2012 TCM Classic Film Festival: THE BLACK CAT
Although the 1934 Universal film gives a nod to Poe’s eponymous short story in the opening credits, the plot has virtually nothing to do with what he had penned. Poe’s main character kills his wife who is attempting to protect their pet, only to be then outed as a criminal by the animal’s shrieks, when the police search party comes in: Poe’s narrator walled-in the living cat with his wife’s corpse by accident. In contrast, Edgar Ulmer’s script has the character of Dr. Vitus Verdegast motivated by the desire to avenge his spouse. And, although he may suffer an aversion to cats so intense, he feels the urge to exterminate them on sight, his is but an anecdotal trait that has little function in the film’s narrative. From a modern perspective, it is a vehicle for camp.
The Black Cat is remarkable by being the very first on-screen collaboration of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I find it only appropriate that the biggest stars of 1930s American horror were both immigrants. If you wonder just how connected they were to the history not just of the genre, but of Hollywood itself, the remark of Sara Karloff (the actor’s daughter) that her father’s car was numbered 9, is illuminating. Sara, along with Bela G. Lugosi (son of the late star), attended the festival screening of The Black Cat on Saturday, April 14, 2012. Their presence was quite delightful, as they were gracious enough to share the memories of growing up as children of their fathers. It seems the two of them have a healthy rapport going, a mixture of friendly playful bickering and mock competition. Apparently Bela, Jr. tricked Sara into thinking she was older than him, until she realized that in a photograph from a set of the Son of Frankenstein, Bela was already standing on his two feet, photographed next to her father. She was born while the movie was in production. They were united in an effort to dispel any rumors that their fathers did not get along well. There was nothing but professional respect between the men, no personal animosity, according to Sara. If the horror stars did not spend time together socially often, it was caused by their disparate pursuits: Bela pointed out that his father preferred the company of fellow Hungarian immigrants, artisans, dancers – not the typical Hollywood crowd, whereas Karloff was apparently very British in his hobbies, favoring cricket and gardening. When asked to provide a glimpse into the private lives of the actors, Sara made sure to note that Boris Karloff was the antithesis of the roles he played, soft-spoken and gentle. Bela remembered his father as someone who paid a lot of attention to him as a child, a gentleman generous to a fault. He favors films where Lugosi the elder played Igor.
On screen, both actors are quite menacing. In The Black Cat, Karloff (in his turn as Hjalmar Poelzig) combines stiffness with precision, his movements exhibit such inhuman economy, one feels not a single muscle is engaged without a reason. Lorca (in his poem Blind Panorama of New York) pondered the burn in the eyes of other systems: the incomprehensible motivations of species outside of the human race terrify. Karloff’s on-screen presence has such an alien element; he excludes his character from the human race by being cold and mechanical, calculating and emotionless. Lugosi stands on the other end of the spectrum, as an overly intense, passionate man, with an extremely expressive face, lending even simple statements an air of insanity by the roll or bulging of his eyes, by the pursing of his lips. With strange tics, odd stares into distance, repetitiveness in gesture and in speech, his reactions are exaggerated, inappropriate. Ultimately, as his character (Dr. Verdegast) decides to skin his nemesis alive, he loses any sympathy he may have garnered for his unfortunate past.
What clearly distinguishes The Black Cat from the break-through films of both Lugosi and Karloff is the absence of the supernatural, of the monster. While there may be much talk about it, the horror is embedded in human action. Poelzig voluntarily resigns his humanity by his choice crimes: necrophilia is hinted at, ritual murder spelled out, betrayal bitterly bemoaned by Verdegast. No beasts, no vampires, no manufactured humans are paraded around. Sure, familiar tricks of the trade were used: say, the mansion, where the story takes place, is cut off from civilization. But, refreshing relief from the artifice of the heightened drama is offered, as well. My favorite moment of the film is the police showing up to investigate an accident that placed the American honeymooners in the clutches of Hjalmar Poelzig, the abominable architect. The two men sing praises to their respective villages as a spot the newlyweds are absolutely not to miss, in fiery competition. Apropos of the mansion, it is of much significance not only in respect to the plot, with all its labyrinthine secret passages, but also in regards to the general aesthetics of the film. The sleek, modernist design complements Poelzig’s persona. His unfeeling, mechanical, cold personality is expressed through a house he designed for himself. Ulmer’s set design provides for a strong visual impact. Experiencing The Black Cat is an endeavor well worth a horror genre connoisseur’s time for this reason alone. The film is polished, stylized, campy – and deliberately so, on all counts. Dialogue at times appears to be purposely self-ironizing, a not-so-private joke. Verdegast and Poelzig have a relationship of two old ladies, joined by mutual history and resentment – except they are two deranged and depraved old lechers. The optimism of the American couple is also satirized, when even their hellish experience is reduced to a one-liner, just for a laugh. Some may find this alone petrifying.