Peter Godfrey’s Cry Wolf is a good-looking thriller with two great stars and an intriguing setup, but it never quite fulfills its promise, and eventually peters out with an ending that you can see coming a mile away.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a young widow, Sandra Demarest née Marshall, who arrives at the creepy New England mansion of Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn). Mark is a cold, imposing patriarch who lives with his brother, Senator Charles Caldwell (Jerome Cowan), and his teenage niece, Julie Demarest (Geraldine Brooks).
Sandra claims she was married to Mark’s deceased nephew, James Caldwell Demarest (Richard Basehart). She says she was working toward her doctor’s degree in geology. Jim came to her as a friend and she helped him. She needed money. He needed his inheritance. (Jim and his sister Julie have money that is kept in trust until they are 30. If, however, Jim were to marry, control of his inheritance would immediately pass from Mark to Jim’s wife.)
Sandra tells Mark she knows he would have preferred to choose a wife for Jim himself — someone placid — and she assures Mark that she is not a placid girl.
Jim gave Sandra $2,000 to complete her studies and she was to divorce him in six months. There were no other strings. They were married five months before his death. She has come to collect his inheritance. Two thousand dollars has become $2 million.
Doubt and mistrust informs Sandra’s relationship with Mark. Mark isn’t convinced that Sandra’s marriage certificate is genuine, and Sandra suspects Mark is up to no good in his mysterious laboratory. Nevertheless, there are clearly romantic sparks between the two. Also, Mark’s niece Julie instantly becomes attached to Sandra, and begs her to stay.
So it’s a perfect setup for a Gothic thriller. Mark struts and preens about the house, a pipe clenched between his teeth, spitting out nasty one-liners like, “Next time you hear some odd noise in the night, just follow the memorable custom of your sex and stick your head under the bedclothes.” And Sandra gets to play at being a grown-up Nancy Drew, pulling herself up to Mark’s lab in a dumbwaiter and then hiding behind a door when he unexpectedly arrives, and later climbing along the eaves of the mansion and dropping down a skylight to spy on him.
Cry Wolf reminded me a lot of Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), which is another Gothic thriller about a not-terribly-romantic love triangle in which one-third of the equation is absent for most of the picture.
Like Undercurrent, Cry Wolf is competently put together, and it’s worth seeing if you like the film’s stars, but it never really takes flight. Franz Waxman’s musical score and Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography are both top-notch, and add a good deal of suspense to the shadowy proceedings, but there’s only so far that atmosphere can take a picture. Ultimately, Cry Wolf is a mystery that’s not terribly mysterious.