“The Man with a Cloak”. Doesn’t it sound mysterious, intriguing and exciting? With a title as great as that, one can’t help but have some seriously high expectations for what follows. The good news is that on most levels this 1951 drama exceeds, or at least meets those expectations.
The film takes place in New York City, 1845. A young French girl named Madeline (Leslie Caron) has traveled to New York in order to track down her finance’s wealthy Grandfather, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern). She finds him grumpy, angry, drunk and almost incommunicable, in part due to his failing health, and in part because of the woman who “cares” for him, Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck). She, along with her two cohorts (Joe De Santis & Margaret Wycherly) posing as a maid and butler, are just waiting for the old man to die in order to live comfortably off of his money; so much so in fact, that they may be trying to speed up his dying process.
Madeline is the unexpected thorn in their side, as they correctly suspect that the blood ties to his only living relative might persuade him to send money back to France. Lorna does everything in her power to keep Madeline from spending time with Charles- locking him away because of his “failing health”, leaving Madeline sitting alone, worrying about his safety.
Enter, “The Man with a Cloak”. (I know, you almost forgot about him, didn’t you?) This good-natured, nameless chap (Joseph Cotten) claims to be a writer, but his true profession is drinking. In fact, if ever there was a movie that did everything they could to convince the audience that a man has a drinking problem, this would be the one. He meets Madeline early on in the film, and like all great mysterious film characters, waits around patiently observing until he can be of some use. He introduces himself simply as Dupin, and finds himself playing detective- enthusiastically getting involved in Madeline’s problems, and getting involved with Lorna as well.
There are many aspects of this film that are great, but it’s the acting that stands out. The unusual part is that it’s not just because of Stanwyck and Cotten, as you might expect. They are both good (as always), but it’s the supporting players that enhance the overall film: People like Margaret Wycherly, the underrated character actor from movies like “White Heat” (1948), “Sergeant York” (1941) and “Random Harvest” (1942); Joe De Santis, who would go on to a long and flourishing career in television, as well as some key roles in films like “The Professionals” (1966), “Buchannan Rides Alone” (1958) and “I Want to Live!” (1958); Louis Calhern, whose career spanned over thirty years of filmmaking, in which he covered almost every type of movie imaginable. Films like “Duck Soup” (1933), “Notorious” (1946), “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), “Blackboard Jungle” (1950) “High Society” (1956), and even played Julius Caesar alongside Marlon Brando. Even Jim Backus, who brilliantly portrayed James Dean’s father in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), shows up as the humorous bartender always trying to get Dupin to pay his tab. Sure you can expect that special something from Cotten and Stanwyck in this film, but these smaller roles are the ones that make “The Man with a Cloak” an ensemble picture. Leslie Caron, on the other hand, is desperately outmatched here. It’s not really her fault (well, maybe it is), there is just too much experience and charisma oozing from everyone else on the set, and she is unable to keep up, leaving her hiding in the shadows of more prestigious actors.
I find myself surprised that more people weren’t, and aren’t, enthralled by this film. It feels similar in a way to George Cukor’s “Gaslight” (also starring Cotten in a vaguely similar role), only without the same level of suspense. The black and white cinematography by George J. Folsey looks stunning, the music by David Raksin is appropriately mysterious, and the direction from Fletcher Markle doesn’t interfere with the cast that was obviously the focal point anyway. So I asked myself, “What went wrong?”
And then it hit me. “The Man with a Cloak” is a superbly crafted 1940’s drama, released in the 1950’s. It feels like a 40’s movie, it looks like a 40’s movie, and when it’s over you’ll feel like you watched a 40’s movie. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t need to be a bad thing. It’s just that “The Man with a Cloak” was released within the same few months as films like “Strangers on a Train” (1951), “A Place in the Sun” (1951) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). Those are 50’s films, thus clearly differentiating themselves in design and style from films such as this one.
So don’t label “The Man with a Cloak”, expecting something overly suspenseful, as audiences inevitably did in 1951. Enjoy the film as an example of complex characters portrayed by some highly talented actors, culminating into a film that has a little bit of everything to offer. Besides, who doesn’t love a good mystery every now and then?