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Produced in 1934 at Universal Studios, The Black Cat was a film thatcould not possibly fail. At least that was how filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmersold the idea to Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. By teamingthe newborn horror genre's darkest stars -- Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff-- in their first film together, and splashing the name Edgar Allan Poeabove the title, The Black Cat was as close as a Depression-erastudio could come to a sure thing.
So confident was Laemmle that he allowed the ambitious Ulmer virtually freerein on the picture. Ulmer responded by crafting a story from scratch with screenwriterPeter Ruric, casting aside three different Black Cat treatmentsalready sitting in the script department, as well as Poe's story itself,retaining only a mere trace of the original text. "The Edgar Allan Poestory is not a story you can dramatize," said Ulmer frankly.
While Ulmer may have been afforded creative freedom in making The BlackCat, Universal kept him on a short leash nonetheless. The film wasbudgeted at a third of what the studio had spent on Dracula (1931)or Frankenstein (1931), and allowed a brief fifteen-day shootingschedule. Because Ulmer had a genius for crafting ambitious films onincredibly low budgets, The Black Cat looks as though it cost twiceas much as it did.
Ulmer's background was primarily as a set designer. Working in the Germantheatre circa 1910, and under legendary stage director Max Reinhardt, Ulmercarried his skills to the cinema, collaborating with Fritz Lang and F.W.Murnau on such classics as Metropolis (1927) and Sunrise(1927). As a director, he had found few opportunities in America, making aseries of low-budget silent Westerns for Universal, and a syphiliseducation film for the Canadian Social Health Council. Ulmer knew thatThe Black Cat was his golden opportunity.
Rather than exploring the 1843 tale of psychological disintegration, Ulmerlooked for inspiration in the horrors of the recent past. While working onThe Golem (1920) in Germany, Ulmer met novelist Gustav Meyrinck, who"was contemplating a play based on Doumond, which was a French fortress theGermans had shelled to pieces during World War I; there were some survivorswho didn't come out for years," explained Ulmer in a 1970 interview withPeter Bogdanovich. "And the commander was a strange Euripedes figure whowent crazy three years later, when he was brought back to Paris, because hehad walked on that mountain of bodies."
Thus Ulmer found his Poe-worthy setting: Castle Poelzig, built atop thebloodstained ruins of Fort Marmaros. Early in the film, a pair ofnewlyweds (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) journey through the stormyHungarian countryside in the direction of Poelzig's lair. Like a morbidtour guide, the taxi driver proudly describes the surrounding battlefield,"tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piledtwelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen,red, a raging torrent of blood." Immediately thereafter the car swerves offthe road and the taxi driver himself joins the army of the dead, while thetravelers venture on foot to the imposing Castle Poelzig. Journeying withthem is Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi), who is a survivor of the bloodyMarmaros battlefield upon which they tread. When they arrive at themountaintop mansion, Verdegast recognizes Poelzig (Karloff) as abloodthirsty officer in the war. Within the walls of Castle Poelzig amental battle ensues, a murderous game of chess in which the young loversare used as pawns by the sinister Poelzig and vengeful Verdegast.
This might appear to be the typical dark-and-stormy-night drama but at themoment when the weary travelers ring Poelzig's doorbell, The BlackCat dramatically upends the conventions of the typical "Old Dark House"thriller. Instead of the gloomy, stone-walled castle, they find themselvesin a sleek mansion of glass bricks, a stainless-steel staircase, chromefixtures and neon lights. "It was very much out of my Bauhaus period,"Ulmer dryly explained.
As a production designer, The Black Cat is Ulmer's greatestachievement. Poelzig's castle is a masterpiece of 1930s Deco architecture,designed to mirror the icy detachment and steely demeanor of its lord. TheKarloff character was named in tribute to one of Ulmer's architecturalmentors, Hans Poelzig, who supervised Ulmer's work on The Golem. Toa degree, Karloff's performance was also governed by Ulmer'sultra-modernist vision. Gowned in silky black robes, his hair combed andshaved into sharp angles, he moves stiffly, almost robotically through thegleaming halls. When the character is first introduced, lying in bed withhis unconscious bride, the script indicates, "the upper part of a man'sbody rises slowly, as if pulled by wires, to a sitting position." Karloffscoffed at this mechanical approach to performance. "Aren't you ashamed todo a thing like that," he asked Ulmer, "that has nothing to do withacting?" Ulmer persisted and as a result Karloff gives one of the mostunderstated yet unsettling performances of his career.
