indemnity-1944-Premium-Photograph-and-Poster-1019454__96948.1432423378.220.290Last week I watched Double Indemnity with my good friend, Andrea. Double Indemnity might actually be my favorite film of all time, so I am always burbling away happily about the film and referencing it, but Andrea does not generally watch murderous stories. But I spoke of it so often, she was curious and after I sent her a few clips from the film, she was even more curious, so finally we decided to watch it. In turn, I was exceedingly curious to know what she would think. She has kindly given me permission to quote her extensively (or paraphrase, somewhat).

Her reaction? She liked the dialogue, which she found poetic (a word that would not have occurred to me to use in reference to a film noir, but she’s right about it – there is a cadence and rhythm and poetry to it). She also didn’t mind at all about the murder, because, she observed, the movie isn’t really about the murder. Instead, she compared Double Indemnity to a Shakespeare tragedy and “Macbeth,” (I once read someone describe “Macbeth” as the film noir of Shakespeare) with a frail man striving to achieve something great and failing spectacularly.

But what is it that Walter Neff is trying to achieve? I put it down to “money and…for a woman,” but Andrea has a unique perspective that changes the dynamics of how one views the film.

She sees the story as essentially a rivalry between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. As she observed, Keyes often belittles Neff’s job as an insurance salesman as a “peddler” and a “backslapper” and wants Neff to work with him as a claim’s manager, where it takes “brains.” And Keyes is the acknowledged brains, almost a colossus, a titan of brilliance and human insight. But, as Andrea points out, Walter already considers himself a smart man, quick on his feet, good at his work. He admires Keyes, he is a friend of Keyes, but he also subconsciously wants to best him and to work with Keyes in claims management would not only be a cut in salary, but would also make him subordinate to Keyes.

In that respect, he was ripe for a Phyllis Dietrichson to come along and give him a reason to match wits with Keyes. He tells Keyes in his memorandum voice-over that it was something he’d already been thinking about; how he could con the insurance agency because he’s inside the system and knows how it works. It’s basically a game to him, which is why he gets so uncomfortable every time he’s around Lola. She reminds him that murder is not a game. But this mentality of trying to pit wits against Keyes also causes him to underestimate Phyllis. She’s not playing a game, either.

Annex - Robinson, Edward G. (Double Indemnity)_NRFPT_01Andrea also noticed that after Keyes figures everything out (he can’t prove it yet, but he’s figured out how it was worked) Walter suddenly wants to pull out and tells Phyllis so. The money and lust for Phyllis isn’t really enough to keep him going. It was the rivalry with Keyes. But of course Phyllis has no intention of pulling out and threatens to take him down if he doesn’t go through with it. I used to assume it was fright that made Walter suddenly lose his nerve; he doesn’t have the psychopathic nerves of steel that Phyllis has. But Andrea has another theory. Walter loses his nerve because he’s lost the game. He’s lost his main reason for committing a murder. It is now clear that Keyes is smarter than Walter, he has figured it all out. The game is over and Walter is now stuck in a very awkward situation that could get him executed. But Phyllis has no intention of letting him out so easily.

Ironically enough, Walter fails because he is weak, both too moral and not moral enough. He can kill a man, but goes soft concerning Lola. He is caught between two titans of strength, who are strong because of their extremes of good and evil. In contrast, Walter is just a man, with the usual mix of good and bad impulses. If he’d been like Phyllis, then they might have been able to wait Keyes out, who didn’t really have any proof. But, as Andrea says, he’s just playing a game and when the game is over, he no longer has the will to try to outlast Keyes.

I still wonder – assuming Walter had been more hardcore – if Keyes could have exposed Phyllis. I’m not sure that he could. She would never crack under police pressure or under pressure from a lawyer and I’m sure would make a very good impression on the witness stand. Walter is the weak link for her. The poor guy is just too human.

I want to thank Andrea for giving me leave to write about her ideas and for giving me a whole new perspective on the film!

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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“The Miracle Woman”: The Film That Made Me a Fan

The Miracle Woman[1]I saw Barbara Stanwyck in movies before, some of her very best, no less: Remember the NightThe Lady Eve. But it was not until Frank Capra’s 1931 The Miracle Woman that I became a Barbara Stanwyck fan. There was something about that movie that sent me on a stampede to see all her films I could lay my hands on.

I’m still not entirely certain what it was about that particular film that so impressed me. Perhaps it was how sincerely and passionately she threw herself into the role. There’s nothing quite like a pre-code Barbara Stanwyck and in this film she ran through nearly every feeling in the book, displaying raw, naked emotion and passion that impressed me as being unlike anyone else I had seen.

The Miracle Woman is about Florance Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a pastor who died penniless and brokenhearted after years of unrequited service to a church full of unhearing parishioners. After lashing out at them in anger, she is approached by the con artist, Hornsby (Sam Hardy), about working with him. She becomes Sister Fallon, preacher and healer, and he manages everything from behind the scenes, paying people to pretend to be healed.

But when John Carson (David Manners – in a far more interesting role than he had in The Mummy and Dracula) is stopped from committing suicide when he hears her voice over the radio, they soon meet and fall in love. With John believing in her completely, she begins to have second-thoughts about what she is doing and Hornsby begins getting jealous and threatens to expose her. Her rediscovery of faith is gradual. At first she wants to stop the fake healings and simply do her stuff honestly, forgetting that it was through dishonesty that she got such a large following in the first place (not to mention the money that Hornsby is embezzling). It takes her a while to come to the place where she is willing to give it all up to do what is right.

Like Capra’s later Meet John Doe (starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper), Capra is exploring the idea of whether or not something is still true, even when that truth is used to exploit others. Florence may be intending to fleece people, but her words still touch them, namely John Carson. It changes his life. And he changes hers. Through all the abuse of faith by hypocrites and hucksters, truth still shines through.

Unlike Capra’s later film, however, The Miracle Woman is entirely Barbara Stanwyck’s film. She is at turns tough, vulnerable, tender, enraged, quiet, worldly, sincere, passionate, simmering, ashamed.

mirwo_stl_5_h[1]When we first meet Florence Fallon, she is at the pulpit, telling the parishioners that her father is dead. She starts out quietly, but soon builds to a crescendo. Like I said, no one can quite top pre-code Barbara Stanwyck for intensity. It’s the sort of intensity that seems borderline too much, except when it’s done sincerely. It almost became a running joke in Stanwyck’s early career that at some point in her movies she would start yelling at someone and tell them to get out. That is generally the sort of thing that gets toned down as actors become more polished and experienced, more measured in how they express emotion. But it was precisely that intensity that caught my attention – it can be thrilling to watch somebody give a performance their all, holding nothing back, similar to the thrill my dad describes in watching a football game where the players equally are striving to win with everything they have in them.

But she’s not running on all cylinders the entire movie. She can pull back and be still, talking with John, crying over her father. Then she’s back at it, exposing the truth in a burning building (and Capra really had her stand on a set that was burning). It’s her capacity to let it all out and then pull back that partly impressed me. And she was only 23 or 24 years old at the time, with most of her career still ahead of her.

This is my contribution to the “Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For the rest of the entries, click here.

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Posted by on January 20, 2016 in Movies

 

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