(1934) Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer; Written by: Peter Ruric; Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop and Lucille Lund; Available on DVD.
“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.”
– Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi)
“…You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”
– Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)
The Black Cat might just be the ideal vehicle to showcase the talents of on and off-screen rivals Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. While the reality of their rivalry is probably less interesting than the publicized version, a kernel of truth lies within. Lugosi burst out of the gates with Universal Studios’ first bonafide talkie horror hit Dracula, but was quickly overtaken by Karloff in Frankenstein (in a role that Lugosi famously turned down) and other subsequent films. The fact that Karloff was frequently offered juicier roles, while Lugosi was often relegated to second banana characters only helped stoke the flames of (alleged) animosity between the two. What makes The Black Cat such a pleasure to watch is that both actors are at the top of their form, and were given equal time.* Director Edgar G. Ulmer (a German transplant who worked under F.W. Murnau) and writer Peter Ruric spin a deliciously macabre tale of revenge, based (very) loosely on an Edgar Allan Poe story.
* According to Arthur Lenning in The Immortal Count: The Life and Times of Bela Lugosi, Karloff was compensated a flat rate of $7,500 for his work in The Black Cat, while Lugosi received $1,000 a week for three works (compare to David Manners’ salary of $1,200 a week for a supporting role).
Karloff is striking as satanic architect Hjalmar Poelzig. With his pallid complexion, angular facial features and dead stare, he resembles a walking corpse rather than a living man. Although we’re commonly taught you can’t judge a book by its cover, his appearance mirrors his evil deeds. Poelzig’s erudite demeanor belies his sinister intent. He’s a man who has experienced so much death in his lifetime that he has become death.
In a scene that will likely appear cliché to modern audiences, he sits at his organ, playing Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor” (It must be an unwritten rule that all villains learn this familiar musical piece).
Lugosi displays tremendous range as the haunted psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast. For reasons not made entirely clear, his nemesis Poelzig has profited from war and destruction, while Werdegast has spent the past 15 years wasting away in prison. En route to his confrontation with the man who ruined his life, Werdegast encounters an American newlywed couple (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells as Peter and Joan Alison) on a train to Budapest. After their tour bus crashes, they accompany him to Poelzig’s home, where a match of wits is about to begin. When it becomes apparent that Poelzig wishes to keep Joan for himself, Werdegast remarks, “There was nothing spiritual in your eyes.” The two enemies engage in an all-stakes chess game for the woman’s fate, while the ineffectual Peter stands on the sidelines. According to Arthur Lenning, the filmmakers toned down Werdegast to make his actions seem more heroic in contrast to Poelzig’s treachery. Embittered by years of incarceration, Werdegast has suffered many losses, but not all of his humanity. He intends to prevent Joan from becoming another conquest. Along with his manservant Thamal (Harry Cording) he bides his time, waiting for the opportunity to strike. By the time Werdegast exacts his gruesome revenge against Poelzig, our eyes, but not our ears are spared.
A moribund atmosphere surrounds everyone and everything in the film. Werdegast describes Poelzig’s domicile as a “masterpiece of construction, built upon the ruins of a masterpiece of destruction.” The modernist house, replete with sliding doors, a sweeping staircase and rectangular features was designed by Poelzig and built atop the ruins of a fort, while the structure’s sharp angles echo its creator’s geometric appearance. Underneath the house, at the former entrance to the gun turrets, lies a dungeon with “death in the air.” Locked away in the bowels of the dungeon, the preserved corpse of Werdegast’s wife, one of Poelzig’s former conquests, is kept on display. Poelzig subsequently married the daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund), who remains unaware that her father still lives.
The Black Cat’s pervasive sense of gloom is marred only by a few abrupt tonal shifts. The opening and closing scenes with the newlyweds seem more appropriate for a light romantic comedy than a morose tale about a Satan worshipper. Similarly, an awkward comic sequence ensues when policemen come knocking at Poelzig’s door. Arguably, all of the ancillary characters in this film are extraneous, since our eyes remain glued to the screen whenever Karloff and Lugosi appear. The Black Cat suitably exploits the respective charms of both actors, and features one of Lugosi’s finest performances.