Errol Flynn and Barbara Stanwyck shine in... Cry Wolf (1947)

Barbara Stanwyck and Errol Flynn made a movie together. I repeat: Stany and Errol made a movie together. These two stars were phenomenally charismatic, exhibiting magnetic charm and a screen presence that inhabited scenes that they weren't even in. When you put them together, you get a curious kind of fireworks -- not explosive, but quietly intense and subtle. The best thing about their partnership? It gave Flynn a marvelous role, one that didn't include being an action hero. He may have been the best swashbuckler the movies have ever seen, but Flynn was also a lovely actor and to see him go head to head with the woman who may have been the best actress Hollywood has ever seen is such a treat.

In 1945, Cry Wolf was a novel by Marjorie Carleton. Within months of its release, Warner Bros. snatched up the film rights, keeping Stanwyck in mind from the very start. To star with Stany, Warners had their eye on Dennis Morgan. Now I love Dennis Morgan. I wrote a whole post about it. But let's face it, Dennis wasn't exactly the best actor and I'm not sure if he could've pulled off the trickiness of playing Mark Caldwell. (Forgive me, Dennis!) Almost a year later, Flynn was announced as Stany's leading man and Peter Godfrey was made the director. Cry Wolf would be the third and last film that Godfrey and Stanwyck would collaborate on, their others being Christmas in Connecticut and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (which I'll be discussing in a few weeks!).

Surprisingly, although Errol Flynn was always begging for roles that didn't require a sword or a cowboy hat, he wasn't thrilled when Jack Warner cast him in Cry Wolf while he was away in Jamaica. He soon warmed to the part, but unfortunately, it doesn't sound like he and Stanwyck became best friends. At the beginning of shooting, Flynn allegedly made a rude remark to Stany about her marriage to Robert Taylor, a marriage that was rumored to be set up by MGM. For his part, Taylor wasn't a fan of Flynn, whose heart murmur excused him from serving during WWII. Maybe it's a good thing Stany and Flynn's characters are supposed to have a contentious relationship... Let's get to it!

Our film begins with a car driving alongside a woman on horseback. They appear to be racing each other, but once they reach a foreboding mansion, the woman disappears. As the car pulls up to the front door, a man played by Jerome Cowan and a woman get out and head into the house, where they overhear a woman arguing with someone else in the library. That woman turns out to be the one who was dangerously riding her horse, and she isn't happy as she angrily runs upstairs. As Senator Charles Caldwell, Cowan tells his female companion to stay put while he goes into the library to speak with the man of the house. The woman sits down and we realize it's Stanwyck. She is summoned to
the library where she is left alone with our mystery man.

Is there anyone who had more memorable introductions than Errol Flynn? Sitting behind a desk with seemingly nothing but the fireplace giving off light, Flynn is smoking a pipe and writing when Stanwyck comes before him. Wearing glasses that reflect the light rather than let us see his eyes, Flynn's Mark Caldwell is cold and calculating. Puzzled about what Stanwyck's Sandra could want, he mentions that the family is in mourning because his nephew just died so it'd be great if she could quickly state her business. Sandra knows all about his nephew's death -- she is the widow.
Disbelieving, Mark is presented with the marriage license. Sandra says that she knew nothing of her husband Jim's death until she saw the newspaper notice and she is just as surprised as Mark that the marriage was a secret to him. After all, she and Jim were wed so Jim could collect his inheritance from his deceased mother based on her will, a will that they believe Mark coerced her into. Sandra accuses Mark of wanting to select Jim's bride himself so if anything happened to his nephew, the money would go to a wife that Mark could control. She then explains that she and Jim were friends in college. She was working towards a PhD in geology, and although they weren't in love, she married him because he offered
her money to complete her studies. They were supposed to divorce in six months, but Jim's death came in the fifth month. Mark immediately sees this as suspicious and wonders aloud if she killed Jim to get his millions. Sandra gives him a copy of Jim's will to further prove their marriage, but since it isn't signed and the original is in a safe deposit box, Mark still isn't inclined to trust her story. Even though he calls her "one of the most coldblooded, scheming women I've ever met in my life," he allows her to stay until the next morning.

