178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Peter Allison: “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.”

Dr. Vitus Werdegast: “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”–The Black Cat

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund

PLOT: A rainy night and roadside accident lands WWI veteran Dr. Vitus Werdegast and a honeymooning couple to the old dark house of Satanist Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig, a mass murderer guilty of war crimes, is also Werdegast’ s longtime nemesis. Werdegast is sworn to revenge, but must also protect the couple from being sacrified at a Black Mass.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
BACKGROUND:

  • In his native Hungary, Lugosi had often played romantic leads. Typecast since Dracula (1931), Lugosi was initially enthusiastic about taking on the role of Werdegast. However, upon seeing the script and discovering that his beloved “protagonist” raped the heroine, The Black Cat became a career nightmare for the actor. Adding to the onset tension was Lugosi’s increasing jealousy of Karloff. In an interview with author Gregory Mank, Ulmer’s widow, Shirley Ulmer, related that Karloff and her late husband were kindred, erudite spirits. The two often engaged in discussions ranging from art to philosophy and film aesthetics. Lugosi, who was no intellectual heavyweight, felt the odd man out. Threatened by his genre rival, Lugosi resorted to lurid anecdotes for attention, even claiming that he had once been a Hungarian hangman. Naturally, such yarn spinning only served to further distance Lugosi from his peers.
  • According to Mank, Lugosi got increasingly excited at the prospect of “skinning” his rival. Multiple takes were required and, in each take, Lugosi’s English became even more rushed and indecipherable. Many years later, Karloff advised impressionist Rich Little to watch the skinning scene from The Black Cat, in order to mimic Lugosi’s idiosyncratic vocalizations: “Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’sh what I’m going to do to you now. Vear the skin from your body, shlowly, bit by bit.” Karloff’s infamous lisp, at its most pronounced here, parallels Lugosi’s language mangling. Reportedly, Lugosi, of all people, consistently ridiculed Karloff’s speech impediment.
  • Among the excised scenes were the afore mentioned rape, a scene of Joan Allison actually transforming into a black cat, and shots of Karloff’s skinned Poelzig, crawling on the floor with bloodied, flayed flesh hanging off his frame. Awkward comedy relief and embarrassing scenes depicting Werdegast’s fear of black cats were added, along with a slightly more traditionally heroic shaping of Lugosi’s character.
  • Ulmer drew his inspiration for Poelzig from two sources: first, the German architect and leading member of the avant garde architectural society “Der Ring,” Hans Poelzig. Polezig’s work was an eccentric mix of Gothic and Noveua, filtered through very personal sensibilities. Second was the infamous Satanist and misogynist Aleister Crowley, whose concupiscent philosophy is expressed by his motto “I rave and I rape and I rip and I rend.” Ulmer grafts those two identification points into a First World War backstory. Ulmer had additional influence here as well: his father was one of the countless European victims in the Great War.
  • Ulmer doubled as set designer and imbued the film with Bauhaus sensibilities.
  • Ulmer should have been Universal’s third iconic horror director, directly behind  and . Like those contemporaries, Ulmer had enough personal vision to elevate a pedestrian seed into something unique. Unfortunately, Ulmer broke a basic rule: He had an affair with his boss’ wife, which lead to his being fired and blacklisted by major studios. Although Ulmer was offered a chance to direct a big budget Shirley Temple musical for Fox, he turned down the offer, choosing instead to makepoverty row quickies for  PRC, where he languished for the rest of his career. Most of  his films are saddled with execrable scripts, and despite a cult following in France, Ulmer’s ultimate artistic merit is speculative.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the roadside accident, Vitus Werdegast and company arrive at Hjalmar Poelzig’s mansion. Ulmer’s camera jerkily climbs the deco stairs. The light from a radio blinks. Through cracks and clicks, Poelzig’s manservant announces: “Dr. Werdegast has arrived.” Poelzig’s wife lies asleep in bed; a half nude vision of purest white. Next to her lies the blackened silhouette of Polezig. Upon hearing the voice of his servant, Poelzig awakes, clicks on a light, and sits straight up. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see the image for what it is; a blatantly erect phallus. Polezig rises and walks menacingly toward the bedroom door, seen through the sheer curtain of a canopy bed. He is a phallic symbol as harbinger of death. Sex and death awash in starkly cubist black and white, and dramatic classical music. Poelzig’s wife is also his step-daughter, and Werdegast’ daughter. Werdegast waits below, suspicious but not completely aware of the incestuous milieu permeating Polezig’s fortress.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Despite a checklist of outré taboos, The Black Cat, partly due to studio tampering, is characterized by subdued aesthetics. Rather than conveying grotesquerie and perversity through blood-soaked Poe-like dungeons, which would be the pedestrian route, Ulmer crafts a very personal restlessness through the icy tents of modernism, futurism, highly stylized acting, and artistic music. While this may make it a challenge for contemporary viewers, it renders this tale of revenge, lust and paranoia even weirder.


