Joseph Cotten, Barbara Stanwyck, Lewis Calhern, Joe De Santis, and Leslie Caron star in this murder mystery set in 1848 New York City. Caron plays Madeleine, who’s newly arrived from France to seek money from her fiance’s wealthy grandfather, Charles Thevenet (Calhern). Martin and Lorna (De Santos and Stanwyck) are hardly happy campers as his help, and want to cash in his chips for their cut. Enter mysterious gentleman Dupin (our cloak guy, Cotten) and we’ve got a plot as well as a full house.
Here’s Dupin, watching from the sidewalk as a young woman, Madeline, debarks from a cab. (She looks about fourteen; Caron was actually twenty in 1951). There’s some sort of wild revelry going on at the place she stopped at, wrong number. So she goes to a bar; Dupins sort of rescues her. The girl’s looking for old man Thevenet, specifically to raise money for the French Republic.
As suspected, the first place Madeline went to was indeed the correct one. Martin lets her in. Lorna comes down to tell Thevenet’s doctor that the old guy’s hopeless. She meets Madeline. The girl asks Martin what’s causing the old man’s fatal illness; he responds, cryptically, “his life.”
There’s a damn pet raven (feels like a Poe story already). Anyway, Madeline has to work to get his attention. Thevenet knows exactly what she’s up to–his grandson wants money. He wants news of Paris: “who writes, who paints?” She’s at least warms his heart; she’s invited to stay.
Martin and Lorna discuss Madeline. “What are we going to do about it?” That is, she’s a complication in their plot “waiting all these years for the old man to die” notes the maid. Weirdly, the old man looks in on Madeline as she sleeps. He unintentionally parrots what the others have said, he’s worried for his safety.
She describes her fiance, and a portrait of Thevenet in his youth. Next day, the doctor’s back. He gives the maid a medicine to fix–will the servants play doctor? On the street she sees Dupin go into Flaherty’s. I think she’s going to pay his tab. She comes out with “I think they [staff] are trying to kill him [old guy].”
She has a bottle she suspects is poison; no, it’s basically just water. But Dupin makes the interesting point that ‘nothing’ is, in effect, as bad as poison, because it’s not the medicine he needs to stay alive. He suggests that she go to the police.
Dupin calls on her later. Of course, Lorna and Martin are suspicious of him, more or less for the same reasons, they don’t trust Madeline either. Now Dupin reads Poe to the maid. Anyway, Lorna tells him “We’ve all grown fond of Madeline.” We learn that Lorna used to be Trevenet’s mistress.
Halloween time, even the bartender gives the kids treats. Back at the house, it seems that there’s a party in progress; Madeline’s worried. Will this be a good cover for…murder? Pretty cool party, costumes and such. When Dupin arrives, Lorna “breaks the ice” with him. Maybe a love triangle brewing…
Trevenet ends the party–he wants to interview Dupin. Our gallant hero says he’s a poet; more to the point, he’s a suitor to Madeline. They speak of the money issue…the old guy says, well, she’s married to a cause. They agree that they’re both cynics. This is an entertaining conversation; they don’t exactly trust each other, but they have mutual admiration.
The old guy calls for his attorney. To change his will? Martin wants to toss Dupin. Then, with Lorna, Dupin hears a the outline of a deal. That is, cut Madeline out of the money, and Lorna throws him a bone, er “loan.” She cosies up to him.
Joseph stalks in the street. Good for Dupin finds a cop to walk with. His problem is he owes big time: not just the bar, but back rent too. Viola! he’s got money, undoubtedly some sort of advance from Lorna. Oh, boy, Madeline comes calling. For some reason, she thinks things are working out at home.
Well, the old boy is altering his will, but we don’t know how. The attorney drinks Trevenet’s drink; old boy quivers, is he having a stroke, or a warning of a poisoned drink? Meanwhile, Madeline and Dupin go out on the town; they’re obviously in a loving way.
Sure enough, not only is Trevenet now paralyzed by his stroke, but the attorney is dead. The loving couple goes up to see the old guy. By gestures, he tries to clue them in about what happened. The raven and the rum? Means… something dark…in the drink? By now, the new will has disappeared. Protesting too much, Lorna actually outlines the malicious plot.
At least Dupin has the empty glass in question. They zip off to the chemists to check it: positive for arsenic. Better (worse?) yet, the chemist sold it to Trevenet. Kind of weird, but the supposition is that Trevenet planned to poison himself after changing the will, but the attorney was thirstier.
When Dupin and Madeline get back to the house, Trevenet has died. They’re getting booted. The new will is the key “They’ll [Lorna/Martin] try to find it by ransacking the house; I’ll try to find it by ransacking their brains.” This is shaping up to an interesting denouement. Flaherty offers Dupin a drink; then Lorna comes into the bar, apologetic.
She gives him her story, which is fairly pitiful. They discuss the will(s). Now she tries to throw in with him; offering him a tidy sum into the bargain. He refuses, and they go back to the house together. Wisely, Flaherty alerts the Patrolman that something unsavory is up.
Playing it smart as we’d expect, Dupin gets them to go to Trevenet’s room. He now has them in a nice blackmail corner, at the very least. With some quick-thinking and deduction, Dupin figures the will must be in the fireplace. Remarkably, it still is.
He’s able to grab it, but the two guys wrestle down the staircase while Lorna looks on. Luckily, the policeman intervenes just in time. Dupin reads the will: Lorna gets the house, Madeline gets the dough. Dupin leaves. Ah, as expected, Madeline pops into Flaherty’s. She’s going to pay up for Dupin.
Well, on the back of his I.O.U. is the poem “Annabelle Lee.” Signed Edgar Allan Poe. We knew that. A good lead in to my thesis: that this is like a lost Poe manuscript, biographical, and a partial combination of other of his works.
Poe was consistently autobiographical in his tales. Here’s a protagonist from Poe’s detective fiction, Dupin (same name), transplanted from Paris into a French enclave in New York. But he’s not exactly Dupin, he’s Poe, essentially pretending to be his own creation. He reads from his poems, and although mysterious enough, claims to be a poet.
Clever. It would be like Hitchcock playing Norman Bates in Psycho, and reveal that he’s actually this filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock. It works because everything’s of a (Poe) piece. Superb and appropriate setting, atmosphere, characters, acting, and plot. A gothic film noir.
After all, this would be little more than a parlour trick without a good story. And, in fine murder/mystery fashion, we quickly figure out what’s going to happen; the fun, and yes, the mystery remains in how it plays out. Excellent movie. 10/10.