Lugosi, meanwhile, occupied the opposite extreme, having a tendency tooveract that was only exaggerated by his thick Hungarian accent. Ulmercleverly moderated Lugosi's performance by limiting his screen time,focusing more on reaction shots of other characters. "You had to cut awayfrom Lugosi continuously," Ulmer said, "to cut him down."
Supporting actor David Manners was another Universal horror veteran, thoughone of a lower profile. Manners had played the straight man in suchcornerstone shockers as Tod Browning's Dracula and Karl Freund'sThe Mummy (1932), and reprised his role as the handsome young mantrying to protect his bride from evil incarnate.
The Black Cat was produced shortly before the Production Codetightened its reins on the motion picture industry, at a time when cleverfilmmakers could still weave a surprising amount of adult material into afilm if they exercised a subtle touch. Even under these somewhat liberalcircumstances, it is mind-boggling how many diabolical flourishes Ulmerheaped into this mere 65-minute film. The film climaxes as a group ofworshipers arrive at Poelzig's castle to participate in a black mass duringwhich Joan is to be sacrificed on an altar of Satan. Interrupting theproceedings, Verdegast lashes Poelzig to his own torture rack and skins himalive with a small knife.
When the first cut of The Black Cat was screened for the Laemmles(studio head Carl Sr. and producer Carl Jr.), they were shocked by thehorrors Ulmer had created. Lugosi, meanwhile, expressed angrydisappointment to find that once again he was playing a villainouscharacter, exhibiting some of the same murderous and lustful urges of theevil Poelzig. Ulmer grudgingly agreed to reshoot certain scenes,downplaying the brutality of the "skinned alive" sequence, and makingVerdegast more of a protector of Joan's virtue than a threat to it. Ratherthan being discouraged and bitter by the imposed changes, the crafty Ulmertook advantage of the extended shooting schedule to add a few new scenes,including the film's most perverse sequence. In the underground dungeon --the stony depths of the old Fort Marmaros -- Poelzig leads Verdegast on atour of his trophies: a series of beautiful women, dead, embalmed,exquisitely posed in glass display cases. It was never obvious to thestudio brass, but in addition to being a sadist and Satanist, Poelzig wasalso a necrophile.
Upon its release, The Black Cat turned out to be the highlyprofitable "sure thing" Ulmer had promised. One would expect the directorto be generously rewarded for his efforts but the film instead almost endedhis career -- but not for reasons that are readily apparent. His scriptassistant on the set was Shirley Castle Alexander, who was married to one ofLaemmle, Sr.'s favorite nephews, Max Alexander. Ulmer and the script girlfell in love during production and Shirley soon left her husband for themysterious and intellectual filmmaker. When Edgar and Shirley weremarried, they had no choice but leave Hollywood, where Ulmer felt he wouldbe professionally blackballed. They moved to New York and began a careermaking independent features on extremely small budgets, including Yiddishfilms (Green Fields, 1937), a black cast film (Moon Over Harlem, 1939), a film for Ukrainian immigrants (Cossacks in Exile, 1939) and melodramas (Girls in Chains, 1943). Banished to a B-movie purgatory of low-end studios, laboring under financiallyrestrictive circumstances, Ulmer still managed to flourish artistically,savoring the freedom to experiment that the studio system seldomallowed.
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Peter Ruric, "Suggested by" the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: John Mescall
Production Design: Edgar G. Ulmer
Music Supervisor: Heinz Roemheld
Principal Cast: Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig), Bela Lugosi (Vitus Verdegast), DavidManners (Peter Alison), Jacqueline Wells (Joan Alison), Harry Cording(Thamal).
by Bret Wood