You’re an Edgar Allen Poe fan. You love his stories and poems and all Poe related fiction and non fiction. You’ve seen all the Vincent Price films based on various Poe stories. You keep a dog eared copy of Penguin Press' The Portable Poe handy at all times. So when it finally comes time to go see John Cusack’s 2012 Poe-stravaganza The Raven you are understandably excited. However, a couple hours later, not so much.
While I didn’t think The Raven was dreadful, it was very disappointing for this fan of Poe. It did have its good moments. The various traps and murders inspired by various Poe stories did entertain me at times. Specifically the Pit and the Pendulum scene which left nothing to the imagination. And the film does have a fairly quick pace for the first half. We get inventive murders, attractive sets and costumes. And Cusack, bless his heart, is certainly giving it all he’s got. The problem is a sub par, overly convoluted script that tacks on a comically ludicrous resolution that changes the tone from a sort of slightly more serious Downey Jr./Sherlock Holmes knock off to Hugh Jackman/Van Helsing levels of idiocy. Horrible acting on the part of Alice Eve sure isn’t helping matters either.
Cusack is also part of the problem. Cusack is just not the type of actor that can pull of a “period film”. That is nothing to be ashamed of. He’s extremely talented and engaging. And I’ll go see a movie solely for Cusack. But there are some actors that can blend into the period effortlessly and some who stick out in such an anachronistic fashion that it’s just impossible to lose yourself in the films story.
I love John Wayne. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch him play Genghis Khan. This has nothing to do with acting skill. This is something that actors have had to deal with for decades. Remember Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments? Remember when James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart played cowboys in The Oklahoma Kid? So Cusack shouldn’t feel bad. He’s in very good company.
|Caron, Calhern, Stanwyck and Cotton in "The Man With a Cloak"|
So while The Raven didn’t pan out, there was another film about Edgar Allen Poe that I watched recently that did. The 1951 thriller The Man With A Cloak, starring Joseph Cotten, Barbara Stanwyck, Leslie Caron, Louis Calhern, Joe DeSantis, Margaret Wycherly and Jim Backus. Now I know that pitting Cusack in a competition with an actor like Joseph Cotten seems unfair but how many movies are there that feature Poe as the star in a fictional adventure? Not a whole lot. So I feel the comparison is warranted.
Where The Raven is set just days before Poe’s death in Baltimore on October of 1849, Man With A Cloak is set one year earlier in October of 1848 in New York. Joseph Cotten is Poe, playing him not all that different than Cusack. Both are down on their luck drunks who demean the lack of intelligence in others. But Cotten gives his Poe a bit of a softer edge. Cusack’s Poe is a hot tempered, spirited artist who has a glimmer of hope in that he’s engaged to be married. Cotten’s Poe is depressed and seems to know his ultimate trajectory. But that doesn’t stop him from helping a young French girl(Leslie Caron) who has come to New York to get financial aid from the rich, sickly and bitter uncle (Louis Calhern) of her fiancé, a struggling French patriot fighting in the revolution.
This doesn’t sit well with the Uncle’s housekeeper(Barbara Stanwyck), a former star of the stage and former lover of Calhern who now waits for him to die so she and her equally greedy fellow servants (Wycherly, DeSantis) can get his money. They’ve waited too long to let some young girl pop in and steal it out from under them. Caron is an innocent, without a greedy bone in her body. But she does need money for her fiancé in France, where things aren’t going so well.
Calhern scorns her at first. Lumping her in with all the rest who want his money but allowing her to stay in his house. It doesn’t take long before Caron suspects Stanwyck of foul play. At a local tavern, Caron meets Cotten, a drunken, penniless wit who freeloads off the tolerant bartender (Jim Backus). She seeks Poe’s council about the situation. Cotten also suspects foul play. After investigating, he discovers that Calhern’s medicine is simply sugar water. It’s not long till Cotten and Stanwyck finally have their confrontation. Cotten is taken with Stanwycks intelligence and honest ruthlessness and sees her as a puzzle to solve, a challenge to meet. The film then takes us on a game of cat and mouse that is far more entertaining than the one in The Raven between Cusack and the killer who is inspired by him. Ultimately, someone is murdered. And in true Poe fashion, it all comes down to a secret that is guarded by a pet raven. A secret that, if discovered in time, will end Stanwyck’s Machiavellian schemes.
The Man With A Cloak is a lot of fun. A great little mystery, a battle of wits, engaging and clever dialogue and enjoyable performances by all. Joseph Cotten’s Poe is charming, sad, witty, lonely and doomed. We cheer for Cotten’s Poe and feel melancholy about the future we all know he has in store. Stanwyck is also great as the complex villain. The genius of Stanwyck and the script is that Stanwyck actually has understandable motivations. A washed up actress dealing with the loss of her fame and former station who, due to financial hardship, is forced to live with the verbally abusive, former lover Calhern. They once loved each other and we can see through subtle looks and expressions of talented pros like Stanwyck and Calhern how, over time, that love has simply turned rotten. Stanwyck finds Cotten’s Poe a kindred spirit. Both have been beaten down by life, both are intellects who are surrounded by those who they see as inferiors. Both long for love and companionship.
The Man With a Cloak is available on DVD. I highly recommend getting it if you’re a big fan of all things Poe. Or if, like me, you’re simply a fan of classic movies and talented stars like Cotten and Stanwyck. In time, Cusack’s The Raven will also be available on DVD. But instead of buying that film, I’ll probably just curl up with my well worn copy of Portable Poe and reread Hop Frog or The Gold Bug.