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Cry Wolf

24 Oct

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.

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28 Comments

Posted by on October 24, 2012 in 1940s, Barbara Stanwyck, Errol Flynn, Film Noir

 

28 responses to “Cry Wolf

  1. Vienna

    October 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

    A fair review. I think it’s a good thriller. Richard Basehart also good. Interesting to see Errol in a subdued role – reminds me of his role in Forsyte Saga
    Love the scene where Barbara goes up on the dumb waiter .

     
    • Colin

      October 24, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      Flynn’s last few roles in later life showed that he was a very capable actor indeed. This part is nothing to compare to the work he did in, for example, The Sun Also Rises but it does give an indication of his ability to play more than a one-dimensional action hero.

       
  2. Cavershamragu

    October 24, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Hi Colin – this is definitely a fun movie and remember liking it a lot. To my surprise I find that I actually have quite a lot of time for this kind of ‘old dark house’ mystery (Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE has to be one of, if not, the best one of the period).

    As you rightly point our, it’s very hard not to just fall under the spell of the production design alone! Plus, I often find the Gothic trappings and the opportunities for expressionistic lighting and dynamic composition too hard to resist. Of the films by Godfrey that I have seen it was usually a case of style over substance but in this case I think he gets away with it – this was the third film he made with Stanwyck virtually all in succession, in between CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and THE TWO MRS CARROLS, which I remember liking a bit less that CRY WOLF maybe because Bogart seems so miscast.

     
    • Colin

      October 24, 2012 at 11:15 pm

      The Spiral Staircase is of course excellent. Then again, it did have Siodmak behind the camera.

      The Two Mrs Carrolls again has some fantastic set design and looks terrific in places. I agree that Bogart just doesn’t work in his role in that one though; the times when he goes into psycho mode are all wrong as far as I can see. However, despite that, I still like the movie for some reason. It’s not as good as Cry Wolf but it does have some good moments.

       
  3. Cavershamragu

    October 25, 2012 at 7:31 am

    The output at Warners from the 30s and 40s will probably always be my favourite but Godfrey’s short run of melodramas is a slight anomaly but a welcome one in this case – as you say, Stanwyck is perfect while Flynn in the equivocal role is better than one might have expected. But then, in a decent part, he always gave good value. Fascinating that you think he may have been channeling his father in this role – I love his adventure films with Curtiz but he is great in darker parts (sic).

     
    • Colin

      October 25, 2012 at 8:33 am

      I think Flynn himself grew frustrated by the typecasting and appreciated the opportunity do something a little different. Around this time he also made Silver River with Raoul Walsh, where he had another of those ambiguous parts.

      I don’t know whether or not there’s anything to the idea of Flynn channeling his father for this movie though – the thought just came to me as I was watching it the other day. I’d need to go back through My Wicked, Wicked Ways (not an entirely unattractive idea) to refresh my memory. He spent much more time talking about the fiery relationship with his mother of course, but I seem to remember something about his stating that there was a certain distance or remoteness about his father. However, without reading it again, I can’t be sure that’s not just a false impression.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        October 25, 2012 at 8:52 am

        Never read the book Colin – has to be better than the horrible hatchet job by Charles Higham, which just ladles one gossipy rumour on top of another without a single instance of attribtution

         
        • Colin

          October 25, 2012 at 8:57 am

          Oh you really should look into getting a copy; it’s phenomenally entertaining stuff. There may be some questions over the truth of certain escapades he describes but it’s packed with great anecdotes about his time in the Pacific, in Hollywood, the Spanish Civil War etc.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            October 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

            Cheers mate, will do. Weirdly, and this goes to show the power on the young, my strongest bographical memory remains the HOLLYWOOD GREATS profile that Barrry Norman did about 30 years – shame those never get repeated but at least the prose versions are easy to find.

             
            • Colin

              October 25, 2012 at 9:36 am

              I recall seeing that too – not in any great detail mind. I would have thought it would be more than 30 years ago though.
              Agh! Just typing that makes me feel like I must be entering my decrepitude.

              BTW, just ordered a copy of the Barry Norman book!

               
              • Cavershamragu

                October 25, 2012 at 10:00 am

                I do really rate the books actually – Norman was always a decent journalist even if he became clearly disenchanted with trends in modern cinema way before he left the Beeb.

