Edgar G. Ulmer has a cult reputation, particularly in France. The late British film critic, Leslie Halliwell, believed that reputation to be wholly undeserved, since most of Ulmer’s films ranged from B to Z status. Ulmer did not begin that way when, in 1934, he was handed “complete freedom” in an A (A-) production, teaming, for the first time, Universal Studio’s reigning horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the Poe inspired The Black Cat. The resulting film, and Ulmer’s affair with his employer’s wife, quickly ended a promising top-notch studio career almost as quickly as it began.
This first Karloff/Lugosi teaming was also their best. That is because of their eight collaborations this was their only joint-starring project directed by a visionary auteur. In The Black Cat Lugosi was cast as protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, and Karloff as antagonist Hjalmer Poelzig. In the original, uncut film, Lugosi’s hero does some less than heroic things. Enough of Vitus’ sinister quality remains that Lugosi gives us a hero we are never quite comfortable with. Under Ulmer’s direction, Lugosi’s performance is superb, an extreme rarity for this actor. As good as Lugosi is, Karloff is even better and, as unpopular as it may be to say now, Karloff was always a far better actor than his co-star.
Ulmer’s “complete freedom” came to a screeching halt when universal execs saw the filmed footage and script. Lugosi’s hero rapes the heroine, the heroine occasionally turns into a black cat, and Karloff’s Poelzig is skinned alive and last seen crawling on the floor with his skin hanging from his body as Lugosi’s mad hero laughs hysterically. All of these scenes were cut from the film and, par the course at that time, were destroyed. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the scenes were shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.
Regardless, what remains of The Black Cat is a flawed, baroque masterpiece, intoxicating to watch and simultaneously frustrating, especially in light of Ulmer’s original intent. Lugosi’s Hungarian psychiatrist Vitus is traveling by train, and he is on a journey of revenge and retaliation. Vitus meets two newlyweds–American novelist Peter Alison and his wife Joan (played by David Manners and Jaqueline Wells)–who are as bland a 30s couple as one is likely to find. Lugosi sees something in the young woman Joan and touches her hair as she sleeps.
The Hays Code be damned, it’s an erotic, sinister, yearning close-up moment, and Lugosi will never look as beautiful again. Vitus is heading towards Fort Marmorus, the scene of a great World War I battle, where he was captured and betrayed by his commander, Poelzig. Amazingly, Vitus has survived 15 years in a Serbian concentration camp, and is now intent on exacting revenge on Poelzig for this and for the additional betrayal of stealing Vitus’ wife and child while he was in prison.
After departing the train, the newlyweds accompany Vitus by car, along with his creepy servant Thamal (played by Harry Cording of many a Sherlock Holmes movie). But, lo and behold, the car crashes in the rain (a badly executed and an unnecessary set-up) and the four are forced to find refuge in an old dark house. Of course, that house is none other than the home of Herr Poelzig, and what a house. Hardly the Gothic ruins of a Carfax Abbey, Poelzig’s abode of the damned home looks like an art deco charnel house, designed by the Constructivists so that guests such as Franz Kafka and Edgar Munch might feel perfectly at home. When the group arrives, drenched at the front door, they are not greeted by Riff-Raff, but instead find themselves face to face with majordomo Egon Brecher (a horror film regular).
Frank-n-Furter does not appear either, but his spirit is there when the majordomo lets his master know, via a beautifully cracking and popping old intercom, that Dr. Werdegast and guests have arrived. Karloff’s Poelzig sits straight up, silhouetted in a canopy bed, like an erect penis, which was certainly intentional and understandable as he was lying next to the sleeping form of the beautiful Lucille Lund (as, you guessed it, Karen Werdegast Poelzig, Karloff’s wife & Lugosi’s daughter).
Karloff’s melodramatic appearance to the group is perfect. His Poelzig looks like he might have been designed by Oskar Schlemmer, with his satanic mane, broad shoulders, and black silk satanic pjs. Ulmer tailored Poelzig after the infamous Satan worshiper Aleister Crowley. When Poelzig meets his guests he arches an eyebrow, extends a gaunt, slithering, Grinch-like hand, smiles, and lisps precise, phony warmth–as he secretly intends for Joan to be his next sacrificial bride to almighty Lucifer.
Karloff knows how to use his body to full advantage in The Black Cat. His hand grasps a statue of nude woman as he watches the Alisons kiss. He glides his finger seductively over a chess piece. Vitus knows how to read Poelzig’s body language. Vitus is well aware of his rival’s intent and plans to stop his diabolical scheme, while seemingly admiring Poelzig from afar.
