The popularity of certain genres, or perhaps sub-genre is more accurate in this case, is always subject to change. Old dark house movies seem to have lost a lot of their appeal; I think they would have to be accompanied by significant quantities of gore to generate a lot of interest these days. Such films rely heavily on atmosphere and a sustained level of tension that is hard to achieve in the age of lightning editing and a succession of jump-cut shocks. Cry Wolf (1947) is one of these vaguely old-fashioned yarns where mood and setting play a major role in maintaining the suspense. I would term it a moderately or intermittently successful vehicle; the plot is serviceable without being particularly remarkable, but the look of it all and the unexpected casting makes for interesting viewing.
The opening has a breathless, intense quality: a black automobile hurtles along winding rural roads while a rider on horseback tracks along and ahead. As the horse clears a boundary wall, the car pulls up in front of an imposing mansion. Two figures, a man and a woman, alight and are admitted by the help. These two people are Senator Caldwell (Jerome Cowan) and Sandra Marshall (Barbara Stanwyck), and they’ve been racing through the countryside to attend a wake. An interview with Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn), the senator’s brother and head of the house, establishes the fact that Sandra has arrived at this place of mourning to pay her respects to her late husband. Sandra claims that she was married to the deceased, the nephew of Mark and the senator, and has come to see the instructions he left in his will are carried out. It transpires that the dead man was extremely wealthy, his fortune held in trust and administered by Mark until he should turn 30 or marry. His sudden departure means that Sandra now stands to inherit a substantial fortune, providing her claims bear scrutiny of course. Mark is naturally suspicious of this unexpected widow, but that feeling is reciprocated. The death of Sandra’s husband is accounted for in fairly vague terms, the casket has been sealed, and the entire household appear to be held in the grip of some nameless dread. If Mark wants to find out a little more about Sandra’s assertions then that’s as nothing compared to her determination to dig deeper into the Caldwells’ past. She instinctively knows that something doesn’t ring true; there are little details that niggle, but the main issue is the sinister atmosphere that hangs over everybody and everything. The presence of a fragile, neurotic niece, the mysterious laboratory where Mark works late at night, and the awful, unacknowledged screams that echo along the corridors in the darkness all combine to drive Sandra to investigate further. It’s tempting to try to predict the outcome of this story and the trail is littered with clues and allusions, but there are various red herrings present too. By the time the tale twists its way to the climax I reckon it would take a very savvy viewer to step around the pitfalls and reach the correct conclusion.
I haven’t seen too much from director Peter Godfrey apart from the Bogart/Stanwyck feature The Two Mrs Carrolls. This movie shares the same feeling of overheated melodrama, and both films tend to disguise a mediocre script through the use of heavy atmosphere. I don’t usually comment on matters such as set design, but Cry Wolf, with its predominantly indoor setting, relies quite a lot on this. The sprawling Caldwell mansion and estate becomes almost a character in itself, a kind of brooding edifice that’s full of secrets and menace. Godfrey and cameraman Carl Guthrie use the architecture well to build mood – shooting from below and through the balustrades to achieve the classic noir imagery of characters pinned in place by shadows and bars, and mix this up with high angle shots from the gallery that coldly objectify the small figures milling about below. Even the outdoors scenes, with their matte paintings as backgrounds, blend in well. Theoretically, this ought to give the movie a cheap, B picture vibe but it actually adds to the air of unreality, heightening the sense of the characters inhabiting a world apart in much the same way that Hitchcock employed such techniques.
Errol Flynn rarely gets a lot of credit for his acting abilities. He even admitted in his (fantastically entertaining) autobiography that, especially in the post-1942 years, he was often just going through the motions, basically churning out pictures simply to cover his expenses. He was always at his most memorable in swashbuckling action roles, yet he was capable of more subtle performances whenever the opportunity arose. Cry Wolf offered him something quite different, a calmer, more thoughtful and genuinely ambiguous part. Perhaps some thoughts of his own father came into play when he assumed the role of the slightly aloof, pipe-smoking scientist. While he could be criticized here for a certain stiffness, I think he hit the right note under the circumstances; the character of Mark Caldwell is, after all, a man living under intense pressure with a lot of skeletons rattling around the family closet. I guess it could be said though that he doesn’t bring a strong enough sense of menace or threat to his performance to make it as convincing as possible. In something of a reversal of roles it’s Barbara Stanwyck who gets to do all the proactive stuff in the movie: riding horses, clambering across rooftops, dangling through skylights and generally toughing it out. As such, this was a perfect piece of casting since Stanwyck was one of the few actresses of the period who could credibly pull off this kind of thing. She was enormously versatile, at home in most any genre, yet particularly suited to playing gritty heroines who remained unfazed by physical danger. I’ll also give a mention to Geraldine Brooks who was highly effective and quite moving, in her debut role here, as the emotionally brittle and highly strung niece.
As far as I know, the only way to get Cry Wolf on DVD at the moment is via the Warner Archives disc. I remember buying this title on VHS way back in 1989 and I have to say that it looks very much like the same master has been used for the DVD. That’s not to say the image is poor, but there are plenty of speckles and damage marks, not to mention a general lack of crispness, that betray an unrestored source. The disc, as is usual with these MOD products, is very basic: no extra features whatsoever, a generic menu and standard ten minute chapter stops. I’ve tagged this picture as a film noir, but the truth is that it’s a borderline entry at best. The plotting has more in common with a Mary Roberts Rinehart style of mystery – a gutsy heroine blundering into a perilous situation. However, the dark mood and the atmospheric photography do earn it a place on the periphery of the noir world. Personally, I’m a fan of both the stars and I like the fact that it has Flynn playing against type for a change. It’s by no means a perfect film though it is a lot of fun – therefore, it earns my qualified recommendation.