MONOCHROME MANOR Presents:
THE BLACK CAT (1934)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and, on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: THE BLACK CAT (1934)
Universal Picture’s highest grossing picture of 1934 was also the first to feature two of the studio’s biggest names in one film. THE BLACK CAT stars both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, in what would be the first of eight films to feature the two horror legends together. Even for the day, this one is surprisingly short, clocking in at just 65 minutes. That said, director Edgar G. Ulmer (THE MAN FROM PLANET X, 1951) uses the limited run-time extremely well. You’ll find virtually nothing in the way of padding here—only thrills, chills, suspense, some implied necrophilia, a rousing game of chess, and even a good-old-fashion black mass!
There is also a cat in there somewhere.
As the film begins, let us first direct our attention to the title card. Under the large print reading “THE BLACK CAT,” there is the line: “Suggested by the immortal EDGAR ALLAN POE classic.” Not adapted from, not inspired by… suggested. Now, this may seem like an odd thing to boast, but it was probably about as close as Universal could come without being sued. Despite its title, the film has absolutely nothing to do with Poe’s seminal short story “The Black Cat” (originally published in 1843). In fact, director Edgar G. Ulmer freely admitted as much, stating that the whole “Poe angle” was dreamed up late in the film’s production to help garner publicity.
But enough of that…
Our story begins somewhere in Hungary, amidst the hustle and bustle of a train station. In car 96, compartment-F, we meet the Allisons, Peter (David Manners, DRACULA, 1931, THE MUMMY, 1932) and Joan (Julie Bishop, ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC, 1943). After some moderately inane, if charming banter, there comes a knock on the door. Into compartment-F walks a tall, Hungarian gentleman, Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) —a man who, due to some mix-up or other, has found himself without a compartment of his own. The Allisons agree to share their space, and the man graciously accepts.
Clearly, Joan is a bit wary of the stranger, but he quickly turns on the charm—explaining that he is traveling to visit an old friend, who lives very near to where the Allisons are going. A little later, after Joan has fallen asleep, Werdegast reveals a bit of his tragic past to Peter. Fifteen years prior, he left behind his loving wife and homeland to go to war—thus entering what turned out to be “kind of a rough patch.” In fact, most of that period was spent rotting away in a Siberian prison, to which (as Werdegast puts it) “many have gone, but few have ever returned.” Once off the train, Dr. Werdegast offers to share his carriage with the Allisons, since their destinations are so close.
Side Note #1: I find it kind of funny that in this carriage scene, as other characters engage in conversation, Werdegast seems to be nodding off to sleep in the back seat. For sure, we’ve all been there. Sitting in the car as the music and rhythmic lull of the road beckons us into slumberland. But here, with Lugosi’s presence in the shot so downplayed, it almost seems as if it were the actor, rather than his character who was actually a bit tuckered out.
In the front of the carriage, the driver hasn’t stopped babbling for a darned second. Hell, the guy seems more interested in boasting about wartime atrocities and graveyards than paying attention to the road. As such, it isn’t long before he promptly runs the vehicle through a fence—providing Werdegast with a much needed pick-me-up.
The car tumbles and rolls down a steep embankment before smashing into a tree. As the smoke clears, we learn the careless driver was killed on impact, but miraculously, most of the principle cast emerge from the wreck unhurt. Only poor Joan is unconscious. Good thing the house of Dr. Werdegast’s aforementioned “friend” is sitting right there on top of yonder hill!
After making their way up the winding road, Werdegast barges inside the house like he owns the place—insisting that the owner, Dr. Poelzig (Karloff) will be expecting him. Next he demands a room where injured Joan can rest and be examined. Stupefied, the butler has no recourse but to look grumpy and acquiesce. After showing the “guests” to a room, the man rushes off to awaken the master of the house.
Not that house is really the word, because this place could make the Louvre blush.
