The Man With a Cloak

The title character of M-G-M’s The Man With a Cloak (1951) is a down-on-his-luck poet (Joseph Cotten) in the Greenwich Village of 1848 who calls himself “Dupin.” He perpetually puts off paying his landlady as well as his bartender, Flaherty (Jim Backus), claiming he is waiting for a paycheck. One night in Flaherty’s tavern, he meets Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron), a young woman who has traveled from France to find her fiancé’s grandfather, Thevenet (Louis Calhern), an exiled compatriot of Napoleon whom she hopes will help finance her fiancé’s Republican cause. Dupin and Madeline discover that the ailing, partially paralyzed Thevenet appears to be in danger from his servants, including former actress Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck) as well as Martin (Joe DeSantis), the thuggish butler, and Mrs. Flynn (Margaret Wycherly), the cynical cook.

Young Madeline charms the elderly Thevenet. While Dupin suspects Lorna, Thevenet’s former mistress, of trying to hasten the old man’s death to inherit his money, he develops a strong rapport—and even a mutual attraction—with the aging beauty. Thevenet decides to change his will and poison himself immediately after to make sure the money goes to the right people, but after signing the new will he is felled by a stroke and his lawyer accidentally drinks the poisoned brandy, dropping dead thereafter. When Thevenet’s pet raven hides the new will, the paralyzed old man tries to give Dupin hints to its location before succumbing to his stroke. Dupin realizes that the raven hid the will in the fireplace and manages to save the document from Martin. They learn that Thevenet left his money to Madeline and to his grandson, while Lorna and the servants inherit Thevenet’s house—as long as they choose to live there. Dupin and Lorna have a bittersweet parting, and when Madeline tries to find Dupin at Flaherty’s, she discovers he has left the bartender with an IOU signed with his real name: Edgar Allan Poe.

The Man with a Cloak was based on John Dickson Carr’s short story “The Gentleman From Paris,” first published in the April 1950 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the film version was originally to have been released with Carr’s title). Carr was a prolific mystery writer of the era, best known for his novels and stories about detective Dr. Gideon Fell (modeled after Father Brown creator G.K. Chesterton). Carr’s Poe story was adapted for the screen by Frank Fenton, a prolific screenwriter of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s who wrote many mysteries as well as such westerns as The Wild North and Escape from Fort Bravo (both released by FSM in Vol. 11, No. 7). The film’s director was Manitoba-born Fletcher Markle, who had worked as a producer-director for the radio series Studio One before moving into features with the movies Jigsaw and Night Into Morning.

The Man with a Cloak was Markle’s first big-budget production for a major studio. His original choices for the roles of Lorna and Thevenet were Marlene Dietrich and Lionel Barrymore, but the roles ultimately went to Barbara Stanwyck and Louis Calhern. It was Stanwyck’s first feature following the end of her 12-year marriage to Robert Taylor; her collaborators on The Man With a Cloak spoke highly of working with the star, finding her an utmost professional despite the difficulties in her personal life. Markle was impressed that she was unwilling to have the script changed to soften her character: “She turned it down as a weak compromise. Her intelligent point was that if she were going to be hated it might as well be all the way.” Veteran cinematographer George Folsey found her “a joy to work with and a great privilege to know,” and was particularly struck by her patience in dealing with lighting and makeup issues.

Joe DeSantis, cast as the sinister butler, was a veteran of Markle’s radio programs—The Man With a Cloak was only his second feature appearance. At the beginning of the shoot, he found Stanwyck “properly remote and aloof as befitting a great star,” but when she saw him working on a bust of co-star Louis Calhern as King Lear, she warmed up to him and even confided her personal problems, although “what we spoke about, of course, is privileged, and I do not betray confidences.”

Co-star Jim Backus called the film “a pretentious piece of merde” in an interview but “pretentious” is a strange word to describe such a modest yet satisfying entertainment. The oddest thing about The Man With a Cloak is that it fails to fit securely into any particular genre. While the story has a slight basis in historical fact—Poe was indeed in New York during the period, a year before his death—it is far from a biopic. By 1848, Poe was a well-known writer, not the freeloading obscurity depicted in the script, and as Don G. Smith points out in his book The Poe Cinema, the amount of alcohol “Dupin” (actually the name of Poe’s detective character from his 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” often considered the first detective story) consumes would likely have killed the famously frail writer. The film is superficially a mystery, but there is little genuine mystery to the story. The identity of the villains is obvious—even Thevenet is aware that his servants want him dead—and the accidental poisoning of the lawyer is shown on screen, so the audience is ahead of Dupin and his deductions. At times, the films suggests a cross-gendered version of Raksin’s other 1951 thriller project, Kind Lady, which featured a wealthy old woman menaced in her home by servants led by a charming man; a 1961 TV remake of the story, filmed for the BBC series Storyboard, even made the Thevenet character a woman.

