EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Edgar G. Ulmer has a cult reputation, particularly in France. The late British film critic, Leslie Halliwell, believed that reputation to be wholly undeserved, since most of Ulmer’s films ranged from B to Z status. Ulmer did not begin that way when, in 1934, he was handed “complete freedom” in an A (A-) production, teaming, for the first time, Universal Studio’s reigning horror stars Bela Lugosi and in the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired The Black Cat. The resulting film, and Ulmer’s affair with his employer’s wife, quickly ended a promising top-notch studio career almost as quickly as it began.

This first Karloff/Lugosi teaming was also their best. That is because of their eight collaborations this was their only joint-starring project directed by a visionary auteur. In The Black Cat Lugosi was cast as protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, and Karloff as antagonist Hjalmer Poelzig. In the original, uncut film, Lugosi’s hero does some less than heroic things. Enough of Vitus’ sinister quality remains that Lugosi gives us a hero we are never quite comfortable with. Under Ulmer’s direction, Lugosi’s performance is superb, an extreme rarity for this actor. As good as Lugosi is, Karloff is even better and, as unpopular as it may be to say now, Karloff was always a far better actor than his co-star.

Ulmer’s “complete freedom” came to a screeching halt when universal execs saw the filmed footage and script. Lugosi’s hero rapes the heroine, the heroine occasionally turns into a black cat, and Karloff’s Poelzig is skinned alive and last seen crawling on the floor with his skin hanging from his body as Lugosi’s mad hero laughs hysterically. All of these scenes were cut from the film and, par the course at that time, were destroyed. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the scenes were shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.
Still from The Black Cat (1934)
Regardless, what remains of The Black Cat is a flawed, baroque masterpiece, intoxicating to watch and simultaneously frustrating, especially in light of Ulmer’s original intent. Lugosi’s Hungarian psychiatrist Vitus is traveling by train, and he is on a journey of revenge and retaliation. Vitus meets two newlyweds—American novelist Peter Alison and his wife Joan (played by David Manners and Jaqueline Wells)—who are as bland a 30s couple as one is likely to find. Lugosi sees something in the young woman Joan and touches her hair as she sleeps. The Hays Code be damned, it’s an erotic, sinister, yearning close-up moment, and Lugosi will never look as beautiful again. Vitus is heading towards Fort Marmorus, the scene of a great World War I battle, where he was captured and betrayed by his commander, Poelzig. Amazingly, Vitus has survived 15 years in a Serbian concentration camp, and is now intent on exacting revenge on Poelzig for this and for the additional betrayal of stealing Vitus’ wife and child while he was in prison.

After departing the train, the newlyweds accompany Vitus by car, along with his creepy servant Thamal (played by Harry Cording of many a Sherlock Holmes movie). But, lo and behold, the car crashes in the rain (a badly executed and an unnecessary set-up) and the four are forced to find refuge in an old dark house. Of course, that house is none other than the home of Herr Poelzig, and what a house. Hardly the Gothic ruins of a Carfax Abbey, Poelzig’s abode of the damned home looks like an art deco charnel house, designed by the Constructivists so that guests such as Franz Kafka and Edgar Munch might feel perfectly at home. When the group arrives, drenched at the front door, they are not greeted by Riff-Raff, but instead find themselves face to face with majordomo Egon Brecher (a horror film regular).

Frank-n-Furter does not appear either, but his spirit is there when the majordomo lets his master know, via a beautifully cracking and popping old intercom, that Dr. Werdegast and guests have arrived. Karloff’s Poelzig sits straight up, silhouetted in a canopy bed, like an erect penis, which was certainly intentional and understandable as he was lying next to the sleeping form of the beautiful Lucille Lund (as, you guessed it, Karen Werdegast Poelzig, Karloff’s wife & Lugosi’s daughter).

Karloff’s melodramatic appearance to the group is perfect. His Poelzig looks like he might have been designed by Oskar Schlemmer, with his satanic mane, broad shoulders, and black silk satanic pjs. Ulmer tailored Poelzig after the infamous Satan worshiper Aleister Crowley. When Poelzig meets his guests he arches an eyebrow, extends a gaunt, slithering, Grinch-like hand, smiles, and lisps precise, phony warmth—as he secretly intends for Joan to be his next sacrificial bride to almighty Lucifer. Karloff knows how to use his body to full advantage in The Black Cat. His hand grasps a statue of nude woman as he watches the Alisons kiss. He glides his finger seductively over a chess piece. Vitus knows how to read Poelzig’s body language. Vitus is well aware of his rival’s intent and plans to stop his diabolical scheme, while seemingly admiring Poelzig from afar.

