The Black Cat

Year 1934

Bela Lugosi as  Dr. Vitus Werdegast  
Boris Karloff   as Hjalmar Poelzig
Julie Bishop as  Joan Alison
Director - Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenwriter - Peter Ruric  

This movie is a flawed masterpiece that should be mentioned in the same breath as Frankenstein and Dracula. But it won't be...ever. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there is no franchise character on display. The second is that the themes and actions are too mature.

In 1934 this movie was way ahead of its time. Even now, seventy years later, it's still too provocative for today's politically correct and humanity sensitive audiences.

To simplify the plot, a survivor from an inhumane prison, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) seeks revenge against Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), the man who sold him out fifteen years earlier. But the reasons go deeper than that. Not only did Poelzig sell out Werdegast, Poelzig sold out all of the troops under his World War I command. He struck a deal with the Russians and gave them his command, Fort Mormorus, and all of his troops in exchange for his own freedom. In the film, tens of thousands died at the battle. Whether this happened before or after the betrayal is never explained.

If that wasn't enough for Werdegast, Poelzig lusted after Werdegast's wife. This may have played a part in the betrayal as well. Because after Werdegast was imprisoned, Poelzig lied to Werdegast's wife and told her that her husband was dead. Believing herself a widow, she married Poelzig, which is what Poelzig wanted all along.

As twisted as that is, and it's reminiscent of David and Bathseba, that's the sane stuff. It only gets creepier from there. The wife dies. Was she killed or was it due to pneumonia as stated by Poelzig? We never know. What we do know is that Poelzig marries his wife's and Werdegast's daughter Karen.

Creepy enough for you now? But wait, there's the perfectly preserved corpse of the wife in the catacombs below the house built on the remains of Fort Mormorus. And let me mention that Poelzig is a high Satanic priest who's ready to sacrifice a virgin, if one should happen to arrive.

Of course, one does arrive. Werdegast brings Joan Alison (Bishop) along. She's a bride who never got a chance to consummate her marriage thanks to things like Werdegast sharing the couple's honeymoon room on a train and a bus accident that knocked her unconscious. Until she gets better, she and her husband share separate rooms.

As for Werdegast, how messed up can one person be? Here is a man who had to spend fifteen years in a Siberian prison. He thinks his wife and daughter are dead. Now, he's traveled to exact revenge on the man who took everything away from him.

He's already one suit light of a full deck but once he arrives in the home of Poelzig, he keeps losing more cards. And it is in this peeling away of layers that the movie shines.

Poelzig is the complete master of his home. He manipulates Werdegast and gets him to play chess for the life of the virgin Joan. In another example of total control, without first speaking to his staff, they automatically know how to do their master's bidding. "Oh, the car? It needs repairs." In their first meeting, Poelzig commandingly and unabashedly stares at Joan to the point where she closes her nightgown in discomfort.

Poelzig wins every battle of wits against Werdegast. With Poelzig's final revelation to Werdegast, it's easy to understand why the man bent on revenge goes uncontrollably insane and cannot savor his victory.

Then there're the sets and the cinematography. You'd think if you were trolling about Austria for a Gothic movie, you'd end up in a castle. Not in this movie. In this movie, you've got an ultra modern art deco mansion. It's perfect. It's also arranged in a manner that keeps you guessing how all of the rooms are arranged. This sprawling ediface could be equally at home on a seaside mountaintop in California instead of a butte on the remains of tens of thousands of dead.

The camera angles and the edits are ahead of their time. There are scenes that shift the point of view for only a second or two which was unheard of in 1934. These edits immensely add to the mood and style of the film.

Then there's Karloff's wardrobe. The man looks good in wide shouldered, narrow waisted attire. He seems to be in the prime of his life despite the fact that he was forty-six when the movie was made. He looks like he could best all comers without breaking a sweat.

His performance is low keyed and assured. He's scary. He's acting in a movie. Then there's Lugosi who is all over the place with his acting. He's not convincing as a crazy man. He's acting for a live audience with every gesture over the top. In the few scenes where he's restrained, he's quite effective. Even some of the too much pathos scenes work as well. For example, his uttering, "Superstitious, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not," is chillingly effective.

The music, Beethoven's Seventh and Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, are used effectively without seeming too clichéd.

The biggest flaw in the movie is the dialogue. It stinks. Oh, there are a few good lines, but for the most part the exchanges are short, sweet, and vanilla.

This movie should have been longer! The cat and mouse game between Werdegast and Poelzig should have gone on longer. The chess game should have built up more tension. The torment as secret after secret is revealed to Werdegast should have had him slowly, visibly losing his grasp of reality. The planning for the ritual should have been more detailed with more pronounced sinister overtones. Werdegast's time spent in the prison should have been described in more ghoulish detail.

There are places on the web that talk about scenes that the director intended but are not part of the final film. This guy, Ulmar, had to be one twisted individual...but in a creative, good way. There was supposedly an intended scene of a rape by Werdegast. I can only assume it was to save Joan's life because Poelzig needed a virgin. In the director's vision, the final undoing of Poelzig was apparently even more grizzly with strips of flesh hanging from him in silhouette. There is even something mentioned about Joan occassionally turning into a black cat.

Speaking of which, this story is somehow based on Poe's "The Black Cat" or maybe it was inspired by it. (Hrm. Poe? Poelzig? Strong Poe?) Anyway, Werdegast has an abnormal fear of black cats. The reason behind this is another thing that should have been included. I can think of some grisly reasons.

In the short story, the cat is walled up with the body. In this movie, the cat is immortal and makes appearances just for the sake of scaring Werdegast.

Defintely worth watching. Due to the suggestive sexual content, some viewers have imagined rape and necrophilia as part of the proceedings. So, this may not be for every woman. As most of the intense scenes are merely heard or sometimes indirectly viewed, this is one scary movie.

Oh, another movie that I liked was the also flawed and slighty twisted The Strange Woman. Ulmar, who rumor says killed his A-List status by sleeping with the wife of this movie's producer, also directed The Strange Woman.

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