Charles, Sandra, and Mark settle into the dining room to have dinner when the woman we saw earlier busts in, demanding to know why Mark thinks he has the right to read her private letters. Mark introduces her to Sandra as Julie, Jim's younger sister. Julie is played by Geraldine Brooks and I gotta admit, I find her pretty grating. If I had my way, Brooks wouldn't have been picked over the original choice for Julie, Dorothy Malone. Malone would have been done wonders with the part. Anyway, Julie is delighted about Sandra and begs her to stay longer. She then shifts her attention back to Mark, declaring that his meddling won't stop her romance with a boy named Ronnie. Her uncle's menacing presence is in full force as he orders her to sit and she complies.

Later that night, Julie comes to Sandra's room and talks about how Jim had been engaged to another woman. Their engagement had been mysteriously called off and Julie believes that Mark was the one who ruined it. According to her, scientist Mark is using Jim's money to fund the private lab he has in the house. Julie advises Sandra to never trust her uncle and Sandra finds cause to heed her new friend's warning when Julie tells her about Jim's death. She had heard her brother go into the library; in the morning, Mark said he was ill and confined him to the lab, where Julie is forbidden to go. He died without Julie ever knowing how.

The next day, the family returns from Jim's funeral. Mark's lawyer informs them that it will take two weeks to locate Jim's safe deposit box, so Sandra will stay at the house in the meantime. Julie interrupts to ask Sandra to go horseback riding with her. Once Julie leaves the room to change clothes, Mark tells Sandra to keep his niece on the estate, which causes her to chide him for being too restrictive. During their ride, Julie confesses that she is meeting up with Ronnie in secret. While the lovebirds rendezvous, Sandra starts to ride away when Mark appears. He knows what Julie is up to and he scolds Sandra for indulging her. When Julie accuses him of spying on her, he asks Sandra to leave through gritted teeth,
leaving the audience unsure of what he is going to do to Julie. Back at the house, Sandra learns from the stableman that Mark's lab is located in the right wing. Walking that way, Sandra sees a bearded man shutting a window and they make eye contact.

Things get a lot more curious when Sandra is in bed that night and Julie comes running in, claiming that she has heard a man screaming and it sounds like Jim. It also isn't the first time this has happened. Sandra is trying to calm her when she hears it, too. They slowly walk to the lab, but when they hear someone walking towards the door, they run to Julie's room. Sandra tells her to
pretend to be asleep and then she hides in the closet just in time to see Mark come in and check on Julie. Once he slips out, Sandra assures Julie that she is going to figure out just what's going on. Julie can tell Mark about the screaming, but she shouldn't mention that Sandra was with her.

At breakfast the next morning, Julie lets Mark know that she heard scuffling and screaming from his lab again. He brushes it off, explaining to Sandra that Julie has always had nightmares about the lab ever since she was little. He used to let her in there, but once she started sneaking in without his supervision, he didn't
allow her access anymore. Mark then charmingly suggests that the next time Julie thinks she hears something, she should "stick to the memorable custom of your sex and stick your head under the bedclothes." What a darling. Once Mark heads out, Sandra shows that she has no intention of following his suggestion by telling Julie she wants to examine Jim's room as the first part of her investigation.

As the women are looking around, Julie finds a family photo album and points out a sweet fairly recent picture of Mark and Jim all smiles. This surprises Sandra because she understood their
relationship to be more rocky than friendly. Julie reveals that Mark used to be a wonderful uncle, but as they became older and less placid, Mark became colder. While continuing their inspection, Sandra notices that all of Jim's smoking pipes are missing and Julie discovers that a good portion of his clothes are gone too. Thinking this proves that Jim is alive, Julie immediately begins to sob and freak out (ugh), forcing Sandra to once again be the calm, rational one.

At this moment, Sandra is summoned to the library by Mark. He advises her to be more stern with Julie and explicitly threatens to kick her out if she doesn't submit. This scene perfectly illustrates the push-and-pull relationship between Mark and Sandra, but it is also slightly twisted. He slowly begins flirting with Sandra, who becomes simultaneously uneasy and intrigued. Sharing a drink while sitting on the same couch, Mark comes closer as their conversation turns to his scientific work. "I'd like to probe behind that sphinx-like exterior, find out what's going on behind those eyes. Those very lovely eyes," he purrs to Sandra. He then moves in for one of the most unsettling kisses I can remember seeing.
Sandra doesn't really put up a resistance, but perhaps more importantly, Mark keeps his eyes open and studies her during the whole lip-lock. Standing up, Sandra asks why he kissed her and his face goes from playful to smug as he states it was "purely research" and "I wanted to confirm my first impression of you." Steely-eyed, Sandra slaps him and goes to her room, where she has a really difficult time lighting her cigarette. Is this because she is angry? Annoyed? Or is it because she is attracted to Mark despite his cruelty and greed? I'd say all of the above.

