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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.

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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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Citizen Kane (1941)

citizenkaneThe greatest movie ever made! It’s intimidating. Not only was it intimidating to write about, but it was intimidating to even watch Citizen Kane. I kept putting it off and off. What if I didn’t like it? Didn’t get it? Became bored? Lost my self-respect as an old movie lover? Learned to doubt my judgment? Quit watching movies? Sunk into a depression!

Fortunately, nothing quite so dire occurred. I even enjoyed it a little and I wanted to share my thoughts and impressions and learn what other people think of this film, as well.

1. It’s not a movie; it’s a compendium of cinematic techniques! That’s a slight exaggeration. But what seems to make the movie stand out is how Welles synthesized – and enhanced – the various techniques available to a filmmaker at that time.

During the last years of the silent era, directors such as King Vidor, F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg had reached a level of visual beauty and virtuosity that was sublime. Then sound became the norm and visual storytelling was replaced with dialogue. But just as early silent filmmakers had to learn how to fully exploit the visual possibilities of cinema, it took a while for filmmakers in the ’30s to learn how to fully exploit the use of sound.

What Orson Welles seems to have done – as a radio man – was to fully realize the aural possibilities of film and wed them with the visual possibilities. He allowed cinematographer Gregg Toland to indulge his use of deep focus cinematography and Welles employed various aural techniques familiar from radio, like overlapping dialogue in the montage sequences.

As far as I can tell, this is what makes Citizen Kane the greatest film of all. It is the finest example of all that is possible in film. Not that all movies should be like that (probably most shouldn’t – it would be too much to use every trick in the book in every single movie). The vast array of techniques employed by Welles is admittedly dazzling, but also distracting. I found myself repeatedly watching what the camera was doing rather than the actors. We never get to just look straight on at a character. They are always in shadows or in deep focus or with the camera looking up at them or down on them or peering closely into their face.

citizen-kane-welles-podiumBilly Wilder believed that if the audience was paying attention to a shot, it was a sign of bad directing, because the audience is not supposed to notice how a film is made, but only the story. I suppose that’s why we remember individual moments from Welles’ films and remember the stories of Wilder’s films.

2. During the opening when we are introduced to Kane’s enormously disproportionate Gothic mansion, I half-expected Dracula to walk by. Welles’ film is not only a summary of cinematic techniques, but is a summary of practically every movie genre under the sun except the western. There is the horror story, the drama, the journalism screwball comedy, documentary, political satire, mystery and detective story.

3. Much is made about Charles Foster Kane’s (Welles) desire to be loved and his inability to love. In fact, they hammer this point home so often that I kept thinking that couldn’t be the point of the film. It couldn’t be that obvious. But perhaps an obvious plot allows more room for layers of symbolism.

But as much as the film obsesses about how lonely and pathetic Kane is, in truth, everyone looks lonely and pathetic. Joseph Cotten as one-time friend Jedidiah Leland is alone in a retirement home, reduced to begging a stranger to smuggler cigars in to him. Kane’s ex-wife is alone, drunk, in a club, thinking back on all that was. Everett Sloan as Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s business manager, is alone in a cold office. Everyone is alone and disconnected and spend half their time hidden in shadows as if to reinforce how unknowable people are.

It’s a disconnected world that Welles’ creates, which makes everyone seem more pathetic than sympathetic. Kane’s loneliness is just blown-up in proportion because he’s rich and larger than life.

4. Charles Foster Kane was essentially raised by a bank. George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher – Kane’s guardian – has no other personality outside of his bank. I thought that was funny. No wonder Kane grew up so emotionally stunted. He veers between being pathetic and insufferably arrogant and self-aggrandizing. One hardly knows whether to be irritated or saddened.

90551-050-cdc7d41f5. I can’t do a puzzle anymore without thinking of Dorothy Comingore and having an urge to shout across the room, even though it’s unnecessary.

6. My brother wondered how Kane could stand so close to that gigantic fire. The heat coming from that thing would have been intense.

Conclusion: I think, on the whole, I enjoyed Citizen Kane more than I did any other film by Welles, including Touch of EvilThe Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, and The Magnificent Ambersons, though The Stranger runs a close second. The sheer variety of interest is compelling, if still not emotionally engaging.

I actually owe my resolution to finally see Citizen Kane to FictionFan’s Book Reviews and her excellent review of the book Citizen Kane, by Harlon Lebo. It is a history and appreciation of the movie and FictionFan recommended viewing the movie before reading the book, which I am looking forward to doing.