After a bit of cat and mouse foreplay, Lugosi, with a deadly earnest delivery, utters a priceless line in response to Peter’s proclamation that there is a lot of superstitious baloney afoot: “Superstitious, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” A little later, Poelzig takes Vitus to the cellar. A black cat appears and Vitus freaks out, crashing through an expressionistic paper sliding door. In the finished film, Vitus’ paranoia of cats is embarrassingly ridiculous. In the original script, that paranoia was coupled with erotic fixation for the black cat. It may not be from Poe, but Edgar would have appreciated the bestiality references. As Poelzig and Vitus ascend up the stairs, it is to a macabre mix of Poelzig’s narration juxtaposed against the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (played here in the traditionally slow grand-guignol tempo, rather than as the rhythmic allegretto it was originally intended to be). The Black Cat is filled to the brim with art music. Brahms, Liszt, and Schubert accompany Ludwig on this film journey, and Ulmer probably knew how to juxtapose music better than any director until Kubrick came along.

A chess match (which pre-dates Bergman) between Poelzig and Vitus vying for the fate of Joan begins beautifully but is interrupted by awkward comedy relief from a pair of accident investigating constables. After the constables (thankfully) leave, Peter borrows the phone, only to find it is dead. “Did you hear that Vitus? The phone is dead! Even the phone is dead!,” rolls Poelzig through a delightfully, self-congratulating, menacing grin. We empathize. Oddly, the chess match resumes and goes nowhere, ending with Poelzig’s easy victory almost as quickly as it began. The chess match does reveal the obsessions of very similar characters. Poelzig is well aware that Vitus plans revenge, but he is also aware that Vitus is, potentially, equally perverse: “You better attend the ceremony tonight Vitus. It will interest you.”

Poelzig waxes nostalgic with an occasional trip to the cellar downstairs (complete with trapezoid walls) to visit his murdered, ethereal brides, embalmed in glass coffins. The dead wives include Poelzig’s late wife (also played by Lucille Lund). In a moment of Oedipal envy, we find Poelzig married the mother, killed her, then married the daughter. Tim Burton‘s freakery rings trite and trendy in comparison (the Penguin’s “You’re just jealous because I am a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” to fellow freak Batman would apply here, Mr. Burton).

Ulmer’s surreal expressionist Black Cat world is, aptly, a universe which does not and has never existed. In this world, things are only bound to become more perverse. Ulmer does not disappoint. Karen finds out Daddy is still alive. Hubby rapes and kills Karen. Daddy finds his dead baby girl when he attempts to free Joan from being a Satanic sacrifice in a black mass orgy. Vitus finds Poelzig and fights him a beautifully lit struggle of stark, expressionist blacks and whites, shot mostly in close-ups. Vitus’ servant is shot and killed by Poelzig’s servant, but Thamal will not die until he helps his master defeat Poelzig and tie him to the embalming rack. Thamal drops dead. Vitus seems not to care at all. So much for loyalty. Vitus sadistically rips open Poelzig’s shirt and begins to skin him alive (in silhouette): “Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmer? That’s what I am going to do to you now! Vear the skin from your body, sssslooooowlyyyy, bit by bit.” That dialogue rolls of Bela’s tongue beautifully, insanely. This nightmare evil all ends with a martyred Vitus, mistakenly shot by Peter for, understandably, believing Vitus was having his way with Joan, an explosion which levels the hell house, and a now dead, “rotten” cult. Now, Mr. Alison is free write his new novel, a mystery. Unfortunately, it was Karloff and not Manners that was tortured, Lund raped and killed instead of Wells.

Ulmer learned his trade under F.W. Marnau and Fritz Lang. It shows. With this single film, even marred by studio tampering, Ulmer can be ranked alongside Whale, Browning and Tourneur as visionary directors within a limited genre. None of the remaining Karloff/Lugosi collaborations hold up as well. Both The Raven (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) had impressive moments, but both were flawed by pedestrian direction. Only The Body Snatcher (1945) could be counted as a worthy follow-up, but Lugosi, quite on the down slide by then, was reduced to little more than a cameo appearance, albeit a highly effective one.