That night, we see Julie sobbing in her room as the housekeeper locks her in, claiming that she is only doing what she was told. The woman then lies to Sandra that Julie is asleep. In her own room, Sandra is speaking to a maid about having hot chocolate before bed when the maid mentions that every night at midnight Mark has scotch and sandwiches sent to the lab via the dumbwaiter. He then usually goes to bed at two in the morning. The wheels instantly start turning in Sandra's head. Around 3 am, she sneaks into the lab's outer office by going up in the dumbwaiter. She hears Mark inside speaking about some place called Three Hills to the bearded man she saw earlier. Coming into the office, Mark gives
the man a prescription and assures him that the pharmacist is an old family friend, so he needn't worry about potential gossip over the constant refills. When he notices that the dumbwaiter is open, he remarks that he doesn't remember sending his tray down... The men get back to business, though, and return to the lab. Sandra slinks back to her room, but only a half hour later, she hears a woman screaming. After looking out of her window to see Mark running, she goes to Julie's room where she sees the stunned housekeeper but no Julie. Suddenly frightened, Sandra rushes to the balcony and looks down to see Julie's body on the ground with an open suitcase beside her. When Mark explains that his niece
was trying to run away and she accidentally slipped, Sandra makes it clear that she doesn't believe him. Her distrust is increased tenfold when she finds beside Julie a broken jar of cold cream, a special Italian brand that Sandra had let her borrow. She reasons that Julie would've left it behind if she had intended to run away, especially since the cream was encased in a beautifully ornate container that belonged to Sandra. Someone else must have packed Julie's suitcase, such as the housekeeper who has no problem doing Mark's bidding.

 
Later that day, Sandra tries to enter the lab, but of course it's locked. She won't be deterred by this, though -- she goes to the attic and discovers that she can enter the mystical lab by climbing in through the outer office's skylight. Everything is going smoothly, until Sandra opens the door to the lab and comes face to face with a furious Mark. The sudden cut to his close-up is disconcerting, as is the close-up of Sandra's wide-eyed, terrified face. He questions why she is so obsessed with his lab, causing her to respond that she wants to find Jim. Julie's death only intensified this desire. She also discloses that she and Julie were together when Julie said there was screaming the other night. Mark orders Sandra to leave the room, but unable to resist himself, he throws open the dumbwaiter and says "That seems to be the way you prefer to leave." He then takes a hair comb from his pocket, revealing that he knew she sneaked in last night. Well, that's awkward.

After Julie's funeral, Mark, Sandra, and the staff come back to the house, which is in the process of being closed up due to Mark moving to Washington. Mark and Sandra numbly walk into the library, where she talks about how happy Julie was during their horseback riding only days ago. Glancing over the covered furniture, Mark tears the sheet off of a chair and glumly says "They could at least have left this room alive until we'd left. You may not believe it, but this was once a very happy house." He goes on to describe the joyful childhood Jim and Julie had, and for maybe the first time we see that Mark might not be the villain we think he is as he becomes tender and forlorn. Clearly this is a man who has
lost a great deal. Opening his safe, he pulls out old family jewelry that was meant for Julie when she became older. He offers to let Sandra take any piece that she wants; understandably, she asks "Why me?" "You're Jim's widow," he responds. His lawyer called earlier and they found Jim's safe deposit box with his will inside, further proving the validity of their marriage. Mark invites Sandra to stay at a family estate in Boston and again she asks why. "When tragedy strikes, the lives of everyone involved in it gets tangled up," he explains. He continues to surprise Sandra by apologizing for his behavior and then, in hopes of improving their relationship, he takes her to see his lab. Shot from a low angle, they enter
the pristine, white lab, its style in sharp contrast to the dark, Gothic-like interiors of the rest of the house. Disappointingly, there is nothing very evil about the space. There are no torture devices, no chains, no test tubes or beakers filled with boiling concoctions. Mark is forthcoming when Sandra asks who the bearded man is, too -- he is a groundskeeper named Laidell. Still, there are obviously secrets that Mark is continuing to keep and Sandra is determined to figure them out.

