It’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.
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.