Tag Archives: Edgar G.Ulmer

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. Continue reading 178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951)

‘s The Man From Planet X (1951) was the first released movie depicting an extraterrestrial visitation. Although it was shot for peanuts, this Mid Century Films production is a lesser known cult entry in the sci-fi genre. Being the first of its kind, The Man From Plant X established many archetypes to come.

The studio wanted an exploitative film, tagging their alien invasion opus as “the weirdest visitor the earth has even seen!”  True to his nature, Ulmer instead delivered a tight little mood piece. It does have a (considerably) weird alien, but the finished film is probably not what the studio anticipated. Ulmer douses the film in glowing mist, dim lights and masterful compositions (his expressionist roots are still intact).

Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) and his daughter, Enid (Margaret Field, mother of actress Sally Field) have set up shop in a Scottish castle to monitor UFO sightings. Journalist John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) is on hand when an alien craft lands on the moors (the ship is patterned after much in 1930s modernism).

Still from The Man from Planet X (1951)The first appearance of the E.T. is a jolter. Ulmer’s eerily mute, Bauhaus alien looks like it might have been designed by Oscar Schlemmer. It is a masterfully surreal design; a gnomelike child that is simultaneously benign, fragile, and aggressive. The alien from a dying, freezing planet pre-dates Nicolas Roeg‘s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).  Sci-fi fans may see the influence Planet X had on later films like Invaders From Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), to name a few. The alien is vulnerable, falling prey to a faulty breathing apparatus, which puts him at the mercy of the quietly malevolent Dr. Mears (dependable character actor William Schallert). Human avarice rears its ugly head and reaps havoc. The alien is exploited and provoked, the military called in, and…

Plot-wise we have seen it a hundred times, but it was done first here. The main difference is that Ulmer tells his tale without bells and whistles. With the exception of Schallert, the cast is unexceptional. However, Ulmer’s protagonist (Clark) is commendably intelligent and genuinely moral.

There is no cinematic chest-beating here. With meager shells, Ulmer and company produce a film adorned in his usual themes of ambiguity and self-destruction. Stylistically, The Man From Planet X  is dreamy and understated. Perhaps too understated. Despite some beautiful shots (alien in the moors, intense close-ups) and (now) familiar elements (the alien can only communicate via musical sounds, can control minds, and plots an invasion) The Man From Planet X is a commendable, atmospheric entry in the science fiction genre, but little more. Ulmer does wonders without a budget to speak of, but is clearly hampered by the six day shooting schedule. Pacing issues are not resolved and the film has little flow.

Next Week: Ida Lupino’s noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953).

EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

Reviewing ‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen.

Shot on the quick and cheaply, Detour defies the rules of Poverty Row aesthetics. In his review of Ulmer’s Detour, critic Roger Ebert acknowledges the film’s flaws: “Detour is a film so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” And yet it is greater than the sum of it’s parts, defying the “aesthetics only” art school rule. Ebert adds, ” Yet, Detour lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir.”

The pessimism of Detour drips into the nitrate of Ulmer’s bubblegum Shakespearean saga. Al (Neal) is a pianist who prostitutes his art in dives. Ulmer symbolizes this in idiosyncratic fashion by Al’s transformation of a Brahms piano piece into a grotesque, possessed, populist parody. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject, is self-portrait. Al eerily mirrors Ulmer in the portrait of a highly cultured artist who is reduced to a career gutter through his own missteps. It is little wonder that Detour was Ulmer’s favorite of his own films.

Still from Detour (1945)Fate is an ambivalent, malevolent force relentlessly and unjustly dogging Al. He responds with self-pity tightly wrapped in ten cent philosophy. Al, like Bluebeard, is waxing bitter over a woman. His curse is to be in love with the ambitious Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue’s dreams of a successful Hollywood career provoke jealousy within Al and serves as a biting reminder of his own failed career. She departs and settles, albeit uncomfortably, in the land of opportunity. Although destitute, Al vows reconciliation and embarks upon a thumbed journey to Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

The recently departed critic Andrew Sarris recommended further study of  when he amusingly wrote: “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which be signature of a genuine artist.”[1]

Writing in the Village Voice, Sarris’ criticism had developed Truffaut’s “auteur” theory, which holds that a film is the personal vision of the director. The director, therefore, is the primary author, the “auteur.” Sarris’ adherence to this theory inspired ridicule from Pauline Kael, who argued that film, being a collaborative medium, is multi-authored. While Kael respected Sarris, she found the theory absurd.

Sarris often used Ulmer as an example of this theory: “Most of Ulmer’s films are of interest only to unthinking audiences. Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer’s camera never falters, even when his characters disintegrate. When his material is less impossible, his reflexes are still sharp. That a personal style could emerge form the depths of poverty row is a tribute to a director without alibis.”

Poster for The Strange Woman (1946)Strange Woman (1946) was a rarity in Ulmer’s oeuvre: he had a worthwhile budget, a script based off a best-selling novel. an accomplished cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), and a topnotch cast, headed by a star actor (Hedy Lamarr, who also produced). The result was a hit upon its release, yet it has become one of the more obscure Ulmer films; perhaps, because it is typical of the 1940s femme fatale melodramas and cannot compare to the likes of the better known Gilda, which was released the same year.

Lamarr, who had been a childhood friend of Ulmer’s, personally chose him to direct. Ulmer repaid the favor with sensual close-ups of the beautiful actress. Her performance as Jenny ranks with similar evil gal performances by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. Strange Woman is, easily, Lamarr’s best screen work, since she was normally used as mere decor. Lamarr would have been a bigger star if she had continued in similar projects, but her Continue reading EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

  1. All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.” []

EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

 began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, and Bela Lugosi, in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of  and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.

