Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Black Cat - 1934

Released May 7, 1934
Reissued by Realart as “The Vanishing Body”
Director:                                Edgar G. Ulmer
Production Supervisor:         E.M. Asher
Screenplay:                            Peter Ruric
Story:                                    Edgar G. Ulmer and Peter Ruric
Photography:                        John J. Mescall
Art Director:                          Charles D. Hall
Make-Up:                            Jack P. Pierce

Hjalmar Poelzig           Boris Karloff
Dr. Vitus Werdegast     Bela Lugosi
Peter Allison                David Manners
Joan Allison               Jacqueline Wells
Karen                          Lucille Lund
The Majordomo            Egon Brecher
Thamal                       Harry Cording
Lieutenant                  Albert Conti
Sergeant                    Henry Armetta
Bus Driver                  George Davis

“Supernatural... perhaps.  Baloney... perhaps not.”  The inimitable Bela Lugosi delivers that juicy line.
This movie is one of my favorites and I have seen it many times, but recently I saw it on the big screen for the first time.  It is such a delight to see these two men together.   It was the first teaming of two of the most unique actors in film – Lugosi and Boris Karloff, playing Dr. Vitus Werdegast and Hjalmar Poelzig, respectively  

Coming off the success of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”, Universal wanted to boost box office by using both of their top “monsters” in one movie.  It worked: it became the studio’s biggest hit of 1934.  This odd, perverse, and brilliant film is one of Universal’s best.  It contains torture, murder, eroticism, madness, devil worship, hints of incest and necrophilia – what’s not to like?  How it got so much past the censors is a mystery in itself. 

In the opening credits it is referred to as “suggested by the Edgar Allen Poe story”.  The movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe, other than sharing a sense of morbid dread.  The only other similarity is the brief presence in the film of a black cat, in order to justify the title. 

It begins aboard the Orient Express, leaving Budapest.  We meet a young newlywed couple, Joan and Peter Allison, on their way to a Hungarian resort for their honeymoon.  They meet Dr. Werdegast when he shares their compartment.  He is also going very near their destination, to “visit an old friend”.  Given the ominous way Lugosi delivers that line, you want to thank your lucky stars you are not the old friend he is going to visit.  He has spent the past 15 years after the war in a Russian prison “where the soul is killed”.  Now, bitter and hell-bent on revenge, he wants to find out what happened to his wife Karen, and their daughter. 

The “friend” he is going to visit would be architect Poelzig, who was the commander of Fort Marmorus – site of one of the bloodiest battles of WW I.  Poelzig sold out to the Russians, and left thousands of his men to die or be taken prisoner.  He then told Karen that her husband was dead, married her, and ran away with her and her young daughter.  Years later, after Karen’s death, he married the daughter (also named Karen).  Poelzig has since built his home on top of the ruins of Fort Marmorus, “the greatest graveyard in the world”. 

After leaving the train, the trio board a bus to take them to town.  The bus driver regales his passengers with the gruesome history of the area.  “The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men.  The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood.”   In a close shot of Lugosi’s face, he slowly closes his eyes as the dark memories wash over his features with surprising delicacy.   Lugosi is not regarded usually as a subtle actor, but this moment demonstrates how powerful he could be by doing very little.

On the muddy road during a fierce rainstorm, the bus veers and crashes, killing the driver and leaving Joan slightly injured.   They are forced to seek refuge in Poelzig’s mansion.  This house is a character in its own right.  Designed by Poelzig, it is a masterpiece of cold, sleek, modern, Bauhaus simplicity.  When Peter struggles to find words to describe the atmosphere of the house, Werdegast says, “it may be an atmostphere of death.”

-->The three men share a drink and introduce themselves.  During this superficial joviality Werdegast sees the black cat.  In a fit of terrified rage, he throws a knife and kills it.  Poelzig looks up with a sly, malicious grin and explains that his old friend suffers from “one of the commoner phobias but in an extreme form…an intense horror of cats”.  Karloff  delivers that line with a  perfect combination of his famous lisp and a sinister hiss on the final letter of ‘cats’

Joan wakes from the narcotic injection that the doctor had given her when dressing her wound.  Still strangely affected by the drug, she enters the room with sensuous, feline grace.