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2016 in Movies

 

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Evil Amidst Innocence

220px-Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Shadow_of_a_DoubtAlfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and I have seen and enjoyed many of his movies. However, my personal favorite – and reportedly his, too – is Shadow of a Doubt, which I believe is also his most human and relatable.

When Alfred Hitchcock first left England to make movies in America, many of his early American movies were still set in England: Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but he wanted this movie to be more uniquely American in setting. He chose as his location Santa Rosa, California, and he did much of his shooting on location.

At the center of Shadow of a Doubt is the evil that comes to an innocent small town and an innocent family. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is named after her mother’s much loved younger brother, Uncle Charlie or Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). She feels that they are extremely close, because of their names, but also because of how they think and feel. She likes to say that they are like twins. The movie begins with Charlie feeling like the family has gotten into a dull rut and what they need is Uncle Charlie to visit them. When Uncle Charlie does come unexpectedly, she and her entire family are thrilled and excited, especially her mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge).

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

What they do not realize is that Uncle Charlie’s money (he is described as being “in business”) has actually been acquired through murder. He is a serial killer, the Merry Widow Murderer, and he is on the run from the police and hiding out at their home. Hitchcock is simply masterful in how he builds his movie. Not long after he arrives, Charlie begins to suspect her uncle in some way and soon she figures out the truth. It is this growing of Charlie’s suspicions and Uncle Charlie’s realizations of her suspicions and how the two of them deal with each other that provides the tension. And Charlie’s realization that not only is her uncle a serial killer, but he’s quite willing to kill her, too, which is not at all the same thing as being willing to kill a random stranger.

What I love about this film is how infinitely relatable it is. It’s not glamorous, like many of Hitchcock’s other films. There are no gangs, international espionage, spies, thefts of priceless jewelry, epic chases, women running about in impossibly gorgeous clothing (I’m thinking, here, of Grace Kelly). The people in it are people we can imagine knowing or being like, people we might even have met.

We don’t dress like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant isn’t going to walk into our lives, but we can understand a family member – someone we assume we can trust – and we can imagine ourselves reacting to that situation. Would we tell our mother that her favorite brother is a serial killer; would we think our family would believe us? We can all imagine ourselves being at a loss trying to deal with this situation.

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

I think what Shadow of a Doubt taps into is how little ordinary people expect to encounter evil. We read about it and people in the movies always seem awfully eager to suspect and discover crime and conspiracy, but in real life we don’t really anticipate encountering that, especially in our own family. We generally expect to find real life somewhat prosaic.

I think it is also significant that it was made in 1943, during WWII. There is a sense of lost innocence for Charlie, having encountered this terrible evil that is in her uncle. He was originally a romantic figure for her, presumably emblematic of the world outside her safe and ordinary existence, but his view of the world is that it is a “sty,” an ugly place so ugly that it doesn’t matter what happens in it, even murder. He is the one to shatter her peaceful, sheltered and innocent view of life. He is like the Nazis horrifying the world with unimagined evil. It is partially a coming of age story for Charlie.

The cast is marvelous (Hitchcock always did have marvelous casts). Teresa Wright had recently enjoyed great success in The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees and Mrs. Miniver, where she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She is perfect as Charlie: innocent, but intelligent, grappling with the enormity of what she has learned, but not backing down. Joseph Cotten usually played nice guys, but he is excellent as Uncle Charlie, displaying charm, but always with hidden menace. Patricia Collinge is Charlie’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing the tension between Charlie and Uncle Charlie and is so blinded by her love of her brother, as if he represented everything good about life to her: her happy childhood, her young dreams and hopes. Henry Travers (known as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) is her father, a banker who relaxes by discussing murder mysteries and murder methods with his friend, Herb (Hume Cronyn), which provides a great deal of the whimsical humor in the film.

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Uncle Charlie doesn’t like to be photographed – Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Teresa Wright, and Joseph Cotten

There is also a standout performance by Edna May Wonacott as Charlie’s sister, Ann. She is a bookworm who doesn’t quite like Uncle Charlie but never really knows why or even thinks about it. There are also two detectives lurking about (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford), who think Uncle Charlie might be the Merry Widow Murderer, and are cultivating the acquaintance of Ann and Charlie.

One of Hitchcock’s best and by far my favorite of his films. Suspenseful, but also more character driven then his usual movies. He tries to explore Uncle Charlie’s motivations and Charlie’s coming of age is a definite departure for Hitchcock. Coupled with his emphasis on the ordinary rather than extraordinary, it is a highly compelling, relatable, human, and even endearing story. It absolutely captured my imagination.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Suspense

 

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