After a bit of cat and mouse foreplay, Lugosi, with a deadly earnest delivery, utters a priceless line in response to Peter’s proclamation that there is a lot of superstitious baloney afoot: “Superstitious, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” A little later, Poelzig takes Vitus to the cellar. A black cat appears and Vitus freaks out, crashing through an expressionistic paper sliding door. In the finished film, Vitus’ paranoia of cats is embarrassingly ridiculous. In the original script, that paranoia was coupled with erotic fixation for the black cat. It may not be from Poe, but Edgar would have appreciated the bestiality references.
As Poelzig and Vitus ascend up the stairs, it is to a macabre mix of Poelzig’s narration juxtaposed against the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (played here in the traditionally slow grand-guignol tempo, rather than as the rhythmic allegretto it was originally intended to be). The Black Cat is filled to the brim with art music. Brahms, Liszt, and Schubert accompany Ludwig on this film journey, and Ulmer probably knew how to juxtapose music better than any director until Kubrick came along.
A chess match (which pre-dates Bergman) between Poelzig and Vitus vying for the fate of Joan begins beautifully but is interrupted by awkward comedy relief from a pair of accident investigating constables. After the constables (thankfully) leave, Peter borrows the phone, only to find it is dead. “Did you hear that Vitus? The phone is dead! Even the phone is dead!,” rolls Poelzig through a delightfully, self-congratulating, menacing grin. We empathize. Oddly, the chess match resumes and goes nowhere, ending with Poelzig’s easy victory almost as quickly as it began. The chess match does reveal the obsessions of very similar characters. Poelzig is well aware that Vitus plans revenge, but he is also aware that Vitus is, potentially, equally perverse: “You better attend the ceremony tonight Vitus. It will interest you.”
Poelzig waxes nostalgic with an occasional trip to the cellar downstairs (complete with trapezoid walls) to visit his murdered, ethereal brides, embalmed in glass coffins. The dead wives include Poelzig’s late wife (also played by Lucille Lund). In a moment of Oedipal envy, we find Poelzig married the mother, killed her, then married the daughter. Tim Burton`s freakery rings trite and trendy in comparison (the Penguin’s “You’re just jealous because I am a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” to fellow freak Batman would apply here, Mr. Burton).
Ulmer’s surreal expressionist Black Cat world is, aptly, a universe which does not and has never existed. In this world, things are only bound to become more perverse. Ulmer does not disappoint. Karen finds out Daddy is still alive. Hubby rapes and kills Karen. Daddy finds his dead baby girl when he attempts to free Joan from being a Satanic sacrifice in a black mass orgy. Vitus finds Poelzig and fights him in a beautifully lit struggle of stark, expressionist blacks and whites (shot mostly in close-ups). Vitus’ servant is shot and killed by Poelzig’s servant, but Thamal will not die until he helps his master defeat Poelzig and tie him to the embalming rack. Thamal drops dead. Vitus seems not to care at all. So much for loyalty.
Vitus sadistically rips open Poelzig’s shirt and begins to skin him alive (in silhouette): “Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmer? That’s what I am going to do to you now! Vear the skin from your body, sssslooooowlyyyy, bit by bit.” That dialogue rolls of Bela’s tongue beautifully, insanely. This nightmare evil all ends with a martyred Vitus, mistakenly shot by Peter for, understandably, believing Vitus was having his way with Joan, an explosion which levels the hell house, and a now dead, “rotten” cult. Now, Mr. Alison is free write his new novel, a mystery. Unfortunately, it was Karloff and not Manners that was tortured, Lund raped and killed instead of Wells.
Ulmer learned his trade under F.W. Marnau and Fritz Lang. It shows. With this single film, even marred by studio tampering, Ulmer can be ranked alongside Whale, Browning and Tourneur as visionary directors within a limited genre. None of the remaining Karloff/Lugosi collaborations hold up as well. Both The Raven (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) had impressive moments, but both were flawed by pedestrian direction. Only The Body Snatcher (1945) could be counted as a worthy follow-up, but Lugosi, quite on the down slide by then, was reduced to little more than a cameo appearance, albeit a highly effective one.
Ulmer certainly brought his visual flair to many of his projects, but it was rarely enough to save them. Bluebeard (1944), Detour (1945) and Strange Illusion (1946) are rightly considered cult classics, while Strange Woman (1946) has some admirers. For the most part, however, Ulmer got his studio-sponsored toy train set in the career-defining Black Cat. By all accounts, Ulmer had a hell of a lot of fun playing with his train set, and reflected on it proudly, even if it did do him in. But, in the words of Vitus Werdegast, “It’s been a good game.”