The Black Cat (1934)
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Produced in 1934 at Universal Studios, The Black Cat was a film that could not possibly fail. At least that was how filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer sold the idea to Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. By teaming the newborn horror genre's darkest stars -- Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff -- in their first film together, and splashing the name Edgar Allan Poe above the title, The Black Cat was as close as a Depression-era studio could come to a sure thing.
So confident was Laemmle that he allowed the ambitious Ulmer virtually free rein on the picture. Ulmer responded by crafting a story from scratch with screenwriter Peter Ruric, casting aside three different Black Cat treatments already sitting in the script department, as well as Poe's story itself, retaining only a mere trace of the original text. "The Edgar Allan Poe story is not a story you can dramatize," said Ulmer frankly.
While Ulmer may have been afforded creative freedom in making The Black Cat, Universal kept him on a short leash nonetheless. The film was budgeted at a third of what the studio had spent on Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931), and allowed a brief fifteen-day shooting schedule. Because Ulmer had a genius for crafting ambitious films on incredibly low budgets, The Black Cat looks as though it cost twice as much as it did.
Ulmer's background was primarily as a set designer. Working in the German theatre circa 1910, and under legendary stage director Max Reinhardt, Ulmer carried 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 a series of low-budget silent Westerns for Universal, and a syphilis education film for the Canadian Social Health Council. Ulmer knew that The Black Cat was his golden opportunity.
Rather than exploring the 1843 tale of psychological disintegration, Ulmer looked for inspiration in the horrors of the recent past. While working on The Golem (1920) in Germany, Ulmer met novelist Gustav Meyrinck, who "was contemplating a play based on Doumond, which was a French fortress the Germans had shelled to pieces during World War I; there were some survivors who didn't come out for years," explained Ulmer in a 1970 interview with Peter Bogdanovich. "And the commander was a strange Euripedes figure who went crazy three years later, when he was brought back to Paris, because he had walked on that mountain of bodies."
Thus Ulmer found his Poe-worthy setting: Castle Poelzig, built atop the bloodstained ruins of Fort Marmaros. Early in the film, a pair of newlyweds (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) journey through the stormy Hungarian countryside in the direction of Poelzig's lair. Like a morbid tour guide, the taxi driver proudly describes the surrounding battlefield, "tens of thousands of men died here. 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." Immediately thereafter the car swerves off the road and the taxi driver himself joins the army of the dead, while the travelers venture on foot to the imposing Castle Poelzig. Journeying with them is Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi), who is a survivor of the bloody Marmaros battlefield upon which they tread. When they arrive at the mountaintop mansion, Verdegast recognizes Poelzig (Karloff) as a bloodthirsty officer in the war. Within the walls of Castle Poelzig a mental battle ensues, a murderous game of chess in which the young lovers are used as pawns by the sinister Poelzig and vengeful Verdegast.
This might appear to be the typical dark-and-stormy-night drama but at the moment when the weary travelers ring Poelzig's doorbell, The Black Cat dramatically upends the conventions of the typical "Old Dark House" thriller. Instead of the gloomy, stone-walled castle, they find themselves in a sleek mansion of glass bricks, a stainless-steel staircase, chrome fixtures 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 greatest achievement. Poelzig's castle is a masterpiece of 1930s Deco architecture, designed to mirror the icy detachment and steely demeanor of its lord. The Karloff character was named in tribute to one of Ulmer's architectural mentors, Hans Poelzig, who supervised Ulmer's work on The Golem. To a degree, Karloff's performance was also governed by Ulmer's ultra-modernist vision. Gowned in silky black robes, his hair combed and shaved into sharp angles, he moves stiffly, almost robotically through the gleaming halls. When the character is first introduced, lying in bed with his unconscious bride, the script indicates, "the upper part of a man's body rises slowly, as if pulled by wires, to a sitting position." Karloff scoffed at this mechanical approach to performance. "Aren't you ashamed to do a thing like that," he asked Ulmer, "that has nothing to do with acting?" Ulmer persisted and as a result Karloff gives one of the most understated yet unsettling performances of his career.
Lugosi, meanwhile, occupied the opposite extreme, having a tendency to overact that was only exaggerated by his thick Hungarian accent. Ulmer cleverly moderated Lugosi's performance by limiting his screen time, focusing more on reaction shots of other characters. "You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously," Ulmer said, "to cut him down."
Supporting actor David Manners was another Universal horror veteran, though one of a lower profile. Manners had played the straight man in such cornerstone shockers as Tod Browning's Dracula and Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932), and reprised his role as the handsome young man trying to protect his bride from evil incarnate.
The Black Cat was produced shortly before the Production Code tightened its reins on the motion picture industry, at a time when clever filmmakers could still weave a surprising amount of adult material into a film if they exercised a subtle touch. Even under these somewhat liberal circumstances, it is mind-boggling how many diabolical flourishes Ulmer heaped into this mere 65-minute film. The film climaxes as a group of worshipers arrive at Poelzig's castle to participate in a black mass during which Joan is to be sacrificed on an altar of Satan. Interrupting the proceedings, Verdegast lashes Poelzig to his own torture rack and skins him alive 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 the horrors Ulmer had created. Lugosi, meanwhile, expressed angry disappointment to find that once again he was playing a villainous character, exhibiting some of the same murderous and lustful urges of the evil Poelzig. Ulmer grudgingly agreed to reshoot certain scenes, downplaying the brutality of the "skinned alive" sequence, and making Verdegast more of a protector of Joan's virtue than a threat to it. Rather than being discouraged and bitter by the imposed changes, the crafty Ulmer took 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 a tour of his trophies: a series of beautiful women, dead, embalmed, exquisitely posed in glass display cases. It was never obvious to the studio brass, but in addition to being a sadist and Satanist, Poelzig was also a necrophile.
Upon its release, The Black Cat turned out to be the highly profitable "sure thing" Ulmer had promised. One would expect the director to be generously rewarded for his efforts but the film instead almost ended his career -- but not for reasons that are readily apparent. His script assistant on the set was Shirley Castle Alexander, who was married to one of Laemmle, Sr.'s favorite nephews, Max Alexander. Ulmer and the script girl fell in love during production and Shirley soon left her husband for the mysterious and intellectual filmmaker. When Edgar and Shirley were married, they had no choice but leave Hollywood, where Ulmer felt he would be professionally blackballed. They moved to New York and began a career making independent features on extremely small budgets, including Yiddish films (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 financially restrictive circumstances, Ulmer still managed to flourish artistically, savoring the freedom to experiment that the studio system seldom allowed.
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), David Manners (Peter Alison), Jacqueline Wells (Joan Alison), Harry Cording (Thamal).
by Bret Wood