Cry Wolf is a 1947 film starring Errol Flynn as a potentially evil uncle who has been seemingly depriving his charges of their inheritance, and Barbara Stanwyck as the heroine. I don’t recognize any of the other names in the cast, but IMDB assures me that Peter Godfrey, the director, worked with Stanwyck on several other movies as well.
Stanwyck, as Sandra Demarest, is quickly revealed to be the widow of Flynn’s Professor Caldwell’s nephew, Jim Demarest. The knives come out immediately between them: Jim had kept his marriage secret from his guardian. Sandra admits that the marriage was simply an arrangement between friends: she needed money to complete her doctorate in geology (how random, but also wow), while Jim needed help and/or a marriage to access his fortune, which was otherwise to be held until the age of thirty. Although the marriage was to end in six months–of which five have passed–Sandra is naturally both grieved at her friend’s death and legally, extremely interested in said fortune. Caldwell agrees for her to stay at the estate until the funeral is over and all documents have been verified.
Rounding out the cast is younger sister Julie, an energetic and slightly neurotic teenager, who has begun to chafe under her uncle’s strictures. She, naturally, turns to Sandra for support–and Sandra soon realizes that Julie’s fears aren’t entirely just feminine paranoia…
Stating the cons first (potential spoilers): there’s far more atmosphere than plot in this movie. For every five minutes of legalese over wills, trusts, and mothers being forced to sign their children’s fortunes over, there’s about fifteen of furtively skulking about the moonlit corridors of a family manor. In a nightgown. But then, if this was to be sensible about things, Sandra would have hired a PI to do her snooping for her, and we’d have an entirely different movie.
The other problem with this is that, after a meandering but adequate plot, it ends weak. There is (spoiler!) no villain, and even Caldwell’s excesses are excused. This works fairly well as far as Errol Flynn is concerned–no, I wouldn’t believe him to be a villain ever, either–
–but it also leaves holes. Did he murder Julie, as the evidence points to? And what is the deal with the screaming coming out of the laboratory? And why randomly attempt to seduce Sandra? And why not put Jim in a sanatorium, instead of in a random cottage in the woods? Why not simply tell Sandra what the deal is, and give her money to go away? Evidence points to Caldwell being shady, even if only reluctantly so, and he and the story deserve a more careful wrap-up than the simplistic one we were given.
Pros: This is Stanwyck’s picture all the way through, and she dominates.
While of course famous for playing femme fatales such as in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, or Double Indemnity–women who know what they want and aren’t about to let little things like feelings, legality, or morals stand in their way–in this movie, she taps into that same stubborn drive from the right side of the moral spectrum. She’s cool, gutsy, intelligent, witty, capable of standing up to Caldwell verbally and physically–but she’s also kind and nurturing, capable of counseling Julie and advising her to face and overcome her fears. Money isn’t her overriding motivation: finding out what happened, and putting it to rights, is.
At one point during their sparring, Caldwell snaps: “If I was to bring this battle of the wits down to direct insults, I’d say you were one of the most cold-blooded, scheming women I’ve ever met in my life!” Sandra, relentlessly cool in the face of provocation, replies “You already did.”
Stanwyck also apparently often did her own stunts in movies–famously getting dragged behind a horse in Forty Guns–and this one features a good bit of physicality as well. Sandra rides horses, gets thrown off one, sprints through the woods, slaps faces, clambers over fences, hauls herself up dumbwaiters, crosses roofs (in skirt and heels, no less), and never turns a hair: she’s got work to do.
This isn’t the best movie Stanwyck may have ever been in, but it’s the one that made me say, “I want to be like her when I grow up.”
Rated: 4 out of 5.
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