The howl in the night is the voice of danger.
Directed by Peter Godfrey (Hotel Berlin 1945, Christmas in Connecticut 1945, The Two Mrs. Carrolls 1946, The Woman in White 1948, Please Murder Me! 1956) With a screenplay by Catherine Turney based on the novel by Marjorie Carleton.
Cry Wolf stars Barbara Stanwyck in an atmospheric woman in peril film with co-star Errol Flynn who steps outside of his swashbuckling persona to play a pretentious misogynist who exudes a most sinister scowl throughout the film.
Though the film has been cast in the dark light as film noir — to me it is more of a straightforward suspense chamber piece. The trope of the dysfunctional family set in a landscape of ominous shadows does lean towards the labeling, also given to the theme of a woman in jeopardy and the ripples of paranoia throughout.
Sandra Marshall (Stanwyck) shows up at the estate overseen by Mark Caldwell (Flynn) claiming to be the widow of his nephew James Demarest (Richard Basehart). The funeral is to be the following day. Sandra tells Mark that James had paid her money to marry him in order to claim his inheritance, but only if he took a wife before he turned thirty. James had warned Sandra that his uncle Mark was planning on stealing his fortune. Mark is a suave yet brooding gentleman who is a scientist and has a secret laboratory in the house that no one is allowed access to. At night, there are torturous screams heard coming from the lab, yet Mark denies that there is anyone in that room. Sandra begins to suspect that James is not dead but being held captive in the lab and that Mark is some kind of mad scientist experimenting on his nephew.
Geraldine Brooks plays Julie Demarest, James’ neurotic sister who seeks out support and clings to Sandra. Julie fears for her life as well, suspecting that her uncle is also out to get her. He keeps a tight reign on her, locking her in her bedroom at night and standing in the way of her engagement. Helene Thimig as Marta plays a very sinister role as the obedient harridan, bringing the food trays to Julie and making sure she stays in her room at night. The device of using the menacing servant in league with the mansion’s masterworks well in adding elements of terror and persistent tension.
I tried to find a word that would sum up how I feel about this often insipid little suspense play with its embedded ‘psychology of false alarms’, and the one thing that kept popping into my mind was ‘nifty’. Though Cry Wolf lacks any of the complex dialogue that you might find in a Siodmak thriller, with measured sequences that flow like shadowy poetic milk, Cry Wolf does convey enough dread and the presence of Barbara Stanwyck sneaking about the mansion seeking answers, slinking up dumbwaiters, exhibiting her skill as a horsewoman and basically confronting Flynn at every turn.
I also enjoyed seeing a very young Patricia Barry show up as Angela the maid. Jerome Cowan plays Mark’s brother Senator Caldwell who seems to keep his distance from his dysfunctional relatives so as not to harm his political career.
I’ll leave the basic plot devices there and hope you’ll watch this ‘nifty’ little suspense thriller just to fill out your experience of some of the lesser-recognized 1940s mysteries. And say, there’s nothing wasted by just watching Barbara Stanwyck hold her own!
Mark Caldwell: “I don’t know what plans you have in that devious feminine mind of yours, but if you’re trying to enlist Julie’s sympathy, don’t do it.”
Sandra Marshall: “And if i ignore your advice?”
Mark Caldwell: “I shall kick you out!”