Ulmer certainly brought his visual flair to many of his projects, but it was rarely enough to save them. Bluebeard (1944), Detour (1945) and Strange Illusion (1946) are rightly considered cult classics, while Strange Woman (1946) has some admirers. For the most part, however, Ulmer got his studio-sponsored toy train set in the career-defining Black Cat. By all accounts, Ulmer had a hell of a lot of fun playing with his train set, and reflected on it proudly, even if it did do him in. But, in the words of Vitus Werdegast, “It’s been a good game.”

15 thoughts on “EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)”

  1. Weird, no doubt, and would have been weirder with the footage “shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.”

    Comedy of horrors!

  2. The gothic overtones of the early Universal horror cycle are due of course to the fact that the studio owners–the Laemmles–were German and perhaps more in touch than most with the all-too-short-lived era of cinematic greatness and revolution in their homeland. Who better to bring in to work on one of their horror films than a protege (former apprentice) of the great Murnau (Ulmer.) I guess they got more than their bargained for! For its time and for any time The Black Cat is Weird, Weird, Weird. Affairs aside, Ulmer had the bad luck of bringing this film out just as the Hays code was being newly revised–Lugosi fares particularly badly as Verdegast’s melodramatic reactions to the cat come off as comical without the proper context.

    1. Few realize that Ulmer sort of committed the ultimate sin…………he ‘defecated’ where he ate. And that is never a good thing where ones career is concerned.

      You see Edgar had a very healthy libido…….and the object of his wandering eye was the wife of Carl Laemmles nephew……..when word reached the Sr. Laemmle of the sexual transgression……..the career of Ulmer was finished……….at least on the Laemmle lot.

      Love and sex are powerful emotions……..driven by a myriad of circumstances…..Ulmer was no different than countless others who for whatever reason(s) committed the identical “sin”……….they fortunately made a better effort in the concealment of such sexual peccadillo’s.

  3. Black Cat is a classic! The writing and directing is great. It’s probably too slow for
    people now days with short attention spans and the brain dead need for special
    effects. These films are still popular cause they were great. And excuse me
    but Bela Lugosi’s acting is incredible in this movie! There isn’t an actor today
    who could play this role! The ending is still shocking today and done very well.
    Karloff is also really good especially at the end of the movie. A must see!

  4. I love this movie! I love the way Ulmer coldly goes over the top to depict spreading evil and reactive madness, the great Art Deco sets, costumes, and set decoration, the beautiful use of classical favorites, the outrageous dialogue!
    In one scene, Karloff causes Lugosi’s servant to club David Manners insensate and carry Julie Bishop into captivity. Lugosi, watching in horror, says, “I hope you won’t go too far, Hjalmar!” I’d say mayhem and kidnapping’s going pretty far already, isn’t it?

    The expressionist shift from deep to shallow focus that lead some to proclaim Orson Wells a genius in Citizen Kane is also in brilliant use in this minor masterpiece in a scene which shifts focus from the young lovers to Karloff’s hand twisting around a beautiful woman’s statue.

    But mostly, I love it because Ulmer masterfully uses point of view, like Lang in M or Hitchcock in Psycho, to enlist you on the side of the guy who’s going to skin another living human being (OK, a really, really bad human being), then ends things with our vapid leads (the relieved audience?) joking lightly with each other about the hellish experiences they’ve just been through.

  5. Indeed Julius (Carl Jr.) Laemmle beautifully ushered in the golden age of Universal horror…..a wonderful prolific producer, he learned his basic craft at the knee of his father Carl Laemmle. ……but went so much further as an avid reader and play goer.
    When questioned by author Rick Atkins shortly before his untimely death in 1979 about the why of the horror film……….his remark was simple……….’let’s scare ‘em” If he only produced the landmark films “All Quiet On The Western Front” “Dracula” and the definitive 1936 version of “Showboat” his place within cinematic history would be secure….but those films were only three of the dozens of “Universal Pictures” that would carry his name as producer. Julius Laemmle stands just as ‘tall’ as the other boy wonder of Hollywood………..Irving Grant Thalberg……….each created art, that will be viewed in perpetuity.