Fan made trailer for The Black Cat (by David Smith)

COMMENTS: For the first team-up of Universal’s horror stars, Karloff and Lugosi, uncredited producer Carl Laemmle Jr. virtually gave director Edgar G. Ulmer carte blanche and an A-budget for a film treatment of ‘s short story “The Black Cat.” Laemmle then went on extended vacation. When he returned, he was aghast at what he found in Ulmer’s film. Satanism, incest, necrophilia and bestiality are merely the icing on the cake. Although Poe would probably have identified with and appreciated the nefarious, misanthropic atmosphere of Ulmer’s The Black Cat, the film was completely unrelated to its source material. Extensive cuts and reshoots were demanded, much to Lugosi’s relief. While Laemmle’s tampering certainly harmed the film, his efforts to transform The Black Cat into a pedagogical treatise on Poe utterly failed; its putrescent Mardi Gras quality seeps through, even in fragmented state.

Werdegast’s “ancient fear” of black cats is never explained and never was, even in the original script. Werdegast throws a knife at the feline, and we hear its death cry. We are informed that he killed the cat. Yet it reappears time and again to wreak mental havoc on the suffering Hungarian, which leads us to assume that the cat literally has nine lives. Karloff’s body language is as self-conscious as he was in roles such as Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932). Adorned in black, Polezig moves like a panther, which gives Werdegast’s dread additional impetus. In the original script, Joan’s metamorphosing into the title character drives Werdegast to rape that which he fears. Although this plot element was jettisoned, enough remains to strongly suggest that Werdegast covets the newly wed heroine. The primary difference between Poelzig and Werdegast is one of bridled lust vs unbridled lust. Unfortunately, Jacqueline Wells is so virginal and bland in her role that we are never convinced males desire her. Far more hypnotic is the underused Lucille Lund as Karen Werdegast (Lund later joked that she was only known for having gone to bed with Boris Karloff). As sexless as Wells is, David Manners is an even more vapid presence, which is perhaps the sole reason both Werdegast and Poelzig are inspired to steal his bride. 

As strange as it may seem, both Karloff and Lugosi are at their most sexually charged here. Ulmer’s camera frames them repeatedly in compositions which can only be described as examples of European eroticism. Karloff’s coiffed appearance echoes Ulmer’s architecture. He is a purple elf who, unlike his co-star and rival, never succumbs to self-parody. Karloff’s unsympathetic Poezig displays some degree of guilt solely through his facial reactions, but this is as brisk and faint as a blinking eye. Karloff’s most starkly kinky scene is shot from behind and below his ebony robed back. Poelzig clutches a statue of a nude female as the over-lit newlyweds embrace. His face is hidden from view, but his lustful expression is conveyed through hand movement. Later, in the “game of death,” Poelzig’s fingers amorously brush over a chess piece. Only the combination of Karloff and Ulmer could make a piece of white plastic erogenous.

