Review: The Man with a Cloak (1951)

>> Thursday, October 29, 2009

USA/B&W-84m./Dir: Fletcher Markle/Wr: Frank Fenton/Cast: Joseph Cotten (Dupin), Barbara Stanwyck (Lorna Bounty), Louis Calhern (Charles Theverner), Leslie Caron (Madeline Minot), Joe De Santis (Martin, the butler), Jim Backus (Flaherty, the bartender)

I highly suggest that you buy a bottle of wine before watching The Man with a Cloak. You’ll want it before the film is over. I don’t mean to suggest that you’ll need a stiff drink to make it through the movie. In fact, while no classic, the picture is quite diverting and enjoyable. It’s just that the screenplay extols the virtues of the fermented fruit of the vine with such witty banter that you’ll long for a glass of vino long before the film concludes.

Based on a John Dickson Carr short story, “The Gentleman from Paris,” The Man with the Cloak is the type of story in which a famous author from literary history is placed inside a fictional story that shares some characteristics of the writer’s own work. Joseph Cotten plays the author--a destitute, wine-guzzling, poet living in New York in 1848. While trying to convince his favorite bartender (Jim Backus) to extend him more wine on credit, the writer encounters Madeline (Leslie Caron), a young woman from Paris who has come to America to carry a letter to the grandfather of the man she loves. The old man, Theverner (Louis Calhern), is ill-tempered and ailing, and Madeline quickly becomes convinced that his mistress/housekeeper (Barbara Stanwick) is plotting to kill him. As a favor to Madeline, the writer steps in to play amateur detective, sticking his nose in the family’s affairs and helping himself to a good many glasses of wine from the old man’s cellar.

In addition to the mystery at the center of the film, the filmmakers attempt to be twice as enigmatic by withholding the name of the author that Joseph Cotten is portraying until the picture’s end. However, there is little doubt from the movie's outset which famous author Joseph Cotten is meant to be. When asked who he is, Cotten’s character responds, “A man with an empty glass.” He also goes by the alias of “Dupin” which should be a dead giveaway to the author’s identity for anyone with more than a passing recollection of their high school English classes. If that isn’t enough of a hint, the poet’s proclivity for wine, the importance of a pet raven to the mystery, and the fact that the story takes place around Halloween should eliminate all uncertainty.

Still, the lack of real mystery as to the writer’s identity or within murder plot itself (the film is framed like a Columbo episode where the audience knows long before the detective what is really going on), doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of this forgotten gem. The writing is witty, the performances are lively (especially by Cotten and Calhern), and there are lots of wine-related gags for lovers of soused cinema. The Man with a Cloak is a small film with modest ambitions, but like a fine wine, it goes down smoothly.

A Note--Lovers of old time radio may find additional pleasures in The Man with a Cloak. Like some of the early films of Orson Welles, the film feels a bit like a radio play brought to life. This isn’t surprising because the director, Fletcher Markle, was the creator of the radio anthology series Studio One, as well as one of the writers on Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Of course, Joseph Cotten also got his start in radio as one of Orson Welles’ stock company in The Mercury Theater on the Air.

Drinks Consumed--Wine, brandy, and beer

Intoxicating Effects--Public disturbance, destruction of property, and the giggles

Potent Quotables-- THEVERNER: I think we are both drunk enough to be honest with each other.
DUPIN: (He downs his drink and holds out his empty glass) Let’s be sure of it.

Video Availability--The Man with the Cloak has never been released on video. However, it does air from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Pulp novelist Dashiell Hammett is placed inside a fictional mystery (based partially on Hammett’s early life as a Pinkerton detective) in Wim Wender’s 1982 film Hammett.


