Man this is one dark, nasty little flick. Really that’s not all that surprising considering it was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Who’s that? I’ll tell you. As I’ve mentioned before, back when I worked at the late great Naro Video, we’d always have a movie playing in the store. I worked at least one shift a week with the owner, Tim Cooper, and he always picked out some interesting stuff. Well one of those nights he played Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off Screen. It was interesting enough that I took it home.
The overview of Ulmer’s career included clips, discussions, interviews with other directors, etc. Two movies in particular got a good deal of focus. One was Detour, one of my noir favorites that also happens to contain one of my favorite lines ever–“What’d ya do, kiss him with a wrench?”
Anyway, they also talked about The Black Cat which I’d seen before, but after this, I had to watch it again. For one thing, The Black Cat is pre-Code which is always fun. Back before William H. Hays Sr. took the advice of a Martin Quigley and Father Daniel A. Lord (well that’s truth in advertising), one could get away with a good deal more before in depictions of depravity, sexual predation, drug abuse, and the seedy, amoral, venal aspects of humanity. Those were good days.
The Black Cat was a Karloff/Lugosi team up and is pretty twisted. It’s also weird enough in terms of inappropriate, low-level sexual tension to get a mite uncomfortable in a few spots. A little bit of backstory, as one can see from yon poster this was billed as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. In terms of the movie version, there is precious little connection betwixt the two.
More interesting is that the screenplay was written by a pulp fiction writer under the name Peter Ruric (he used at least a couple pseudonyms). Why that’s interesting is because The Black Cat has the look and feel of noir with the outlandish plot one would expect to find in a pulp mystery.
Our story opens with a newlywed couple honeymooning in Hungary (as romance-addled yutes are wont to do). They share a train compartment with one Dr. Vitus Werdegast (which to me sounds suspiciously close to a mashup of “weird” and “ghastly”). Werdegast (Lugosi) explains that he’s a Hungarian psychiatrist who was in a Siberian prison camp for 15 years and is on his way to visit a friend an architect friend of his, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff).
As fate would have it, these three also share the same bus which, wouldn’t ya jus’ know it, crashes in some desolate location, probably part of the Carpathian mountains or something. Thankfully they don’t have to resort to cannibalism as they’re close enough to manage finding their way to Chez Poelzig. As one might suspect, Werdegast’s story is a little short in the veracity department, and we learn more about the relationship between the two.
Other oddities include Werdegast’s irrational fear of black cats (naturally Poelzig carries one around with him), Poelzig’s weirdly art deco interior design, his collection of dead women under glass (including Werdegast’s wife), and Poelzig and Werdegast both being more or less bat shit crazy. Oh and throw in a Satanic cult. And where there’s a cult, there’s a sacrifice. Naturally.
I won’t go any further in terms of the plot because if you’ve never seen this, it would be a shame to spoil the twists and turns. There’s a specific scene, though, that has achieved near legendary status and earned The Black Cat a well deserved spot on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
BODIES- an impressive pre-Code 17
Rental- Apple TV, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes, Prime, Vudu, YouTube