The Man with a Cloak


Lots of different things draw us to movies. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Gothic mysteries, particularly those where the Hollywood majors cooked up that special atmosphere that could only exist within the carefully crafted confines of a studio set. Add in a rare adaptation of the writings of John Dickson Carr and I’m hooked. The Man with a Cloak (1951) combines both of these elements, and it was a film that had intrigued and eluded me for years. It’s been quite some time since I read Carr’s short story The Gentleman from Paris, but I remember enjoying it and was keen to see how the film version worked.

It’s 1848 in New York, the year that saw revolutions breaking out in so many parts of the world. Against this turbulent backdrop a young woman arrives in the US seeking help. She is Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron), a somewhat unlikely fundraiser for a political cause. Her mission is to seek out the assistance of her fiance’s uncle, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern), now living in dissipated and debauched exile in the wake of Napoleon’s downfall. Madeline had been expecting to be introduced to a distinguished gentleman, instead she finds a half-crippled drunkard seeing out his days in decaying splendor. Thevenet’s alcohol sodden existence is being overseen by a trio of servants and retainers under the supervision of Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck). Two things are clear right away: Madeline’s presence is unwelcome in this household, and Thevenet’s protectors are no more than vultures patiently circling their dying master. And so it all comes down to money, Thevenet’s got it and everybody else wants it. While Madeline cannot prove that Lorna and her cohorts are actively plotting to murder the old man, she knows that it’s clearly in their best interests to see that he doesn’t hang around long enough to make any changes to his will. Into this little circle of greed and deceit steps Dupin (Joseph Cotten), the mysterious poet of the title who spends his days cadging free drinks from a sympathetic barkeep. Dupin isn’t motivated by the promise of money, though he’s clearly badly in need of it, rather he’s drawn to the simple faith in life of Madeline and a desire to see an injustice averted. It’s Dupin’s arrival that forces Lorna’s hand and brings the two mysteries of the film center stage: the puzzle of Thevenet’s will, and the real identity of the enigmatic poet.

The Man with a Cloak was directed by Fletcher Markle, a man who is probably better known for his television work. There are some highly effective scenes and a handful of noteworthy visual flourishes, and yet I can’t help feeling that the potential of the story and its setting weren’t fully exploited. The film has that polished look that MGM typically brought to its productions, and the studio sets are faultless. Still, the tension is allowed to slacken too often and that’s partly down to the failure to make the most of the visual opportunities. As for the plot, it’s solid enough but it’s perhaps overly dependent on building up an aura of mystery around the character of Dupin. While it’s adapted from a reasonably entertaining Carr story, it’s not one that highlights the author’s real strengths. In short, there’s arguably too much emphasis on who Dupin actually is – the film is liberally sprinkled with clues and it shouldn’t prove all that difficult to work out for any fairly literate viewer.

While the direction and scripting of the movie are always competent, they are nothing exceptional either. What does give the film a boost though is the acting. Both Stanwyck and Cotten were seasoned professionals, capable of tackling a variety of roles. Cotten spends most of his time hovering around the borders of sobriety, and gets to deliver some witty and telling lines. His character displays a weary cynicism, a sort of metaphorical cloak for the unnamed sadness he carries within himself. Against this is ranged the steely pragmatism of Stanwyck. Her outer gentility and polish masks a barely repressed sensuality and a deep streak of bitterness – after all, we’re talking about a woman who feels she has been robbed of ten of the best years of her life. While Cotten and Stanwyck rarely put a foot wrong, Louis Calhern almost effortlessly steals just about every scene. I sometimes think that if you want to capture a visual representation of regret for a life of unfulfilled promise, then you need only watch one of Calhern’s performances from around this time. In the face of such stiff competition, Leslie Caron fades into the background most of the time. It’s not that her portrayal of a frightened and confused ingenue is especially poor, just that she lacks the presence to make her mark among these heavy hitters. It’s a rare film that doesn’t benefit from a strong supporting cast, and The Man with a Cloak is no exception. Margaret Wycherly looks like she had a ball as a cackling old crone, and Jim Backus is a delight as the Irish bartender trading philosophical jibes with Cotten.

The Man with a Cloak was until recently another of those films that I began to think I was fated never to see. However, it became available via the Warner Archive, and shortly afterwards was given a pressed disc release in Spain via Llamentol. I watched the Spanish disc the other day and, judging from some screen captures I’ve seen, it looks like a clone of the US disc. Generally, the transfer looks pretty clean and sharpness and contrast are quite acceptable. This release offers no extra features whatsoever, just the film with its original soundtrack and the option to watch it with or without Spanish subtitles. I’ve seen people allude to the film’s noir credentials before but I feel the link is tenuous at best, and it’s not a title I’d be comfortable labeling in this way. For me, The Man with a Cloak is simply a Gothic mystery with a generous dollop of melodrama added. Overall, I found this an enjoyable and entertaining movie, though it’s not without its faults. I guess the presence of some big name stars and the fact it was sourced from a John Dickson Carr tale raised my expectations perhaps a tad too high. Nevertheless, I couldn’t say I was especially disappointed. If the direction is a little flat at times, the performances do compensate. Anyone who enjoys these studio bound mysteries, likes Carr’s writing, or is a fan of Stanwyck and Cotten should find enough to satisfy them here.