                 
                • Colin

                  October 25, 2012 at 10:09 am

                  I always enjoyed his take on classic or older cinema – he never seemed to become so jaded in his analysis of that. For me, he was almost the face of film criticism in the 70s and 80s and I think he did a lot of good work then. His writing and presenting certainly introduced me to lots of stuff that might otherwise have passed me by.

                   
                  • Cavershamragu

                    October 25, 2012 at 10:23 am

                    I agree completely – but as the 80s wore on he just never seemed to like anythign from certain genres (comedies and horror in aprticular) which I have some sympathy with but it makes it easy to see why they went and got Jonathan Ross (who I think, personally, did a bang up job).

                     
                    • Colin

                      October 25, 2012 at 10:50 am

                      I can’t comment on Norman’s successors as I was no longer resident in the UK for any significant period of time after he left.
                      There’s no doubt he became fed up with some of the movies he had to review as time wore on – like yourself, I do have a degree of sympathy bearing in mind some of the dreck he was faced with – and a change was inevitable.

                       
              • Cavershamragu

                October 25, 2012 at 10:01 am

                Now that you mention it, the first series was from the late 70s I think … oh dear …

                 
                • Colin

                  October 25, 2012 at 10:14 am

                  :)
                  I know how you feel – somehow I don’t want to believe it’s actually that long ago.

                   
  4. Rod Croft

    October 25, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Hi Colin,

    Personally, I found most of Errol Flynn’s films to be good viewing, in particular, “The Adventures of Robin Hood”; there were, of course, some disappointments, especially towards the end of his career.

    Around 1947, a film based upon mystery writer, Marjorie Carleton’s 1944 novel ” Cry Wolf” must have seemed a good investment for both Warner and Flynn, as it shared elements common to two novels that were the basis of noted film adaptations – Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” published in 1847 and filmed as recently as 1944; and J.B. Priestley’s novel from 1928, “Benighted”, adapted in 1932 for the film “The Old Dark House”. A bonus would be, that the film would provide Errol Flynn with a change of pace from the previous numerous costume/adventure dramas in which he had recently appeared.

    Flynn had worked with Barbara Stanwyck ten years previously, back in 1937, in a radio broadcast of “These Three”, and the two seemed to work well together; however “Cry Wolf” was to be their only film together, as Stanwyck’s contract with Warners came to an end in 1947 and she chose to freelance, rather than to renew.

    Despite problems with the script and the screenplay, I thought that the film that emerged was an enjoyable and interesting effort.

    Thanks.

     
    • Colin

      October 25, 2012 at 11:42 am

      Hi Rod.
      I’m a huge fan of Flynn’s movies; some are true greats, some are rather poor, but all of them are extremely enjoyable. I think Cry Wolf is a medium grade movie, but I do like it quite a bit.

      I think Flynn was in the process of regaining some of his stature before he suddenly passed away. He’d done some largely forgettable stuff for a time, but his work on The Sun Also Rises and The Roots of Heaven, and to some extent Too Much Too Soon, was excellent.

       
  5. Dafydd Jones

    October 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Interesting review Colin. I have never seen this to my knowledge but it sounds like my type of film. I too have become a big fan of Errol Flynn, albeit quite recently. For many years, although I hadn’t actually seen many his films, every time I’d hear his name I would get an image of him standing on the branch of a tree giving a hearty laugh and shouting to his merry men. I had stupidly concluded that this was all there was to him. Then, I watched Objective Burma!, The Sun Also Rises; Uncertain Glory and everything else I could get my hands on. I realised pretty quickly that this was a very talented screen performer. I even saw the ‘swashbucklers’ that had led to my previous mental image of him, in a totally new light. Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk have now become firm favourites.
    I’ll look forward to seing Cry Wolf.

     
    • Colin

      October 25, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Yes Dafydd, I think the popular image of Flynn is something like the one you described, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing mind. However, it is something of a stereotype and doesn’t reflect the fact that he worked in just about every genre.
      I discovered him at an early age and thoroughly enjoyed the swashbuckling roles. As I got older, and saw more of his films, I too realized that there was more to him. I guess the kind of movies he specialized in were never the kind to draw a lot of critical respect and that’s kind of rubbed off too.