Upstairs, the butler’s voice buzzes over an intercom. Just four little words. “Doctor Werdegast has arrived.” Then, via a dramatically backlit shot, we catch our first glimpse of the film’s other star. Boris freaking Karloff. Hearing the message, he sits up in his bed. Then slowly, mechanically, he rises to his feet, exiting the bed chamber without a word.
Downstairs, Werdegast completes his examination of the fairest Allison, determining that her injuries are not severe. But no sooner does everyone breathe a sigh of relief than the door swings open to reveal the sinister master of the abode. Seriously, this guy has “villain” written all over him. From those flaring eyebrows to the flowing warlock’s robe, to the widow’s peak from hell, Karloff’s Dr. Poelzig is a vision of shady malevolence. Werdegast turns, and greets his “old friend” with a smile, calmly relating the harrowing carriage accident, as well as his reasons for bringing the Allisons there. Poelzig nods, showing no outward displeasure, but clearly there is plenty being left unspoken with these two “old friends”.
Once safely away from the Allisons’ ears, the two horror icons begin to reveal a bit of what is really going on. Apparently, while Werdegast was off fighting for king and country, having his very soul murdered in that Siberian prison… Poelzig snatched up the guy’s wife and fled to America! After that, he apparently moved all over the world, amassing quite the fortune before finally returning home to mother Hungary, where he proceeded to settle down and build a really, really big house.
At least, that’s how Werdegast tells it.
He demands to know what happened to his beloved wife! Poelzig responds by saying that Werdegast is mad, but the claim feels hollow—half-hearted at best. The truth is written all over the man’s face. For while that face wears neither shame nor guilt, neither does it show the faintest hint of denial. Unfortunately, before either man can say more… in walks the cat! Werdegast’s reaction is explosive. After recoiling in terror, he hurls a knife, killing the fear-inducing feline!
Side Note #2: The fear of cats is known as ailurophobia, and boy, does this guy have it. Now I’m all for a good character flaw, but this one comes on as more of a cheap way to tie in the title than anything. That said, Lugosi’s random phobia is one of the many elements that makes THE BLACK CAT as entertaining and memorable as it is.
With this random act of animal violence, both Peter and a fully conscious Joan (who is acting a bit spooky, if you ask me) rush into the room, thus putting the tense exchange between the two “old friends” on pause. The interesting thing is that spooky Joan is overtly rude to Werdegast here. Even prodding him about being afraid of the cat. And then, in the very next breath, she turns with a smile for her gracious host, Poelzig—almost as a further turn of the knife for poor Werdegast. At this point, everyone decides to hit the hay. But after seeing his uninvited guests to their rooms, Poelzig decides to head down to the basement to ogle his dead ladies in glass boxes collection.
That’s right, folks. Actual dead ladies in actual glass boxes, ala Nora Fries (Batman fans know what I’m talking about). So yeah, not only is this creep Poelzig a deserter and a bad haircut haver, he’s also pretty much pure reeking evil. A fact that makes it all the more interesting that Joan has such a dislike for Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast. After all, it is he, not her wet noodle writer beau, who proves her most stalwart champion.
Side Note #3: In real life, first impressions can go awry, sometimes causing an unfair judgement to be made. But this is a rarer thing in film. Especially that are less than 70 minutes long.
In many ways, THE BLACK CAT is simply a collection of entertaining ideas, thrown together for no better reason than so Universal’s two biggest horror stars could have a reason to duke it out. To audiences of the day, the struggles of Werdegast and Poelzig might not have been half as thrilling as the idea of Dracula facing off against Frankenstein. And by that virtue alone, this movie might well have been terrible. A spectacle built on star power rather than quality. Instead, what we have here is a fantastic, outlandish, wonder of a film that just so happens to contain this writer’s favorite performance of one Bela Lugosi.
Before coming to America, Bela was a leading man in Hungary. Appearing on stage and in numerous silent films throughout the 1920s. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, his exotic look and thick accent made him better suited to villain roles (one in particular). But, in THE BLACK CAT… for once he gets to play a tragic hero—as close to a leading man as he ever came outside of his homeland.
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson