should have been the start of something big.
Czech immigrant director Edgar G. Ulmer helmed Universal’s biggest hit
of 1934. He also launched an affair with the wife of the studio chief’s nephew,
who he would ultimately marry. As a
result, Ulmer was doomed to become a cult director. Ulmer’s strange and fateful The Black Cat (trailer here) screens as part of a special
presentation on Jewish horror films at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln
supposedly inspired by Poe’s short story, Peter Ruric’s screenplay is about as
faithful to “The Black Cat” as it is to The
Scarlet Pimpernel and The Golden Bowl. There is a noir feline who shows up at inopportune
times, but that is about the extent of it.
It does not matter. U’s Black Cat is quite bizarre and
surprisingly twisted for its time.
boring American couple is honeymooning in Hungary for no good reason. When Joan Alison is injured in a bus
accident, their traveling companion, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, whisks her off to the
home of his nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, to recuperate. Werdegast is one of the few survivors of a
Russian massacre of Hungarian soldiers, facilitated by Poelzig’s betrayal. Prospering after the war, Poelzig has built
his ultramodern home over the ruins of the notorious Fort Marmorus, the site of
the wartime atrocities.
of the intriguing aspects of Cat is
the way it apparently tries to explain human manifestations of evil. Poelzig, the turncoat war criminal, is also a
Satanist (who happens to be measuring Mrs. Alison for his cult’s next human sacrifice). Pre-dating the Spanish Civil War and the
Moscow Show Trials, The Black Cat has
a decidedly Hobbesian perspective on the world and human nature. Of course, Ulmer was a product of the Old Europe,
where wars and even pogroms were still very real dangers.
still, Poelzig’s architecture is transparently modeled on the Bauhaus school,
many members of which were avowed Communists.
His very name is a dubious tribute to architect Hans Poelzig, with whom
Ulmer claimed to have worked on sets for The
Golem (clips of which could well turn up in Hoberman’s presentation this
Thursday). Regardless, the striking
International-style sets look fantastic, perfectly suiting the dramatic light
and shadow of John J. Mescall’s moody black and white cinematography.
a further distinction, Black Cat has
to be Boris Karloff’s most sexualized screen appearance. The audience first sees him in silhouette,
rising in bed, with another body clearly lying beside him. When the tables turn on his Poelzig, we see
his shirt ripped from his body, as Werdegast proceeds to flay his skin. You do not have to be a strict Freudian to
read some funny business into that scene.
Black Cat is easily one of the
most stylish films from the golden age of Universal horror. Granted, it shares some of shortcomings of its
brethren. The local cops are cartoonish
buffoons (where’s Lionel Atwill when we need him?), whereas David Manners is
impossibly chipper and guileless as Peter Alison. Nonetheless, it is a very cool looking and unusually
sophisticated in the themes it addresses.
It even features a life-and-death chess game decades before The Seventh Seal. A wonderfully eccentric work of 1930’s
creepiness, genre fans are definitely advised to rediscover The Black Cat. Available in Karloff-Lugosi DVD collections,
it screens as part of J. Hoberman’s consideration of Jewish horror films this
Thursday (1/17) as the 2013 NYJFF continues at the Walter Reade Theater.
Labels: Boris Karloff, Edgar G. Ulmer, Horror Movies, NYJFF'13