Starring Errol Flynn and Barbara Stanwyck
My rating: ★★★ stars
Fun, brisk thriller complete with a mysterious death, an old dark house, a secret laboratory, and screams in the night.
Cry Wolf lies in unclaimed generic territory somewhere between horror, old dark house mystery, psychological thriller, and gothic romance—a land frequently traversed by Hitchcock. While director Peter Godfrey is no Hitchcock, Cry Wolf is a solidly entertaining little gem that, although not a masterpiece, can certainly hold its own against Hitchcock’s lesser efforts. Similar films, such as Undercurrent (1946) and The Spiral Staircase (1945), abounded at the time Cry Wolf was released. Unlike those films, which had more prestigious directors, Cry Wolf has been forgotten by the film history narrative, which is still colored by auteur theory.
It tells the story of a doctoral student in geology, Sandra Marshall Demarest (Barbara Stanwyck), who shows up at the funeral for young Jim Demarest and reveals to his family that (Surprise!) she’s his widow. She explains that she and Jim had been just friends, but she had agreed to marry him in order for him to get control of his finances, which were held in trust until he wed. Now, she wants to learn the circumstances of his sudden and mysterious death. To do so, she has to contend with his sinister and very attractive uncle, Dr. Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn). Caldwell, in turn, sees Sandra as an opportunistic gold-digger and seeks to quash her inquiries. He also resents her attempts to liberate Jim’s teenage sister, Julie (Geraldine Brooks), from his rigid control.
Much of the film comprises scenes of these two very intelligent and strong-willed characters facing off against each other while struggling to maintain a veneer of politeness. Flynn and Stanwyck are well matched. Stanwyck could often overwhelm her male co-stars, but Flynn has the magnetism and the air of strength to prove an able challenger.
More sturdy than winsome, Stanwyck’s Sandra is not the typical shrinking violet gothic heroine. She takes up residence in the family manor and seems determined to ferret out all of its secrets, even if she has to pull it down one brick at a time. The Caldwell/Demarest mansion is a typical gothic setting, replete with stairwells, corridors, eaves, and a dumbwaiter for transport into Dr. Caldwell’s secret laboratory, from which mysterious screams emanate in the middle of the night.
Godfrey uses the sets well, conveying the sense of menace in the space, even if he’s a bit heavy-handed with his visual metaphors. For example, at one point, he films Sandra and Julie through balusters as if to suggest that they’re being held prisoner. Godfrey does a particularly good job with Stanwyck, who, while a consummate professional, was known for only being able to produce a good performance on the first take, leading to an uneven filmography. Cry Wolf was his third film with her, and he seems to have mastered this peculiarity of hers because she appears continuously fresh and on her game.
Flynn has the more difficult role because his character remains mysterious throughout most of the film. He must be menacing enough to be a threat but not so violently repulsive to positively indicate his villainy to Sandra and the audience. His vigor and physical attractiveness aid him in walking this fine line. Flynn’s unique sex appeal that verges on the smarmy contributes to the ambivalence Sandra and the viewers feel about the character. He simultaneously draws people to him and makes them uneasy. One weakness of the film is its failure to exploit fully the sexual chemistry between Stanwyck and Flynn.
Another weakness is the performance of ingénue Geraldine Brooks. Casting an inexperienced actress—Cry Wolf was her film debut—in such a key role was a mistake. Her uneven histrionics appear especially false alongside the two stars, who were both understated performers.
Some of the attitudes of the film come off as particularly dated. Mark makes a few blatantly sexist statements that would be shocking and rude today. (The film, however, does not support his views. Even he seems to realize that his generalizations about the female sex don’t hold water when applied to Sandra, and he certainly respects her intelligence.) Medical attitudes have also changed much since 1947. Finally, a more modern film would be far less subtle in suggesting Jim’s homosexuality. Nevertheless, the film’s energetic pace, intelligent characters, and eerie atmosphere hold up well nearly 70 years later.
Full of surprising twists, Cry Wolf is sadly neglected but solidly entertaining, excellent viewing for a cold winter night.