Universal was a family-run studio when Ulmer decided to have an affair with the wife of a top-ranking Universal studio executive. Ulmer was fired and blacklisted, by the major studios, for life. Believe it or not, Hollywood once had a sense of morality. Ulmer was reduced to working for the poverty row circuit, namely PRC Studios. He later claimed that this was his artistic choice to do so, because it gave him greater creative freedom. He lied. Ulmer loved European culture, art music, and was known to discourse fluently on the aesthetic process with actors (Karloff was delightfully challenged by Ulmer). Many of Ulmer’s contemporaries freely acknowledge that Ulmer was also a pathological liar. Of course, this only makes him more interesting. He consistently exaggerated his background (when he didn’t need to), padded his resume, and made outrageous claims about himself. Despite all of that, Ulmer had a unique aesthetic sensibility and conscientiously tried to inject  that into his films, even in scripts that could only pass for excrement.

Ulmer struggled as much with PRC as he did with Universal. It was the classic case of artist vs. executives. Ulmer lost far more battles than he won, although he naturally fared best when he was allowed to act as his own producer. Ulmer desperately wanted to make a film of the Bluebeard story for 10 years. Originally, it was supposed to star Karloff and would be his follow Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: 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.

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DIRECTED BY: Edgar G. Ulmer

FEATURING: , Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A young couple find themselves caught between the machinations of a doctor bent on revenge and a mad engineer in the latter’s Art Deco mansion, built on the graves of the soldiers he sold out in a World War I battle.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEThe Black Cat has the cadence of a nightmare.  Its shadows haunt the mind long after the DVD clatters out of the tray. Still, as impressive as the movie’s evocation of corruption masked by civility is, it’s highly creepy but only mildly weird; it remains to be seen whether it’s eccentric excellence will overcome it’s somewhat suspect surreality and catapult it onto the List.

COMMENTS:  Today, The Black Cat looks like a cult film.  In the popular memory it’s almost never mentioned alongside the Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), but “those in the know” sing its praises to the uninitiated: The Black Cat is a forgotten Expressionist classic, too cool for the masses, a film that had to be resurrected from oblivion by the cinematic savants at Cahiers du Cinema who recognized its neglected genius.  Truth be told, however, The Black Cat, which teamed up terror titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time, was a huge box office hit in 1934.  Despite reviews from The New York Times, Variety,and Time that ranged from dismissive to near-scathing, the film was a blockbuster, Universal’s highest-grossing release of the year.  Through modern eyes—with its daring pre-code perversity and its disjointed, dreamlike rhythms—The Black Cat looks like an ahead-of-its-time oddity we assume musty old timers would have misunderstood, but perhaps audiences in 1934 were hipper than we give them credit for.

At the time, the two rising horror stars were the main draw, and they acquit themselves admirably.  Returning to wreak revenge on the man who wronged him after spending 15 years in a WWI prisoner-of-war camp, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast makes an unlikely, suspect hero.  He’s a raw and damaged bundle of obsessions and phobias hidden underneath a suave, aristocratic exterior and filtered through a thick Hungarian accent.  Lugosi has his impressive moments, as when he loses his mind (and, temporarily, his grasp of the English language) in the film’s startling climax, but Karloff outshines him, turning in one of his finest performances as villainous architect Hjalmar Poelzig.  Initially glimpsed as a menacing shadow rising mechanically from his bed, when he steps into the light we see a frowning, grim faced man with a diabolically angular haircut, draped in black robes.  Karloff’s every motion is cold and calculated, detached and almost inhuman: he hangs back, animated only by the occasional spasm of evil (as when he reveals his hidden lust for the heroine by thrusting forth his hand and tightly gripping a nude figurine in the foreground while watching her kiss her husband).

Vitus and Poelzig play a cat-and-mouse game, dramatically demonstrated in an oddly conceived chess match for the soul of the heroine.  The backdrop before which they fence—Poelzig’s gleaming Bauhaus mansion, full of odd angles, deep shadows, and hidden rooms, including one with twisted crosses and jutting angular pillars before which he conducts his rites dedicated to Lucifer—lends their jousting an aura of  strangeness.  Karloff’s haircut is almost an Expressionist set of its own.  There’s no literary connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological horror story “The Black Cat,” but the beautiful, flitting imagery and tone of repressed evil evokes Poe’s opiated style, and there is a literal black cat who pops up inexplicably on occasion, almost as an afterthought, to terrify the phobic Lugosi.

The Black Cat is full of arresting images: corpses preserved and encased in glass boxes, Lugosi recoiling before the giant shadow of the black cat, Karloff conducting a Black Mass.  The plot, on the other hand, is fragmented; it lurches forward without clear explanation  (the company hardly reacts when Lugosi launches a conveniently placed throwing knife at the pesky feline; the unexplained swoon of a female Satanist allows Lugosi to turn the tables on Karloff).   At one point Poelzig asks Vitus, “of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?,” a question he could well address to the movie itself.  The answer, of course, is to provide pure atmosphere: an atmosphere of psychic repression and elegant perversity, full of hints of necrophilia, sex slavery, incest, mass murder, and other European decadences.  The combination of powerful images and loose narrative connections gives the film a choppy, nightmarish feel that works even better in the memory than it does while you are watching it, and accounts for the weird feeling The Black Cat generates in susceptible viewers.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed under F.W. Murnau and worked as an uncredited set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, among other projects.  Set to be a big name helmer after the success of The Black Cat, rumor has it that Ulmer indulged in an affair with the wife of a powerful Universal producer and was exiled to the poverty row studio PRC.  There, he turned out workmanlike B-movies with titles like Girls in Chains and Isle of Forgotten Sins before creating another minor classic, the grimy and effective low-budget noir Detour (1945).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

For another opinion and further background on the film, see Alfred Eaker’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

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, Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)