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Tag Archives: Margaret Wycherly

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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White Heat (1949)

downloadWhite Heat is one of James Cagney’s finest films and when I first saw it I was so blown away that I had to watch it again. It was the movie that really turned me into a serious Cagney fan (though I always liked him in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Love Me or Leave Me). Violent, brutal, psychotic, cunning and too-trusting, with serious mommy issues, Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is a frightening and yet surprisingly vulnerable gangster. The vulnerability doesn’t make him more likable, but it does make him a human being and not just a killing machine.

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang – which includes his overpowering and devoted mother, Ma (Margaret Wycherly), his cheap, bombshell wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), and Big Ed (Steve Cochran), who would love nothing better than to replace Cody – have just held up a train and are now hiding out. The police are hot on their trail and to derail suspicion, Cody decides to confess to another crime he didn’t commit (he knows the guy who did commit it), which would show he couldn’t possibly have held up the train. The idea is that he’ll only get a few years and emerge again to enjoy the spoils of criminality.

But once he’s in prison, Big Ed makes his move. Verna, who can hardly compete with Cody’s mother for Cody’s attention (so greatly does Ma Jarrett dominate his life), is quite willing to switch from Cody to Big Ed. Meanwhile, the police know Cody is in for the wrong crime and plant a policemen in jail to get close to Cody. His name is Hank Fallon (Edmund O’Brien) and his job is working in prisons to worm out secrets from the inmates. The police figure that without the strong and steadying influence of Ma, Jarrett will need someone to lean on and they are hoping it will be Fallon. But it’s a race against time. There is insanity in the Jarrett family, Cody’s father ended in an asylum and the police know Cody is beginning to crack up. They want to find out who the fence is who takes care of all the hot money that Cody steals.

James Cagney and Edmund O'Brien

James Cagney and Edmund O’Brien

Spoilers! When Ma Jarrett is killed, Cody goes completely psycho and breaks out of jail, bringing Fallon along with him. The rest of the film almost takes on the tone of a suspense thriller – will Cody kill Big Ed? will Cody catch on to Fallon? will Fallon survive? will Cody figure out that it was really his wife and not Big Ed who killed Ma? – which is broken at the end when everything comes to a head in a blaze of gunfire, a massive explosion, fire and a complete mental breakdown by Cody. It’s both gripping and mesmerizing, made even more so by a unforgettably volatile performance by Cagney, at times pathetic, terrifying, childish, cunning, and even hurt.

The classic gangster of the early 1930s falls because of his own hubris. James Cagney adds new layers to the earlier gangster persona, his motivations slightly obscure. He doesn’t seem ambitious for power or influence, per se. The ambition is coming from his mother, who always tells him “On top of the world, son.” He also doesn’t seem that interested in enjoying the wealth he has, which frustrates his wife, who has to talk him into buying her a fur coat. She wants to live high, have rich things, spend money, travel and hobnob with the rich, but she can’t seem to get her husband interested in any of that until his mother is dead.

Cody Jarrett himself seems most interested in the life of a gangster: the camaraderie, the power over others, the planning, danger, thrill, and also the killing. He gets a high from it and he just likes hanging out with the guys, especially Fallon. Verna is an accessory.

James Cagney and Margaret Wycherley

James Cagney and Margaret Wycherly

And for all that he’s cruel, violent and enjoys it, he’s too trusting. It’s ironic, because in a way, he’s not wrong to place all his faith in his mother. She’s the one who figures out that someone is trying to kill him while he’s in prison (he put the incident down to an accident), she’s the one who senses that they are being followed by the police at the beginning of the film, she’s the one who also who knows Big Ed and Verna are going to betray him. Her mistake is not in taking on Big Ed, but in underestimating Verna.

But once she’s gone, Cody trusts all the wrong people. He makes Fallon his friend and confidante and believes Verna when she tells him that it was Big Ed who murdered his mother and that she never betrayed him at all (she’s nearly as good a liar as Brigid O’Shaughnessy and apparently just as much of an opportunist). Near the end of the film, Cody is sitting in a room with Fallon and Verna, fully trusting these two people, one a cop and the other the murderer of his mother. It would be pathetic if everyone wasn’t so afraid of him.

White Heat was directed by Raoul Walsh and I’ve come to like his films very much. There’s something uncompromising about them that I enjoy, brisk, full of energy, never dull. James Cagney is fantastic. Edmund O’Brien is not dynamic, but he’s not supposed to be. He’s a cop who’s playing the part of a solid and loyal friend. Margaret Wycherly matches Cagney for dynamic personality, as a woman so tangled up in her son’s life, willing him upwards to success, still babying him when he’s low and propping him up so he won’t appear weak to others. Her character intrigued me. She knows insanity’s in the family – her own husband went insane. Does she not see it in her son? Does she think she can hold it in check?

James Cagney, Virginia Mayo

James Cagney, Virginia Mayo

Virginia Mayo is superb as a sort of cheap, gum-smacking Brigid O’Shaunessy. She’s out for the glamour and the high life of drinking, gambling, jewels, the life that so attracted gangsters and their molls in the early 1930s, and she will take whatever guy can give it to her, whether Cody or Big Ed. To be honest, when I first saw the movie, I thought Cody was going to kill her and I was impressed that she survives the film. She’s the only gang member left standing at the end (though she’ll get jail time).

For a person who grew up on musicals and costume-drama romances, I’ve really surprised myself by loving these early gangster films. They’re epic, like a Greek tragedy; not to compare Cody Jarrett to Achilles. To be honest, I never warmed to the characters in Greek epics. They always seemed to me like murderous, bloodthirsty, hubristic rapists eager for glory…actually, maybe there is a comparison to be made. But the comparison should be made in reverse. Cody Jarrett is not an American hero; Achilles is a Greek gangster. I don’t know if I’d begin with White Heat if I’d never seen a gangster film before. The best place to start is at the beginning, with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (I haven’t seen Scarface yet, but it’s on my list). But White Heat is one of the best.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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