Overall, the strongest element of the film is the not-quite romance between the suave, charming Dupin (two qualities not commonly associated with the real Edgar Allan Poe) and Barbara Stanwyck’s elegant Lorna. Stanwyck gave some of her most memorable performances as con women (The Lady Eve) and femmes fatales (Double Indemnity), and Lorna Bounty fits snugly in that category—she even makes her grand entrance on a staircase, à la Double Indemnity. Despite her offscreen troubles, Stanwyck was as beautiful and charming as ever in The Man With a Cloak. Although she is supposed to be the story’s principal antagonist, she winds up earning the audience’s sympathy—she is certainly a more engaging character than Leslie Caron’s weepy Madeline—and the story’s sadness comes not from Thevenet’s death but at the realization that the seemingly well-suited Dupin and Lorna are not destined to make a life together.

It is a pity that Fletcher Markle’s feature directing career was so short: after The Man with a Cloak he concentrated on television, directing episodes of such series as Thriller, Julia and The George Sanders Mystery Theater. His only further feature credit was the 1964 Disney classic The Incredible Journey. Markle’s direction of Cloak is impressively stylish, from the initial shot of Cotten slowly approaching the camera down a darkened Manhattan street, featured under the opening titles, to the realistically awkward yet suspenseful climactic fight between Dupin and Martin. Markle showed a sure command of the medium, with elegant camera movements and unusually atmospheric use of the backlot sets.

Along with Stanwyck’s performance and Markle’s direction, The Man With a Cloak’s strongest asset is David Raksin’s score. Ella Smith’s book Starring Miss Stanwyck claims that Raksin’s score was the first to use 12-tone music, although that distinction is more commonly given to Leonard Rosenman’s score for 1955’s The Cobweb, another M-G-M production. In fact, there is truth to both assertions: Rosenman’s score used 12-tone writing throughout, while in The Man With a Cloak Raksin only employed a tone row for a theme stated boldly at the beginning of the “Main Title” and thereafter largely connected with the mysterious identity of the title character:

tone row

The first five notes of this row are E-D-G-A-D: reading the D-flat as “Re” results in E-D-G-A-R (as in Edgar Allan Poe). As Marilee Bradford reveals in her essay for the booklet accompanying this CD release, when M-G-M music director Johnny Green inquired about how Raksin came up with the theme, the composer replied that he did it just to see if studio chief Dore Schary and editor Margaret Booth (both of whom had requested that Raksin’s score be replaced) would notice that he gave away the secret to the film in the main title. At least one person did notice: Lawrence Morton, who used the score excerpt shown above in his article “Composing, Orchestrating, and Criticizing” published in the Winter 1951 issue of The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television. Morton cited the theme as characteristic of Raksin and mentioned that it contained a “composer joke” although he did not elaborate. Morton also noted the unusual orchestral forces Raksin employed for The Man With a Cloak:

2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 bassoon; 1 horn, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone; 1 percussion, and a solo viola d’amore. For a few climactic scenes the orchestra was augmented by a second bassoon, second and third horns, tuba, harp, piano, 6 ’cellos, and 1 bass.

As befitting the genre-shifting nature of the film, Raksin’s score is mercurial, continually changing moods, ranging from the poignant to the romantic, the tense to the sentimental. (Some of the melodic gestures seem expanded from ideas in Kind Lady, written a few months earlier.) The orchestrations suit the film’s intimate character relationships, with delicate soloistic writing and a reduced string section spotlighting the archaic viola d’amore.

Raksin’s main theme, introduced in the opening credits, dominates the film. This melody manages to be both mysterious and rueful, and though Raksin does not associate it exclusively with any particular character or relationship, it is most fitting for the attraction between Dupin and Lorna. Madeline’s bittersweet oboe theme is also prominent, as is the serial writing, usually tied to the mystery of Dupin’s real identity and the threat posed by Thevenet’s servants. Raksin provides a satisfying musical apotheosis for the final revelation of Dupin’s identity, the raindrops washing away the signature of “Edgar Allan Poe,” and gives the main theme one last, powerful rendition, at once sad yet oddly triumphant, over the final cast list. — 

Ironically, it is not Leslie Caron (fresh from her film debut in An American in Paris and the future star of Gigi) who sings in The Man With a Cloak, but Barbara Stanwyck (albeit dubbed by vocalist Harriet Lee). At Thevenet’s Halloween party, she sings “Another Yesterday,” written not by Raksin but by Earl K. Brent; this song (as well as the other period-style source music) is not related to Raksin’s underscore and thus not included on this CD release.

