The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Catherine Turney
Based on the novel by Marjorie Carleton
Director: Peter Godfrey
Cast: Errol Flynn, Barbara Stanwyck, Geraldine Brooks
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Music: Franz Waxman
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release: July 18, 1947
Percent Noir: 50%
“Cry Wolf” is 95% a very good film and 5% abhorrent trash. The unlucky thing is that the 5% is the final moments, so it leaves a terrible taste in the viewer’s mouth when he looks back at the entire thing. What a damn shame, because for awhile there, I was pretty sure I was watching a lost treasure.
Queen of film noir Barbara Stanwyck stars as Sandra, a gutsy woman who stomps her way into the family home of Mark (Errol Flynn) and says that she is the wife of his just-deceased brother Jim. She hides nothing – Jim told her that he needed to be married to inherit and she needed her college paid for, so they entered the marriage almost as strangers and planned to divorce quietly six months later after the money came through. But then Jim died. Sandra offers up a copy of a will and just wants her part. Mark is immediately venomous toward her, forcing her to threaten to take the entire estate unless they find the original will.
Soon enough Sandra is staying at the house while the search is mounted. She meets Jim’s spirited sister Julie (Geraldine Brooks), who begs for her help. Mark is controlling her entire life and did the same for Jim before he died, Julie says. And he keeps holing himself up in a locked-off wing all night. Sandra doesn’t know what to make of it… but then begins to hear screams echoing from the closed-off wing…
I’m a sucker for this kind of noir… where it’s meshed together with old dark houses and vaguely romantic melodrama. Daphne du Marier didn’t write the novel upon which “Cry Wolf” was based, but she might as well have. What truly elevates this from most other entries in this sub-genre is Sandra (and Stanwyck’s performance). Girl is take-no-prisoners in the best way possible. “I am not a placid girl,” she says early in a great line of dialogue, and damn if she isn’t right. She uses a dumbwaiter to get into the hidden wing and, later, crawls across the roof to gain entry through a skylight. She slaps a motherfucker when he crosses a line. And she is blunt instead of hiding how she’s feeling. I genuinely loved her and was rooting for her hard to uncover the secret.
Further, screenwriter Catherine Turney (“No Man of Her Own”) does a brilliant job of setting all the chess pieces in the right places. Up until those terrible last five minutes, when the truth becomes clear as to what is going on, I was mystified as to what was going on. Turney is excellent at leaning into Mark’s ambiguity without pushing him too far into villainy, and note how she places emphasis on visuals to underline or contrast what we are hearing in the dialogue.
And then that ending fucks it all up.
Turns out Jim is alive and crazy and murdered someone so Mark faked his death and has been keeping him essentially hostage on the grounds in order to… something. Keep things kosher? Julie was also crazy before she maybe committed suicide. And Mark is a hero and Sandra apologizes and says she never should have meddled or not trusted him even though literally everything he did was suspicious and all those screams in the night and… UGH. I hate it. So much.
The twist certainly hasn’t aged well in terms of shaming those who have mental illness and calling them too fargone to ever find love, marry or have children. In other words, it’s gross as hell. But it’s also, well, the cheapest possible way out of the tantalizing maze the rest of the film has gotten the viewer lost in. It’s basically telling you that there isn’t even a maze. And those few lines of dialogue undo all the fine character work we’ve seen from Sandra… turns out she was just a silly woman after all who should have never questioned the man in charge.
Pardon me while I vomit.
Stanwyck is superb. Because of course she is. The dialogue she’s given was already good, but she elevates it in every scene she is in. Flynn, who was of course one of the great assholes of his generation of actors, is also very good. He plays his possible villainy beautifully… is he a monster, or just on the spectrum? It helps that he and Stanwyck play very well off one another – it’s not sexual chemistry, but they make one another better every time their characters spar. The only other major character is Julie, and Brooks beautifully renders the character, especially when you look at her in retrospect after learning the aforementioned shitty twist. It’s a shame she never became a bigger star.
Director Peter Godfrey made the noir adaptation of “The Woman in White,” but this is in a different league than that half-baked thing. Here he has a good handle on his actors, and his collaboration with cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (who also lensed “Woman in White”) is sublime. The house the characters inhabit is truly an astonishing visual achievement – in its best moments it can give Manderly or Norma Desmond’s home a run for its money. That includes the set design – note how in the closed-off wing literally everything possible is painted white, and how impactful that is in the wide shots.
I have no idea how to recommend this film aside from to say that it’s great until it’s really, Really, REALLY not great at all. There are a myriad of things to recommend in it, but that ending comes close to undoing them all. I’m not unhappy I’ve seen it, but I’m never going to watch it again. So how about I toss two-and-a-half stars its way then throw up my hands and walk away?