THE BLACK CAT gives away a knowing chuckle with the line “Child, I hope you’re not afraid of me?”, since it’s spoken by Bela Lugosi. Actually, the courtly Hungarian is a relatively good guy this time, if still intense and vengeance-bound. As ‘Dr. Vitus Werdegast’ he’s seeking to square great wrongs with Boris Karloff, in their first of eight screen pairings. Not only did treason from Karloff’s ‘Hjalmar Poezig’ bring about the slaughter of 10,000 of Bela’s comrades in WW1, he stole his wife while Lugosi rotted for fifteen years in a Russian prison. If that’s not cheek enough, Boris sleeps with their now-grown daughter! That he conducts Satanic rituals in his refurbished fort (he’s a famous architect as well as a devil worshiper) seems unsurprising given that his basement is filled with the preserved, suspended bodies of sacrificed former lovers.
“How does it feel to hang on your own embalming rack, Hjalmar?”
This isn’t the best place, then, for honeymooners ‘Peter & Joan’ (David Manners and Julie Bishop) to end up, even though Bela is a psychiatrist (would that help?). All screenwriter Peter Runic and director Edgar G. Ulmer took from the 1843 Edgar Allan Poe short story was the title and having black cats show up once in a while, provoking extreme reaction from feline-phobic Lugosi, like throwing a knife at one. That Karloff remains impassive when his pet puss is skewered ought to have been a clue to the rather dense Peter (grab your wife, leave this hilltop retreat and find a room in Budapest!).
Peter: “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.”
Werdegast: “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not!”
Karloff’s character was based somewhat on Aleister Crowley, and partly on director Fritz Lang (who had a reputation for sadism) and his sinister yet suave manner, coupled with a suitably unsettling hairstyle makes for some ripe spookiness. He’s very effective and this features the accent-limited Lugosi’s best performance, with a display of emotions (including a few decent ones for a change) broader than his narrow range typically allowed. His fairly imposing size next to the slim Karloff is noteworthy. Plus you get to see them simultaneously strangle each other.
Budgeted at a tad under $96,000, it grossed $236,000 (recall this was 1934) making it Universal Studio’s biggest draw of the year, facing ‘respectable’ hits from the bigger boys on the block—MGM, Colombia,RKO, etc. While awards and credit went to Viva Villa, It Happened One Night, The Gay Divorcee and The Thin Man, this simmering dish of the macabre carved out its own slice of horror glory. How do you trump Boris Karloff playing Bach on the organ before reciting a Black Mass in Latin? Or Bela’s giddy leer as he prepares to flay his condescending archenemy alive? Bring the tots!
“If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.”
The original script was so perverse it could never be filmed in that era, but what came through was still strong enough that much editing was done, bringing it down to 66 minutes and making for some behavioral incoherence to twist what was already bizarre. Trims for sexual innuendo and “gruesomeness” were made, as well as ditching reference to Czechoslovakians as “people who devour the young.” (Come to think of it, I remember people looking at me funny in Prague, so…) It was banned outright in Italy because “it could create horror” and in Austria as Karloff’s villain was a “military traitor and main criminal, thus offending the national feeling of the people.” Cuts notwithstanding, director Ulmer delivered what came to be recognized as a minor classic of the horror genre. *
Heinz Roemheld arranged the quite effective music score, one of the first full-bodied soundtracks of the day as that aspect to movie-making began to gain prominence following the lead of Max Steiner’s seminal work on King Kong. Roemheld incorporates passages from Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven and presents an almost uninterrupted symphonic background to the suspense and drama.**
With Egon Brecher, Harry Cording, Lucille Lund and some nifty art direction.
* During the shoot director Ulmer commenced a fling with Shirley Castle, at the time married to Max Alexander, nephew of Universal chief Carl Laemmle, who did not suffer “outsiders” upsetting his family. Shirley ditched Max for Edgar, and the resultant scandal saw Ulmer blackballed from all of the major Hollywood studios for the rest of his career. Apart from 1945’s well-regarded Detour, most of his remaining output were obscure cheapies. His takes: “I really am looking for absolution for all the things I had to do for money’s sake” and “I didn’t want to be ground up in the Hollywood hash machine.” Speaking of flaying: in 1936, two years after Ulmer paid their bills with The Black Cat, Laemmle and his clan were booted from Universal following too many box-office flops. Perhaps they should have paid attention to Bela and the cold logic of revenge?
**Overlooked in the shadows of Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin and other film music titans, Roemheld amassed a staggering 400 credits. He won an Oscar for scoring Yankee Doodle Dandy and his theme for Ruby Gentry became a soft jazz standard. He also contributed the exciting “Burning of Atlanta” passage for Steiner’s score of Gone With The Wind.