  6. Few realize that Ulmer sort of committed the ultimate sin…………he ‘defecated’ where he ate. And that is never a good thing where ones career is concerned.

    You see Edgar had a very healthy libido…….and the object of his wandering eye was the wife of Carl Laemmles nephew……..when word reached the Sr. Laemmle of the sexual transgression……..the career of Ulmer was finished……….at least on the Laemmle lot.

    Love and sex are powerful emotions……..driven by a myriad of circumstances…..Ulmer was no different than countless others who for whatever reason(s) committed the identical “sin”……….they fortunately made a better effort in the concealment of such sexual peccadillo’s.

  7. Indeed Julius (Carl Jr.) Laemmle beautifully ushered in the golden age of Universal horror…..a wonderful prolific producer, he learned his basic craft at the knee of his father Carl Laemmle. ……but went so much further as an avid reader and play goer.
    When questioned by author Rick Atkins shortly before his untimely death in 1979 about the why of the horror film……….his remark was simple……….’let’s scare ‘em” If he only produced the landmark films “All Quiet On The Western Front” “Dracula” and the definitive 1936 version of “Showboat” his place within cinematic history would be secure….but those films were only three of the dozens of “Universal Pictures” that would carry his name as producer. Julius Laemmle stands just as ‘tall’ as the other boy wonder of Hollywood………..Irving Grant Thalberg……….each created art, that will be viewed in perpetuity.

  8. Just as a matter of interest, I’ve read that Hjalmar Poelzig was based on the character Oliver Haddo in Somerset Maugham’s 1908 novel The Magician. As the author explains in his foreword, Haddo was directly inspired by his meetings with Aleister Crowley. So there you go – Karloff played Crowley! Albeit twice removed.

    Also, one of the extras taking part in Poelzig’s black mass, who have almost nothing to do except get blown up, is an uncredited John Barrymore before he was famous.

  9. What exactly makes you think that saying Karloff is a better actor than Lugosi is sacrilegious today? If that is your true opinion, than that is that. However, what makes you say that? Do you like the fact that Karloff is mostly silent in the film, and does most of his acting without ever changing facial expressions, and does most of his acting with his eyes? Or is it his lisp that does it for you?
    Let’s break the movie down from the opening until the end. The opening train sequence is foreboding, and deals with Lugosi’s great pain, caused by the Great War. “15 years I rotted, in the darkness,” Lugosi pauses, his eyebrows raised, “I have returned.” Do you think it’s over acting when he describes being a prisoner of war? Actually, I think he under acts the scene. I’d like to see a man that rotted in the darkness for 15 years be that calm. And the scene where Lugosi proclaims “the driver is dead.” Is a frightening moment, as the rain Pours down upon them. Then, from the first meeting of the two iconic legends until the final moment, “poor Bela” as Karloff once said, stole the show…. and finished by carving Karloff to pieces… “bit by bit.” Lugosi says, with devilish sneer. This is a great film, contrary to the reviewers comment. This reviewer is probably the kind of guy that sits around watching Iron Man 3 saying how awesome it is. If you don’t know anything about classic films, than don’t pretend, old chap. Stick to the trash movies that come out today. You fit right in.
    And one last question for you… The Black Cat was the first teaming for Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Lugosi has more screen time in that film and the Raven. The Raven is not even close how bad Lugosi dominated the film. After that, there screen time was never the same, until Lugosi kills it in Son of Frankenstein…. oh, and by the way, as Karloff lays on the table, looking like a piece of meat for an hour, by God that was fine acting too! Completely dominated Lugosi’s pitiful performance, as a hunchback, broken neck fiend, why, I’m sure you could have done much better, you and old Boris. Keep watching movies, just stick to the simple ones like, Iron Man 3… you’ll be just fine :)

  10. Sir Braddock,

    clearly you did not read my review through. Both actors do exceptional work here and it is their best teaming, as I said. It is one of Lugosi’s best performances-ranging from pathos to latent menace. He also has a few awkward moments, such as in his over the top descent into terror upon seeing an ebony feline (admittedly, it might have worked better in the uncut script). Karloff here gives a “predominantly” pantomime performance, acting with his entire body, giving him a slight edge. When I said Karloff is a better actor, I meant overall, and in the whole of his oeuvre. Also, my enthusiasm for Ulmer’s “Black Cat’ is unbridled.