  We see the couple in the background as she suddenly kisses her husband passionately.  But the camera’s focus changes to the foreground where we see Poelzig’s hand near a table, where sits a statue of a nude woman.  As the music and the kiss both reach a climax, his hand clutches the arm of the statue in a spasm of jealous lust.  He definitely has plans for Joan.

Poelzig, with his severe widow’s peak and pale face, embodies saturnine, lustful evil one second and genteel graciousness the next.  He would be your perfect host in hell.  (Karloff, incidentally, was one of the nicest gentlemen in the movies.)

After the couple return to their rooms, Werdegast demands to know where Karen and his daughter are.  Poelzig takes him on a journey into the bowels of the old fort, its atmosphere of death and destruction still intact.  He shows him the body of Karen, preserved and suspended in a glass case.  One of the most bizarre details of this movie is the gallery of embalmed bodies of five or six women so displayed.  Lugosi’s face is a mask of tender sorrow as he asks “why is she like this?”   Poelzig tells him that Karen and the child both died after the war.  He preserved her so that he could keep her beauty always.

Accusing Poelzig of murdering them, Werdegast draws a gun and attempts to kill him.  However, he cries out and falls back at the sight of the black cat.  Poelzig tells him they should not seek childish revenge; that he also had his soul killed by the war, “Are we not both the living dead?”  He suggests they play a game of chess to determine the fate of the innocent couple.  Poelzig, in addition to his other charms, is a Satanist.  He intends to sacrifice the bride that night during the Rites of Lucifer.

Peter decides that they have had enough of their host’s creepy hospitality and tries to arrange their leaving.  As the chess game begins, Poelzig deftly, and oh so politely, counters every move Peter tries to make -the car isn’t working, the phone is dead.    He says to his opponent, “You hear that, Vitus, the phone is dead.  Even the phone is dead.”

  Poelzig wins the game, and so as the couple try to leave, Peter is knocked out and imprisoned while Joan is taken upstairs to be made ready for the sacrifice.
During a moment of confusion in the ceremony, Werdegast helps Joan escape, and tries to rescue Peter.  Joan has seen his daughter and tells him that she is still alive, living in the house as Madame Poelzig.  He finds her body; Poelzig has killed her rather than let her father be reunited with her.  Now, completely unhinged with revenge, Werdegast ties Poelzig to a rack and begins to skin him alive (we see this only in shadow).   Peter, mistakenly thinking that Werdegast is attacking Joan, shoots him.  The movie ends with the lovers escaping and the inevitable explosion destroying the house. 

Boris Karloff has been considered by most people to be the better actor of the two heavies.   Lugosi plays the damaged but sympathetic lead role in this movie, but Karloff gets top billing (he is billed simply as “Karloff”, no first name). 

Lugosi had the handicap of a heavy accent and less than fluent English.  But in my opinion, he has a magnetism on the screen that overshadows Karloff.  He has such a dark, riveting intensity, you can’t look away.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in the same room with him.  This elegant, distinctive actor was criminally wasted by Hollywood, and sadly, remains underappreciated by many to this day.

One of the marks of a good actor is the ability to listen to his or her fellow actors.  Part of the joy in watching these two actors work together is seeing the eloquent intensity and focus that each displays during their scenes.   

David Manners’ boyish good looks are useful for the role of the young bridegroom.  His bland amiability does no serious harm; unlike in “Dracula”, where he was as stiff as a coffin lid and could almost single handedly grind a scene to a halt.  But, three years later he appears more relaxed and almost holds his own with the two powerful leads.   In their scenes together, Lugosi and Karloff appear gracious and tolerant of this puppy in their midst.

Jacqueline Wells as Joan does a creditable job at what she was hired for – to look lovely, be frightened, and scream well.  And faint.  And faint some more.
Director Edgar G. Ulmer had a decent budget to work with as well as an A list cast.  He made many interesting movies, but later in his career was relegated to poverty row studios.  He also had experience as a set designer and here was responsible for the remarkable look of the house.  Ulmer also worked on the story and screenplay, which was one of the first to incorporate the horrors and atrocities of the Great War into a horror film.  

There is one unfortunate scene of comic relief.  Two local gendarmes arrive at the house to make a report about the accident, and have an argument about whose home town is lovelier.  Be patient, it passes quickly.  It is somewhat useful as a brief respite from the tension.

With love, I give this one 5 kisses.  It’s worth seeing for many reasons, but to hear Bela Lugosi say the word, “baloney” - for my money, that’s worth two kisses all by itself.

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