She goes for a final horseback ride, cleverly asking the stableman how far the estate's land goes so she doesn't "accidentally" ride off the property. The man tells her that one boundary is the game reserve and lodge at Three Hills, so naturally, Sandra makes her way there. When her horse gets spooked by a rabbit, she is thrown off and the horse runs away, but fortunately the animal had the good sense to leave her at the outskirts of the lodge. Sandra climbs the fence and finds herself amongst overgrown bushes and gnarly trees. A man comes into view as he walks her way -- it's Jim! Weirdly, he doesn't recognize Sandra, citing an accident that left his memory foggy. The more Sandra talks, though, the more Jim remembers. She informs him of Julie's death and says that Mark has all of the money now, just like Jim feared he would. When Laidell starts calling for Jim, Jim tells Sandra how to sneak out of the fenced area and promises to meet her at the house once Laidell and his wife believe they have given Jim his sleeping pill.

Entering the house, Sandra is greeted by Mark, who says everyone has been searching for her after her horse came back alone. He then invites her to come into the library to warm up by the fire and have supper. Whereas this would have been seen as suspect and loaded with ulterior motives earlier in the film, now it seems sincere and kind. Mark also offers to take Sandra into town with him to go to the train station since all of the servants have already left and it's too late for a taxi. Because of Jim, though, Sandra asks to stay the night and leave in the morning. Hating to drive at night anyway, Mark decides to stay too, which isn't exactly what Sandra wanted to hear. He then begins to tell her something, even going so
far as to gently grab her hand, but when she evades him, Mark winds up saying goodnight instead. Closing the library doors behind him, he hears a noise and goes back in, finding Sandra gone and the window open. Outside, Sandra thinks she sees Jim and starts calling his name, but it is only an infuriated Mark. She decides it is useless by this point to lie to him, so she reveals that she spoke to Jim earlier. Thinking that she knows everything, Sandra is blindsided when Mark chooses to come clean as well.

What he had wanted to tell her in the library was that Jim and Julie's father had died in a sanitarium while violently insane.
Following the advice of psychiatrists, Mark has been watching his niece and nephew for years for any sign that they would become like their father. He believes that Julie knew what was going to happen and committed suicide before it could occur. Mark made it look like an accident because of his brother's precarious position in the Senate thanks to political enemies. As for Jim, he is kept locked up and medicated because he killed a man after getting into a car accident and fighting with the other driver, ultimately hitting him with a wrench in a fit of insanity. Mark and Charles worked to have the scandal hushed up and the judge agreed to Jim being permanently confined. Most of the time Jim is fine, but one small
thing can set him off, which is what Julie and Sandra heard the other night when Mark had to keep Jim in the lab until the lodge was ready. Mark was unhappy when Sandra arrived because he had been told that Julie and Jim must never marry or have children (hence his attempts at stopping Julie's romance with Ronnie).

Sandra still doesn't quite believe it, but just as she is saying that Jim has always appeared normal to her, Jim creeps up behind Mark and knocks him unconscious. When she expresses concern that Mark might be seriously hurt, Jim grabs her and furiously
asks if she is in love with his uncle. He then lays out his plan: after destroying the papers in Mark's safe that prove his father was insane, he and Sandra are going away together. Breaking free, Sandra runs into the house only to be caught at the top of the stairs. Mark and Laidell find them and try to reason with Jim, but he refuses to go back to the lodge. A struggle with Laidell ensues and Jim falls to his death. Out on the terrace, Mark joins an exhausted Sandra.

M: "It's better this way."
S: "It was all my fault."
M: "No, you shouldn't blame yourself."
S: "I was so stubborn, so suspicious."
M: "So hard to convince. Why not? I didn't trust you, either."

Taking her hand, Mark and Sandra walk away from the house with new respect for and understanding of each other.

Cry Wolf has quite a few things working in its favor. Firstly, it has a great score by Franz Waxman. Secondly, it has gorgeous, haunting cinematography by Carl Guthrie. There is also special effects photography by Robert Burks, who became a masterful director of photography and one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorites. There are many beautiful shots in this film, and with Stanwyck and/or Flynn in every scene, I ended up taking over 80 screenshots. There is one moment when Sandra breaks into the lab's outer office that I just adore. The room is covered in criss-crossed shadows from the moon coming in through the skylight. When Mark and Laidell open the lab's door to come into the office, one of the shadows that falls across the door moves and evokes a heavy lock like you would see for a vault or in a prison. The effect happens again when Mark and Laidell go back into the lab. It ties perfectly into the idea that the lab is a forbidden fortress of sorts.

