Joseph Cotten and Spencer Tracy were at the height of their popularity in the middle of the last century, and these two fairly unknown titles—reissues on DVD—showcase their talents in stories that are suspenseful and rich in detail.
The Seventh Cross, made toward the end of World War II, is set in 1936, before U.S. involvement in the war but after the Nazis had started imprisoning people for their opposition to the party. Tracy plays one of these prisoners, who is also in a group of seven escapees, but his story is narrated by Ray Collins, who, in a twist most famously used later in Sunset Boulevard, speaks from beyond the grave. The cross of the title refers to the method (not quite crucifixion) that the Nazis in the camp use to make a public display of those captured and killed.
As Tracy’s character seeks a means of escape through contacts in a nearby town, he meets a variety of friends and enemies, and as the suspense tightens, the story makes a clear (but not heavy-handed) point about the variety of choices ordinary Germans were making even as this film was being seen by American audiences. Though marred by an unnecessary romance near the end, The Seventh Cross is a serious and compelling film.
I’ve been fond of Joseph Cotton’s acting since I saw him in Citizen Kane a long time ago, and seeing The Man With a Cloak added to that pleasure. Of course, Barbara Stanwyck’s presence, not to mention Leslie Caron (all of 20 at the time), helped immensely too.
The film, set in New York in 1848 (a politically significant year in European history, though the film could have done more with that), concerns young Madeline (played by Caron), who is seeking help for the “republican” cause in France by going to her fiancé’s father, who, though a political opponent, represents the fact that “blood is thicker than water”, as the old man tells her later. Initially alone in the big city, Madeline falls under the care of a mysterious cloaked stranger (Cotton), who, despite his heavy drinking, has a heart of gold and a sharp mind to boot. As they cross (metaphorical) swords with Stanwyck (the old man’s greedy caretaker) and her brutish butler, the story unfolds in intriguing and unexpected ways, mostly because of the revelation at the end (helped along by some well-placed clues) of the stranger’s real -- and well known to history -- identity.
Employing moody black and white photography and wonderfully evocative settings (the 1848 version of a wild Halloween party is a hoot), The Man With a Cloak is a minor gem.