Those seeking another take on the film should pop over to Paul’s place at Lasso the Movies.



27 thoughts on “The Man with a Cloak

  1. Absolutely spot-on Colin. I think my experience of this film mirrored yours – it’s a nice short story and the identity twist is a easier to disguise on the page than on the screen after all. If say John Brahm had made this film at Fox in the style of Hangover Square then it certainly might be better remembered. Mind you, all the style in the world couldn;t quite change the fact that Dangerous Crossing from Carr’s ‘Cabin B-13’ half-hour radio play is also over-stretched in the script department. But it’s a good cast and Cotten is I think very well-chosen in the role – I’d completely forgotten Caron was in it actually. Must re-read the story.


    • Yes, there’s not really enough meat in Carr’s story to fill out a movie. The business with the will is nicely done but slight, and so the focus shifts to the identity of Dupin.

      I think a more stylish director might have helped – Brahm would have been an intriguing choice – as the setting has a lot of potential. I agree on Dangerous Crossing, although that film is more consistently interesting, at least in visual terms. Perhaps one of the problems with filming Carr’s work is that while the novels arguably have too much plot for most movies, the short stories seem to have too little.


      • What they could have done with Cloak I think is perhaps merge a secondary story in there to prop it up, perhaps with Dupin involved with another ancillary case (or better still, a locked room murder of course). It saddens me that so few of Carr’s novels have been given the feature treatment as so many of them drip with atmosphere after all.


        • Yes, I think it needed something to spice it all up a little.

          Regarding Carr adaptations, I’d really love to see the French version of The Burning Court directed by Julien Duvivier. Sadly though, there doesn’t appear to be any English-friendly edition available.
          Carr’s books are chock full of that quasi-supernatural atmosphere and one would imagine it would work very well on screen. I always feel it’s a shame none of the doom-laden, theatrical Bencolin stories were adapted.


    • I tried to be as fair as possible here and highlight what I saw as the positive and negative aspects of the film. Sure there are weaknesses, but there are plenty of good things going on too. If I managed to arouse your interest in the movie, then I guess I must have been doing something right.


  2. MGM in the early 1950s seemed to be making quite a few of these little B&W movies that seem designed to subsidize the Freed Unit musicals — even though some of them have substantial stars, they seem like decided programmers. For whatever reason I find them quite interesting to watch even if they all have flaws of one sort or another.

    Another movie in this vein that’s a mid-19th century period piece is The Tall Target with Dick Powell and Adolphe Menjou. And for a bit of British flavor, or at least as close as the MGM backlot could get to Britain, there’s Kind Lady, which looks like they used the same square on the back lot that they used for the establishing scenes in the 1944 version of Gaslight.


    • Ted, I quite agree that there’s a strong feel of the programmer about the movie, in spite of the names in the cast. Mind you, I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a bad thing.

      The Tall Target
      does kind of tie in as another tight little mid-19th Century mystery/thriller. I’ve featured it on the site in the past here.


  3. I think you nailed it on this one. Insightful thoughts on an interesting film, that despite some flaws, still manages to be intriguing. Thanks for the link as well.


    • You’re welcome Paul. It is intriguing even if everything doesn’t quite work. Your own piece on the movie reminded me that I needed to get my hands on it, so thanks for bringing it back to my attention and renewing my interest.


  4. Great overview of this forgotten nugget, Colin. I remember sitting through snippets of it — Backus as a friendly, if somewhat gregarious bartender jarred my memory — I certainly would be interested in giving it another look. Between the two reviews, I think what this sounds like is a film that would be perfect for a revised edition, starring Viggio Mortensen, Anne Hathaway and Naomi Watts… Don’t know if Cronenberg could keep his cinematic corpse count down, but I’d tag him to give it a try. Ok, maybe not… and again, another film relegated to the archives. No wonder I haven’t heard about it.


    • Thanks Dan. That’s one of my problems (though not my only one) with programs like the Archive. Plenty of people will argue that at least the films are getting out there, however, the problem is that you often have to be already aware of a movie to know this. Films like this are undoubtedly niche product to begin with, but the kind of restricted marketing of MOD releases means that they actually end up forced into an even smaller niche. Of course the positive side is that many titles do end up getting standard pressed retail releases in Europe.


  5. Thoroughly enjoyed it, so thanks for putting me on to it. Perhaps a bit long, but good cast and part for Joseph Cotten. Surely one of Louis Calhern’s best roles. A nice part for Jim Backus too. Margaret Wycherly always good.
    Have to say I didn’t think it was much of a role for Barbara Stanwyck. Her character was severely underwritten.
    I hadnt a clue who the Cotten character was though it was obvious he was a writer.
    Very atmospheric


    • It’s great that you got to see the movie, and thanks for coming back and sharing your thoughts on it.

      I think it’s generally very well played, but I see where you’re coming from with the comment on Stanwyck’s role. Her background, which is actually pretty important in explaining her motivation, isn’t given a lot of time and I guess that does leave her part weaker overall. Frankly, that’s partly down to the film being sourced from a short story in my opinion.


  6. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: November 2013 | Past Offences

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