Like Kind Lady, this premiere release of The Man With a Cloak is mastered from ¼″ monaural tapes of what were originally 35mm optical tracks, with a few cues (otherwise lost) filled in from acetates.

13. Main Title
Timpani rolls give way to a bold, 12-tone fanfare for the opening titles, with the score’s contrastingly sensitive main theme receiving a contrapuntal presentation as Dupin (Joseph Cotten) walks down a deserted street at night. Once the credits end, a title card announces the setting—New York, 1848—and another describes Dupin as a mysterious drifter whose real name is destined for immortality. Raksin emphasizes a wandering celesta and a moody variation of the main theme as Dupin watches lovely Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron) pass by in a carriage before he disappears into Flaherty’s tavern. The theme dies away with an air of uncertainty when Madeline timidly arrives outside the house of Thevenet (Louis Calhern).
14. About Thevenet
Hearing a raucous party inside, Madeline fears she has arrived at the wrong home and retreats to the tavern, where she meets Dupin. Raksin develops main theme delicately on woodwinds and solo strings as she explains her purpose in New York: She is visiting Thevenet on behalf of his grandson—and her fiancé—Paul De Lage of the French Republic, in hopes that the sickly old man will finance his cause. Dupin helps confirm the address and tells her of Thevenet’s reputation as “a facsimile of the devil”; the scene transitions back to Thevenet’s house with nervous woodwinds closing the cue as Madeline knocks on the door, opened by Thevenet’s ominous butler, Martin (Joe DeSantis).
15. Tell Me About Paris
Thevenet orders his scheming housekeeper, Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck), to dismiss Madeline, who then bursts into his study to insist that he read his grandson’s letter. Like Dupin, the cantankerous Thevenet takes an instant liking to the French beauty. Strings give way to a bittersweet oboe melody for Madeline while they discuss French artists, the cue reinforcing Thevenet’s surprising softer side as he insists she spend the night. The music continues to emphasize his fragility with solo violin as he shares a private moment with his pet raven, Villon; the scene transitions to an overwhelmed Madeline in the guest bedroom, the main theme sounding purely as she unpacks.
Such Simple Tastes
The score plays up Lorna’s threatening elegance when she enters Madeline’s room, insults her clothes and bids her a cold “good night.”
Lorna and Madeline
Once Lorna leaves, Madeline breaks down crying. The cue resolves with unwinding solo strings as Lorna joins Martin and the cook, Mrs. Flynn (Margaret Wycherly), in the kitchen, where they discuss how Madeline will affect their potential inheritance of Thevenet’s fortune.
16. Madeline and Thevenet
In the middle of the night, Thevenet visits Madeline’s room; as he warns her that his servants may wish to harm her, Raksin pensively develops the first phrase of the main theme on woodwinds and strings. When the subject turns to Paul, Thevenet is pleased when Madeline tells him that De Lage keeps a painting of him over his desk, the main theme unfolding reverently, nurturing the fractured relationship between the old man and his grandson. Raksin reprises the concluding material from “Lorna and Madeline” as Thevenet gives Madeline a key and tells her to lock herself in her room. A transition to Madeline writing a letter to Paul the next morning is scored with her oboe theme. (The delicate opening of this cue does not appear in the film, which instead features portentous material for Thevenet’s shadow enveloping Madeline while she sleeps; see track 27.)
17. Suspicion
Playful variants of the main theme underscore Madeline secretly stealing a vial containing medicine—possibly poison—that Thevenet’s servants are feeding him. She arrives outside a local pharmacy, but is distracted when she sees Dupin walk into Flaherty’s tavern across the street.
It Answers All Things
Madeline joins Dupin in the bar and explains to him her fear that the servants are trying to poison Thevenet. Raksin reprises her melody as she shows him the vial of medicine, the material continuing through a transition to the drugstore, where the pharmacist explains that the liquid is nothing more than sugar water. Outside, Madeline is relieved but Dupin still fears that the servants are trying to kill Thevenet—not with poison, but by depriving him of his actual medicine. The main theme plays as Dupin instructs the girl to go and see Thevenet’s lawyer before the cold celesta line from the “Main Title” underscores a transition to Dupin arriving outside Thevenet’s home. He asks to see Madeline but Martin is typically hostile; Lorna appears and diffuses the situation, invites the visitor inside.
18. You Won’t Be Lying
Yearning material for strings and woodwinds plays through Dupin’s farewell to Lorna. As she watches him depart, the smitten housekeeper resolves to see him again. (The final 1:05 of this cue does not appear in the film due to deleted footage.)
19. Party Is Over