      Oh, and by the way, I see that Absolute in Spain have released Cry Wolf there. Absolute tend to produce very good releases so there’s an alternative for anyone who would prefer a pressed disc.

       
  6. Rod Croft

    October 25, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Hi Colin,
    I had become to believe that I was one of the minority that enjoyed Errol Flynn in “Too Much Too Soon” – the film suffered a little when his part ended – “Too Soon”, but, in my opinion Dorothy Malone, ( I should reveal here, that I am a fan), took up the challenge, and I stayed with it, until the end.

    Flynn’s performance in “The Sun Also Rises” was perhaps the true renaissance of his career, and the much ignored (at the time), “The Roots of Heaven” continued this. It is a pity that his lifestyle intervened and the disasterous “Cuban Rebel Girls” was his final film. To my thinking “The Big Boodle” and “King’s Rhapsody” were films he should have by-passed, but, as you have pointed out, he needed the money.

     
    • Colin

      October 26, 2012 at 7:44 am

      This may only be my impression, but for a long time those later, better films with Flynn seemed to get few showings. I managed to catch up with The Sun Also Rises when I was around 20 or 21 years old. As for The Roots of Heaven and Too Much Too Soon, I can remember just one TV broadcast of each, and the latter is still unavailable on DVD as far as I know. I guess the fact that Flynn was playing his old friend John Barrymore in Too Much Too Soon encouraged him to raise his game.

       
  7. Judy

    October 26, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Colin, another fascinating review – I’d really like to see this, as I love both Flynn and Stanwyck and especially enjoy seeing Flynn cast against type – though sadly I haven’t seen those later great performances by him, since, as you mention, they are very elusive. Must try to do so before too long. As a lifelong ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Rebecca’ addict, I like the Gothic old house type of films and did quite enjoy ‘The Two Mrs Carrolls’, though I agree that Bogart, another of my all-time favourite actors, was badly miscast in that. I’d be interested to know if ‘The Two Mrs Carrolls’ was influenced by Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’ as there are quite a few similarities, though at the time it was regarded as too similar to ‘Gaslight’ and its release was delayed because of that.

     
    • Colin

      October 26, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      Thanks Judy. Flynn and Stanwyck made for an interesting and pretty successful pairing – it’s a pity the opportunity never arose to have them together again.

      I don’t know if The Two Mrs Carrolls was directly influenced by Suspicion but, along with Gaslight, they could be classed as part of a kind of sub-genre that was popular around that time, involving young wives living under a threat in brooding houses. I’d add the likes of Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous and Sirk’s Sleep, My Love to the list too.

       
  8. Rod Croft

    October 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Hi, Colin,

    “Too Much Too Soon” is available from Amazon UK as an American Import and, as you are probably aware “The Roots of Heaven” is available on Blu-ray/DVD from the same source.

    Seems that Errol Flynn and his friend John Barrymore suffered from similar life-styles.

     
    • Colin

      October 27, 2012 at 4:19 am

      Cheers for that Rod. I have an excellent DVD of The Roots of Heaven from Fox in Spain but I had no idea that Too Much Too Soon was available anywhere.

       
  9. Jeff Flugel

    October 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Really interesting stuff, Colin! Another one I haven’t seen, but as a big fan of Flynn^s swashbucklers and westerns, it’s about time I got around to seeing more of his melodramas. I agree that he’s often been underestimated as an actor (it’s not at all easy to do what he does in stuff like THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or CAPTAIN BLOOD and make it look so effortless).

    Stanwyck is a truly interesting performer. I’ve never found her remotely attractive physically, yet she had an undeniable screen presence and improved every film she was in. I’m a latecomer to the “old dark house” mystery subgenre but have enjoyed the ones I’ve seen, and find the somewhat creaky old cliches pretty entertaining and reassuring, like a comfy pair of slippers. From your description, CRY WOLF sounds a bit twistier than the norm, though. Looking forward to checking it out some day.

     
    • Colin

      October 28, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      Thanks Jeff. I think the writers here do a fair job of concealing what’s really going on – there are of course clues scattered throughout, but they’re reasonably well disguised.
      And I agree too on how consistent Stanwyck was throughout her career.

       

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