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The Black Cat (1934)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund, Egon Brecher

Written By: Peter Ruric (also story), Edgar G. Ulmer (story) Directed By: Edgar G. Ulmer

The Short Version

Karloff and Lugosi appear together for the first time!

Just as amazing is which one’s the hero and which one’s the villain.

Art Deco style takes over from Gothic/German Expressionism.

Only the title comes from Poe, but that hardly matters here.

The Black Cat is one of the essential Universal classics.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Like this film, they’re melt-in-your-mouth tasty, and also like this film, they’re about presentation first.

Pairs Well With...


Elegant.  Flavorful.  Classic.

“Supernatural?  Perhaps.  Baloney?  Perhaps not.  There are many strange things under the sun.”

Nowadays when most people hear the words “Universal Horror,” they automatically think of the classic Gothic monsters: Dracula, the Mummy, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man, and, occasionally, the Invisible Man, too.  What’s often forgotten are the “one-off” titles from the period, which is shame, because there are some real gems to be found there.  Among them is one that was actually Universal’s most successful title from 1934: The Black Cat.

No doubt some of the secret to its initial – and later – success is due to the fact that The Black Cat puts Universal legends Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) and Bela Lugosi (Dracula) together for the very first time.  The appeal there is undeniable, to be sure, but a closer look reveals that there’s so much more to enjoy than just this brilliant casting maneuver.

Despite the claims made by the title card and much of the poster art, The Black Cat takes absolutely nothing from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe other than its title.  Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners, The Mummy, and Jacqueline Wells, Tarzan the Fearless) are an American couple on honeymoon in Hungary.  While riding on the Orient Express, they meet a fellow traveler named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), who indicates that after a long time away from the country, he is on his way to visit “an old friend,” Enginner Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), though his tone suggests that they are in fact anything but friends.  The couple and the doctor also share a small bus after departing the train, but the bus crashes into a ditch during a horrible rainstorm near Poelzig’s fortress-like home.  The Alisons follow Werdegast into the home to take shelter from the storm and to allow Joan to recover from an injury suffered during the accident.

But Werdegast fears for the safety of his newfound friends, for his “old friend” has sinister plans for them.  Can the evil Engineer Poelzig be stopped?  Not if the black cat he keeps around has anything to say about it…

On the one hand, The Black Cat can be reduced to the standard plot formula of “couple gets into an accident and takes shelter in a house owned by an evil man who wants to hurt them,” and indeed, that’s how most people nowadays are likely to look at it.  That’s fine, but on the other hand, there is so much more going on here.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer treats The Black Cat as more than just a story; rather, he directs it as a piece of performance art.  He does this in part via what a modern audience might call “going retro.”

In the early decades of cinema, it was common for performers to exaggerate their actions, both as a holdover from the requirements of stage performance (which needs to be understood from the back row) and as compensation for lack of audible dialogue (for silent films).  It was also common for the sets to take on lives of their own, with their styles being considered just as important to the pictures being filmed as the performances, particularly in German Expressionist features like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and later when the Gothic infusion came along.  The early years of “talkies” still tended toward unnatural exaggeration and an overemphasis on dialogue enunciation (new toy being experimented with), but as the 1930s rolled on, things were beginning to ease into at least somewhat more naturalistic storytelling.  Not so for Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

The set design (consisting primarily of the interiors of Poelzig’s estate) tears away from the standard dank Gothic castles and Expressionist asylums and instead embraces the more modernistic Art Deco movement, which is a major shock to the system of anyone who’d gotten used to torches, shadows, and big stones.  This modern look is a deliberate statement by the director that this is a horror film for the (then) present day, and not from the ages of Victoria or Byron.  With that said, Ulmer manages to take the bright, modern sets and give them the oppressive atmosphere of the castles of old through force of will: both his own, and that projected by his two very intense leads.

Though both are more than capable of doing so, neither Lugosi nor Karloff acts naturally during the course of The Black Cat.  Rather, their performances are stylized is a way that sometimes touches the edge of Japanese Noh.  Their movements – or moments of stillness – are brushstrokes, and when they overemphasize a line of dialogue, it is a strong brushstroke.  This is because Ulmer is approaching the characters of Werdegast and Poelzig not just as men, but as ideals, and thus they need to stand out as something beyond standard characterizations.

What they reflect, in fact, is a subject very specific to the era: namely, the open wounds still bleeding from what was then The Great War and what we now call World War I.  Aside from being the Satanist demanded by the horror film framework (after all, he had to be something if not a monster), Poelzig is revealed to be a war traitor who sold out his men and left them to die at the hands of the enemy.  Werdegast, meanwhile, is one of the men who got sold out, returning now after fifteen years in a Russian gulag.  It’s easy to gloss past that now, but at the time… oh yes, that would resonate, and at that point, many would definitely understand the good man who was Werdegast going mad, even before his wife and daughter get involved.  (Why yes, the script does pour it on thick for something that runs just over an hour.)

It should go without saying that both Karloff and Lugosi are marvelous in their roles.  Karloff plays Poelzig’s sinister, scheming intellect to the hilt, and Lugosi plays the contained frenzy of Werdegast perfectly while also showing that he is, in fact, capable of playing the hero once in a while.  (Rare treat!)  Beyond that…  Let’s face it: this movie belongs to those two men alone, and everyone else is just set dressing.  (Especially David Manners, who seems to be Universal’s go-to guy for set dressing horror roles.  Once a Harker…)

Not only are the other actors afterthoughts, but really, so are their characters.  Joan Alison is the damsel to be threatened, and Peter is there in a capacity that barely exceeds serving as her handbag.  The ladies named Karen are the damsels who have been threatened already; pawns, like the Americans, and nothing more.  Make no mistake: The Black Cat is a duel.

It’s a very well played and well-directed duel, and a classic from the Universal catalog that absolutely should not be missed.

There are three more points of interest, though, before we go.

The Black Cat is a darker film than Universal generally put out, even for its horror catalog.  The scene where one of the characters is actually bound and stripped to the waist (on camera, which is rare in and of itself) and then flayed alive (in shadow but with audio) is quite frankly shocking by the standards of 1934, and still plays quite powerfully today.  When the studio suggested that Ulmer lighten things up a bit, he instead added another scene featuring Poelzig admiring his former victims.  As noted, the lights may be much brighter in this Art Deco mansion, but the atmosphere of old torches is still very much present, and then some.

Ulmer also put his stamp on the already twice-dark character of Poelzig by modeling him after the famed German Expressionist director Fritz Lang, whose work he (and just about every other director of the time) admired very much, but who also had the reputation of being a horrid tyrant to work for.  The Satanic altar of Poelzig’s estate can also be seen as an Art Deco riff on the German Expressionist Cathedral of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

And if you’re wondering where, exactly, a black cat fits into all of this… Vitus Werdegast has a paralyzing fear of cats that was very obviously written into the script as an afterthought and title justification, and Hjalmar Poelzig keeps a black cat as a familiar.  That’s it.  I’m certainly not going to complain, though.

Bottom line, if you enjoy classic horror at all, The Black Cat is an underappreciated gem that’s absolutely worth checking out.  The psychological duel of Karloff vs. Lugosi is gripping, and the style of the production is both fascinating and unique for the genre.  It is definitely not bad luck to have The Black Cat cross your path.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2012

More From The Bar! | Son of Frankenstein | Baba Yaga | The Invisible Man |

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