Dupin attends Thevenet’s Halloween party, where he impresses the old man with his wry intellect and convinces him to leave his money to Paul and Madeline. When Thevenet demands that Martin fetch his lawyer immediately, the butler suspects that the will is to be changed; a tense standoff between Dupin and Martin is scored with conflicted brass and woodwinds. The main theme dominates a subsequent scene in Thevenet’s study in which Dupin and Lorna grow closer. The former starlet encourages Dupin to take her side over Madeline’s, and when she offers to loan him money to pay his tab at the tavern he accepts; they kiss, and he leaves the study to a rich reading of the main theme.
Stalk for an Idea
At night, Martin follows Dupin down the street with violence on his mind. An unused cue layers the 12-tone material of the “Main Title” as Dupin becomes aware of the butler’s presence and accosts a patrolling policeman (Roy Roberts), forcing Martin to abort his plan.
20. Raven Mad
Once Thevenet draws up a new will he attempts to kill himself, but suffers a stroke before he can consume a glass of poison. Instead, his lawyer, Durand (Richard Hale), unwittingly drinks the glass, to which Raksin responds with a dry, disturbed take on the main theme for oboe and strings. Once the lawyer leaves the room (to die shortly thereafter), Thevenet watches helplessly as Villon, his raven, takes the will in his beak and flies off with it.
Dead for a Ducat
Dupin and Madeline arrive and witness Durand’s corpse being carried away to a somber reprisal of the 12-tone theme. Inside, the main theme underscores Mrs. Flynn telling the police about how she found Durand’s body. Pining violin drives the material as Madeline rushes upstairs and mourns over the paralyzed Thevenet. Dupin joins her and the cue ends just as Thevenet attempts to use his eyes to convey the location of the new will.
21. Shadow of a Doubt
Madeline’s theme becomes strained when she fears that Dupin is somehow involved in Durand’s death. After she accuses him, she quickly comes to her senses and apologizes, the tune returning to its compassionate origins. Raksin develops the main theme as the scene transitions to the pharmacy, where the protagonists learn that not only did Thevenet’s glass contain arsenic, but that the old man himself purchased the poison several months ago.
22. Ratiocination #1
Outside the pharmacy, Dupin pieces together the mystery of Durand’s death, to the accompaniment of a hollow 12-tone row on unison strings and woodwinds. The cue ends as he and Madeline head back to the townhouse to look for the new will.
23. Thevenet Is Dead
After Dr. Roland (Nicholas Joy) pronounces Thevenet dead and leaves the room, Martin searches his master’s bed for the new will, to angry, two-voice serial writing. The unstable material leads to the main theme’s moody development from the “Main Title” once Dupin and Madeline arrive and face Lorna, who bitterly declares herself the new lady of the house and banishes them.
24. Ratiocination #2
Raksin reprises the darting gestures from “Thevenet Is Dead” as Martin ransacks Thevenet’s study looking for the will. Lorna arrives with Dupin, who believes that the document is in Thevenet’s room; once he is taken there, the score builds tension as Dupin solves the mystery by re-enacting his final meeting with the old man. The main theme crescendos to an anguished exclamation when he realizes that Villon hid the will in the fireplace; the cue ends as Dupin snatches up the document and struggles to reach the front door while Martin attacks him.
25. Someone Will and End Title
Once a policeman breaks up the fight between Martin and Dupin, the latter reads the new will: Paul and Madeline are to receive Thevenet’s money while the disappointed servants are entitled to the house for as long as they choose to live there. Raksin develops the main theme on strings and woodwinds for Dupin’s bittersweet farewell to Lorna. When she asks for the money he owes her, he tells her to put it on credit—someday he will not be hard to find. The main theme’s pensive variation from “Madeline and Thevenet” returns when the film transitions to the tavern. Madeline appears in search of Dupin but Flaherty (Jim Backus) tells her that the mysterious traveler has gone. Dupin, however, has left behind an IOU and when Madeline sees the signature on it—“Edgar Allan Poe”—the 12-tone fanfare rings with irony, followed by a triumphant brass rendition of the main theme that plays through the closing credits.

Bonus Tracks

26. Was There Never a Time
This cue does not appear in the film (due to deleted footage) but was slated to appear between “Tell Me About Paris” and “Lorna and Madeline” (from track 15), perhaps in lieu of “Such Simple Tastes.” Madeline’s theme is heard on viola d’amore and woodwinds, with the remainder of the cue alternating between shades of mystery and anguished beauty.
27. Madeline and Thevenet (film version)
Threatening strings and brass play as the shadow of an unseen Thevenet creeps up on Madeline while she sleeps. Once she awakens and realizes that he is no threat, the cue plays as it does in the original version (track 16).
28. Someone Will and End Title (film version)
The version of the final cue heard in the film is identical to track 25, aside from a slightly more dramatic build into the 12-tone fanfare on the reveal of Poe’s signature.  —