There is a lot of prison imagery, actually, which makes sense given that the house acts as one for Julie, Jim, and, in a way, Mark too. What is interesting is we don't realize this until the very end, when we see that Mark has had to endure the heartbreaking responsibility of watching over his niece and nephew. He finds that he can no longer be their pal and confidante like he used to be in order to keep them safe. The fact that he ultimately fails is sad and somewhat poignant. The role of Mark is deliciously complex and Flynn does an admirable job with it. The audience is with Sandra the whole time, but Mark is always keeping us guessing as he shifts from malicious to vulnerable throughout the film.

Watching Flynn's face is never a chore, but with Cry Wolf, it is absolutely vital if you want to catch all of the small changes that he employs. I mean, the fact that he can say "I don't give a hoot in Hades what you believe!" without making the viewer laugh for fear of his intense reaction is proof enough that Flynn is completely believable in anything he does. I've talked about this before in my post on Flynn and Bette Davis, but it bears repeating: Flynn consistently held his own with giants of the silver screen, yet his contributions are usually chalked up to his good looks and powerful personality. If Flynn didn't have the acting chops to back it up, though, would he be nearly as watchable and iconic as he is?

One person who was always credited as a genuine actor was Stanwyck. She has to be one of the most consistent performers I've ever seen. Did she ever make a false note? Seeing her play a stubborn widow-turned-amazing detective is fantastic. Honestly, I could watch Stany read the phone book and I'd be enthralled. Regardless, Sandra is a great role. Unlike Julie, she isn't given to hysterics and she runs toward trouble rather than away from it. Fearless Stany was the perfect choice.

Although not well remembered today, director Peter Godfrey can be counted on to do a good job. He isn't fussy or overly artistic, yet he also doesn't quite capture images the way Hitchcock, Minnelli, or any of the other Great Directors did. Still, his work on Cry Wolf is memorable -- so long as you don't get too distracted by the magnificence of Barbara and Errol. In addition to working with Stanwyck before, Godfrey directed Flynn again in 1947 in the sweet romantic drama Escape Me Never, another movie that marked a departure for Flynn. (That's Godfrey with Ida Lupino on the set of Escape Me Never above.)

Cry Wolf is an underrated thriller and a brilliant showcase for its two leads. Once you know the twist, watching it again just makes you appreciate it more, especially in regards to Flynn's performance. If you consider yourself a fan of his at all, Cry Wolf is essential viewing.



















































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This is my contribution to the fabulous Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn Blogathon. Celebrate the lovely lady's 101st birthday (and her frequent co-star) by checking out the roster here.

Comments

  1. Great post on a great film. The cinematography certainly is exquisite in this film. Stanwyck and Flynn definitely give fantastic performances and keep you guessing throughout the film. Thanks for choosing this underseen Flynn film for the Blogathon. Looking forward to your post on The Two Mrs. Carrolls, another favorite of mine! :)

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    1. Thanks! I'm excited to rewatch The Two Mrs. Carrolls. I've only seen it once, but it's not really a film you forget.

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  2. Errol Flynn really surprised me in this film and really proved he had some serious acting chops!

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    1. I'm glad you think so! He was quite the talent. Thanks for reading!

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  3. ZOWIE! I am definitely going to try to get my hands on this. Fantastic review, and I very much want to see this movie now, even though I know how it ends! Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses, and I'm becoming increasingly fond of Flynn the more I see of him.

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    1. Thanks! It's a pretty great film. Warner Archives released it on DVD (with zero extra features, boo), but I'm not sure what streaming services have it. As for Stanwyck and Flynn, they can do no wrong in my eyes.

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    2. Well, I've added it to my wish list on Amazon and hope to get and see it before too long!

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    3. Awesome! Let me know what you think of it!

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  4. I always really enjoy your screen shots. It shows how visually arresting the film is!

    My sister is a serious Errol Flynn fan so we hunted this down several years ago and quite enjoyed it. I agree - Flynn is a much better actor than he gets credit for and is never overshadowed by his leading ladies. We also liked how his previous carefree persona worked for his role in Cry Wolf, since it underscores how much his character lost by caring for his family. As you said; it's as much a prison for him as for them.

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    1. Thanks! It's so easy for me to get carried away with screenshots. (I mean, this film is only 84 minutes and I took 83 screenshots. I might have a problem.)

      Good call re: his carefree persona! Considering how gorgeous Flynn was and how charismatic he could be, I get why people would assume that he didn't have the talent to back it up. But come on. He shared the screen with Bette Davis, Stanwyck, Greer Garson, Olivia de Havilland, and countless other incredible actors and he ALWAYS delivered. You can't ignore that.

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