    A quick run through of what I normally cover reveals I rarely watch or write about summer blockbusters and when I do, I have an inherent tendency to trash them. 90% of what I write about is indeed “classic films”, but I do not look at them through rose-colored, romantic lenses.

    There is no doubt that Lugosi bested Karloff in “Son of Frankenstein.” Karloff was contracted to do the film, but hated how the monster, in the writing, had been reduced to a lumbering “piece of meat” on a slab and vowed never to play the role again. He predicted where the character was heading and his insight proved astute, so he made a very good choice in leaving the part to lessors (one of which was Lugosi, of course).

    That said, Karloff, often, could rise to the demands of roles that Lugosi could never pull off, such as his Grey in “The Body Snatchers.” While Karloff was a memorable vampire in “Black Sabbath” Lugosi proved James Whale’s instincts were correct when he finally attempted to play the monster, to disastrous results, in “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.” Of course, Lugosi’s performance, bad to begin with, was made worse by slipshod editing.

    It just so happens I immensely like both actors, but Karloff was and remains the better “actor.” That does not mean, when teamed, he always gave the better performance. Lugosi was a personality and sometimes personalities can outshine a better actor (i.e. Charlton Heston outshining Laurence Oliver in ‘Khartoum’).

    Of course, sometimes both men gave embarrassing, wretched performances (such as ‘The Raven’). Karloff was a more versatile and nuanced actor-more professional. As a matter of fact, his profession was his life, which makes his biography less interesting. Certainly, Lugosi’s tragic life makes for a better read and will understandably elicit sympathy, but what does that have to do with acting qualities? Lugosi could and did give animated performances in a number of rudimentary melodramas and he always added an element of European mystery, even to the worst of these. There is no doubt that biography plays a factor in Lugosi’s legion of worshipers, but while Karloff could be guilty of hammy performances, he never quite reached the cringe-inducing low Lugosi did in films like the “Ape Man.” Some of Karloff’s best performances were tongue-in-cheek children’s fare (Peter Pan, the Grinch). In sharp contrast, Lugosi seemed to really believe in all that malevolent nonsense, which made him seem more otherworldly-less human and that is why he never could have pulled off a performance like Karloff’s monster in either “Frankenstein” or ‘Bride.”

    While I admire both actors, I am a “fan” of neither. Clearly, you are a Lugosi fan and fans get as defensive about their pop deities as fundamentalists do regarding their bible heroes. The most disconcerting things about fans is a lack of honest objectivity. One can have authentic admiration for an artist without believing that artist is infallible (unless , of course, you’re a ‘fan’). Fans, more often than not, take a dull either/or approach towards the focus of their adulation and read anything less than total praise as something akin to blasphemy.

    Next time, I suggest you fully read the article, or perhaps even do a bit of research before descending into histrionics.

    1. Your analysis is fair, but not completely. Such as in, “The Body Snatchers.” You have to remember the age difference of the two actors, as well as the fact of vast alcohol use, and prescribed drugs. That alone is enough to tear a man’s mind and looks to pieces. Saying he can’t play the roll… i would question that. Lugosi could pull being a passionate lover on stage when he was younger. A vampire on Broadway. A sideshow mad Doctor, who speaks to an ape, in Murders in the Rue Morgue. You think Karloff could have made that scene believable? I don’t think many actors could.
      As far as Frankenstein meets Wolfman, that is completely unfair analysis of how Lugosi could have portrayed the monster in 1931. Once again, you have the actor well out of his prime, and the movie was completely hacked by the studio. Lugosi played the monster as a blind brute, and Universal removed every bit of that as well as dialog. Why thy did that, and not at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, can you answer that? Universal tended to be unfair to Lugosi, and later in his turn with them does he ever get a chance to shine, such as in Son of Frankenstein, and that was only because of the director keeping him there, until the last.
      And did you say the Raven is a hack film? Good Lordy and the goose fat! I have never seen a more insane man on the screen, and the over the top insanity is what makes it so delicious!
      And, sir,”malevolent nonscene,” and a reanimated monster are both other worldly.

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