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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.

cloak

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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Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin – The First Credited Fictional Detective

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

I have often read of how much Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes owed to Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and when I got around to finally reading Poe’s stories, I was suprirsed to find how much.

Edgar Allan Poe is generally credited with being the first writer of detective fiction and he certainly is the one to first outline the kinds of things you encounter in the genre: locked room mysteries, armchair detectives, blackmail, missing valuables, less-than-brilliant police (which probably isn’t fair to the police), jealousy, murder, smoking pipes, innocents accused, odd crimes that have fantastic, but very simple solutions. He practically wrote the clichés, and all in three short stories.

The first story he wrote in 1841 was called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In it we first meet C. August Dupin. He is a young man who lost much of his family wealth through some legal difficulty and has grown lethargic and uncaring of the world except in how it engages and feeds his mind. The narrator of the story is an unnamed man, seemingly not French, but who is living in France and was so much struck with the unusual character and mind of Dupin that he took up residence with him, paying most of the expenses.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is, however, more of an exercise in what Poe calls ratiocination than a real mystery as we conceive of it today. Ratiocination is the process of logical reasoning and analysis and Poe is extremely interested in this process. He opens the story with a discussion of analysis versus calculation and argues that draughts (checkers is a form of draughts) is a game that involves far more analysis than chess, which is merely a game of concentration and calculation. The actual mystery involves a mysterious and violent murder that apparently took place in a locked room with no exit for the murderer. Dupin interests himself in the case and solves it, without help from the police and for his own amusement.

421px-Mystery_of_Marie_Roget

illustration of “The Mystery of Marie Roget”

The second story Poe wrote in 1842 is “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” This story is actually based on a real murder in New York when a cigar girl (girl who sold cigars in a cigar emporium) was mysteriously murdered and became, like the Jack the Ripper murders, one of the earliest examples of sensational murder that captured the attention of the nation and marshalled the efforts and speculation of all the newspapers. The case was never solved, but Poe used the real incident as inspiration for his next story. Changing the names slightly, he set the story in Paris and told it almost exactly as it really occurred, arguing that his story would prove useful in directing the police in how to solve the real crime.

Once again, Poe is extremely interested in ratiocination and almost the entire story is taken up with Dupin’s systematic debunking of various views of the newspapers and his outlining of how he would proceed in the investigation if he were the police.

The final story Poe wrote with Dupin was “The Purloined Letter” (1844), which I think is perhaps his most engaging story. This time, the prefect of police has come to Dupin because there is a letter stolen that the prefect cannot locate. In this tale, Dupin gets a chance to demonstrate what he is often asserting – that what is simple and obvious is often the most difficult to figure out.

Throughout the stories, Dupin remains largely opaque. He seems to spend all his time reading or lost in thought (or found in thought) and smokes his meerschaum pipe. He is not actually a detective, either. He only gets involved with the police because he interested himself in the case of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and is so successful that the police afterwards come to him with their perplexities.

illustration from "The Purloined Letter"

illustration from “The Purloined Letter”

The similarities between Poe and Doyle are quite strong – the emphasis on ratiocination, the admiring chronicler of the great man’s genius, the constant smoking (at one point Dupin is described as being “amid a perfect whirlwind of smoke,” something that could often be said of Holmes), the emphasis on how the simple can be the most difficult, the ego of the men. Sherlock Holmes is a master of disguise and Dupin several times wears tinted spectacles to mask the movement of his eyes, whether for sleeping or looking for the missing letter. Both are in love with the inner workings of the mind.

However, I have to admit that I believe Sherlock Holmes is a great improvement on C. Auguste Dupin. What Sherlock Holmes really has, that Dupin does not, is personality. We don’t necessarily know Holmes more than we do Dupin, but his personality has so much flair and his friendship with Watson adds a touch of humanity that makes him a far more engaging character.

What Doyle improves on, also, is the quality and excitement of his stories. The difficulty I encountered in reading Poe is that his stories are really just extreme exercises in mental analysis. The stories themselves are a pretext for Dupin to explain the exact workings of his mind to the narrator. He is the ultimate in armchair detective, though he does go out twice in the three stories, but the meat of the tales are really in him just sitting and explaining. With Doyle, Holmes goes out much more, engages in more physical activity, encounters physical danger, and actually interacts with victims and criminals.

Of course, there were only three Dupin stories, so in a way, it is unfair to compare him to the oft chronicled Holmes. And Poe does remain, to this day, well worth reading, even if it is because he was the founder of the genre.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2014 in Fiction

 

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