Review: Road House (1948)

>> Wednesday, October 14, 2009

USA/B&W-95m./Dir: Jean Negulesco/Wr: Edward Chodorov/Cast: Ida Lupino (Lily Stevens), Cornel Wilde (Pete Morgan), Richard Widmark (Jefty Robbins), Celeste Holm (Susie Smith)

Not to be confused with the 1989 bone-cracking mulletfest starring Patrick Swayze, Road House (1948) is a bar-centric noir tale of a lounge singer who can’t sing and the men obsessed with her. It’s also a story about bowling, miscarriage of justice, chain-smoking, and drunken gunplay. However, being that Road House is a film noir, shot in silvery shades of black and white, the movie is fundamentally about shadow, mood, and attitude.

Ida Lupino plays the lounge singer, Lily Stevens, a city girl hired by a small town club owner named Jefty (Richard Widmark) to perform in his bar/bowling alley. Lily’s singing voice is slight, diminished to a hoarse rasp from years of chain smoking, but Jefty’s main interest in Lily doesn’t involve her vocal chords. Unfortunately for Jefty, Lily not only spurns his advances; she makes moves of her own on Pete Morgan (Cornell Wilde), Jefty’s clean cut childhood friend and the manager of Jefty’s Road House. Although Pete initially takes a dislike to the smoky songstress, he eventually warms to her. The budding romance leads to a planned elopement; but when Jefty discovers the couple’s plans, he frames Pete for a petty theft to keep his friend’s hands off the girl he covets. While Pete avoids prison, there’s no avoiding Jefty, and the lopsided love triangle is doomed to collapse violently.

Road House is usually categorized as a film noir, although it is missing some of the usual trappings of the genre. Noirs as a rule are city-bound, featuring rain swept streets, filth-ridden alleyways, and fedora-wearing hoodlums. Instead, Road House gives us rustic lodges, bowling alleys, and hunting jackets. Noirs also generally feature a “doomed man” lead (often a first-person narrator) that is drawn by circumstances toward an inevitable end of failure or death. While there are some aspects of the “doomed man” plot attached to Cornell Wilde’s role, he is in no way the lead (Lupino owns the first half of the film and Widmark steals the remainder), and Wilde’s fate is neither as dark or inescapable as that of his noir counterparts.

Still, despite these atypical aspects, Road House is most definitely a noir. The dead animal carcasses that decorate Jefty’s joint are every bit as threatening as the alleyways of Chicago, especially when illuminated by a few shafts of light in the dimly lit bar. The clipped, smart aleck dialogue is also very much in the noir style, and professionals like Lupino, Widmark, Celeste Holm make the script sing.

Finally, there’s the booze. Most noirs feature some boozing, but due to its bar setting, Road House includes more cocktail content than most of its ilk. Whiskey is always close at hand in the bar, office, and living quarters of the Road House, and the characters joke about having to resort to cooking sherry when the bar’s closed. Around the mid-point of the movie, there’s a barroom brawl worthy of the 1989 Patrick Swayze film of the same name; and the gunplay that accompanies the picture’s violent conclusion is alcohol-fueled. It should also be mentioned that Lupino gets to perform a raspy version of the greatest saloon song ever written, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”

While some of the plot points are implausible--it's difficult to imagine that Lupino’s singing would increase business in the bar, that Pete’s attitude toward Lily would make such a swift 180, or that a judge would release Pete in Jefty’s custody--the film makes up for these lapses in logic with atmosphere and aggression. Attitude is everything in a film noir, and Road House has attitude to spare.

Drinks Consumed--Scotch and other whiskeys, brandy, beer, and champagne

Intoxicating Effects--Brawling, physical violence, destruction of property, bar tossed, slurred speech, and the giggles

Potent Quotables--JEFTY: I won’t miss it. I’m the best shot in the world. And when I get drunk, I’m a better shot. I’m a better shot. The drunker I am, the better I get.

Video Availability--Road House DVD (Fox)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--One of the only other film noirs to feature a rustic setting is the greatest motion picture ever produced in the genre, Out of the Past (1947).

Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Third Edition (Paperback)

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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