Lugosi is also highlighted in sensual compositions, which undoubtedly flattered the star’s chivalrous self-view. Even the battles between Werdegast and Poelzig suggest primordial carnality. In a sharp, clearly intentional contrast, the  protagonist bride and groom are frequently exposed as adolescent American suburbanites. So complete is Ulmer’s portrayal of New World pedestrianism that Peter is given the occupation of a pulp mystery novelist. As Ulmer obviously intended, we hope, in vain, that its they who will suffer a “shlow” painful death.

Although Lugosi is outclassed by Karloff, the Dracula star gives one of his better performances. He is at his best inimitably delivering lines like “…a masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken prisoner where the soul is kilt, shlowly. Fifteen years I’ve rotted in the darkness… waiting, not to kill you, to kill your soul shlowly.” His Werdegast wears tragedy on his sleeve, and even in his most tender moments (such as his attempt to save Joan) his actions are viewed with base suspicion by both Peter Allison and the audience. Unfortunately, Lugosi’s performance is all too typically bipolar. His weaknesses contrast his strengths.

The two servants (character actors Egon Brecher and Harry Cording) are chimerical, their loyalties delightfully ambiguous.

Ulmer, who apprenticed in silent films under the likes of Max Reinhardt, , , , , Ernst Lubitsch, and Cecil B. DeMille, does not resort to excessive dialogue, as many early talkies were apt to do. His silent film credentials are evident in a bit of blitzkrieg between the grand guignol titans. Poelzig asks Werdegast: “Are we not the living dead?” Werdegast response is purely visual—a deep stare.

The fire and ice quality of The Black Cat is most pronounced in its dreaded atrophy: Poelzig’s female victims encased in glass, suspended like icicles, as the dual horror mavens wax erotic and ascend the stairs, all to the strains of Beethoven’s Seventh.

Ulmer’s pre-Black Cat resume included both set design and music appreciation. Liszt, Schubert and Brahms are among the composers whose music serves The Black Cat to perfection. Less than perfect is the awkward editing, which includes a nonsensical, but convenient interruption to Poelzig’s nonsense-Latin Black Mass.

Smartly, the brutal finale remains enigmatically in the shadow. The Black Cat is so stark and angular, that often it has the look of having emerged from a German Expressionist painting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Story is confused and confusing, and while with the aid of heavily-shadowed lighting and mausoleum-like architecture, a certain eeriness has been achieved, it’s all a poor imitation of things seen before.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“…nutty, nightmarish melange… a crepehanger’s ball.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

“This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind…”–Philip French, The Observer (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Black Cat (1934)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Black Cat (1934) – Overview – More information on the film from Turner Classic Movies’ database (including an essay by Bret Wood)

The Black Cat (1934) – This review from filmsite.org is mostly an extremely detailed plot synopsis

the black cat 1934 on Tumblr – Stills, artwork, etc. that has been tagged with “The Black Cat” on the popular social network

Borderline Weird: The Black Cat (1934) – G. Smalley’s original review of The Black Cat for this site

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) – Alfred Eaker’s original review of The Black Cat for this site

DVD INFO: Universal Studios home video division has not done justice to The Black Cat, a critically revered horror classic with a large cult following that was also their biggest money maker of 1934. They offer the film on an extras-free DVD-R (buy). For a few dollars more, however, you can own the film as part of “The Bela Lugosi Collection” (buy), along with Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday. There are no special features in the set save for trailers for three of the movies. No original trailer for The Black Cat is known to exist. If Dr. Werdergast was around, he would skin the Universal executives responsible for this travesty alive.

 

2 thoughts on “178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)”

  1. The Universal films home video releases suffer benign neglect from their studio. A film like this easily deserves a “Criterion” style release but probably won’t since it’s part of the “Universal Monsters” catalogue.

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