The Black Cat (1934) Edgar G. Ulmer

    Hands down the best film in the  Bela Lugosi Collection. The Edgar Ulmer directed film, “The Black Cat” is an outright masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking. Influenced by the German Expressionist movement, the film contains an unremitting strange eeriness and a constant sense of looming danger. Financially, the film was a huge hit in 1934 claiming the title of the highest grossing film of the year for the studio. As with most films based on Edgar Allan Poe, it has little to do with its original source. Lugosi’s character Poelzig is supposedly based on satanic occultist Aleister Crowley. Ulmer threw everything in the pot, expressionistic lighting, art deco sets, stark black and white photography, classical music, Satanism, orgies, incest and other strange behaviors all rolled up, shaked and baked into an original work of psychological horror.

    We are in Hungary, on board the Orient Express, as we meet Peter and Joan Alison (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners), an attractive  young couple just married and on their Honeymoon. In what they at first believe is their own private compartment they snuggle together romantically as young lovers do. However, due to  a mix up, they are interrupted and are asked to share the compartment with Doctor Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi) who has just been released from a prisoner of war camp after 15 years. He informs the young couple that he is on his way to visit an ‘old friend.’ 

    The couple fall asleep. Werdergast stares at the young woman. He gently strokes her hair, her husband wakes up catching him. Werdergast begs the man’s understanding and explains to him how he had a wife and daughter he left behind and went to a prison few men ever return from.

    When they get off the train, the honeymooning couple share a bus ride with the doctor. The drive is treacherous, stormy weather has made the roads dangerous. The bus swerves off the road and crashes. The driver is dead and Joan is injured. The Doctor suggest they join him at his friend’s house, which is nearby so he can attend to the injured woman. 

    The house, or should I say mansion is a strange futuristic fortress belonging to Haljmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a satanic worshipping mass murderer. The fortress rest upon the remains of Fort Marmorus and the many graves of dead soldiers. Werdergast accuses Poelzig, who commandeered the Fort during the war, of betraying the Hungarians to the Russians, leaving him and the others to die or be captured defending it. Werdergast also believes that Poelzig, during his incarceration took his wife and child, and that they are somewhere in the fortress. The film becomes a battle of wits including a chess match with the young couple as pawns in the game. 

    Poelzig wins the chess game and David is locked in a dungeon in chains. Joan is locked in another room to wait her faith; a sacrifice upon the altar during a satanic mass.

    And that’s not all folks! Before the film ends, we  will see embalmed women enclosed in glass displays that seem to be hanging in mid-air, including Werdergast’s wife who apparently died two years after his was imprisoned. Poelzig also informs Werdergast that his daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund) is dead but we soon find out she is alive and has replaced her mother as Poelzig’s wife. Strange enough? Wait there’s more! Incest, butchery, torture, necrophilia, and all other kinds of aberrant activities are tossed in before this dark perverse masterpiece is over.    

    The film was made just prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. Subsequently, the filmmakers got away with plenty, much more than they would have just a few months later when the guardians of celluloid sin would have come smashing down on their fiendish work. Still, one does have to wonder if there were scenes cut out considering the short running time of the film.  

The film can arguably be considered Ulmer’s greatest work as well as one of Universal’s best in the horror genre. Ulmer not only directed but co-wrote the screenplay as well. Assisted by the stark shadowy photography of John Mescall (The Bride of Frankenstein) and the futuristic sets creating sharp eerie geometric angles in Poelzig’s mansion, Ulmer gets the most out of it all with his expressionistic and stylish camerawork. In his early days in Germany, Ulmer worked for Fritz Lang in at least five films including  “Metropolis” and “M.” He also worked with F.W. Murnau on “Sunrise.”   

    “The Black Cat” was the first teaming of Karloff and Lugosi on screen and their best. Karloff and that wonderful voice of his has never been more menacing than he is here and Lugosi, with his overacting in check, gives a tension-ridden performance that may arguably be his best. While their styles differ, the two men are on a even playing field, part wise, here and they consume the screen with a passion.  

    While the film, as previously mentioned, was huge financial success, Ulmer’s career began to spiral downward toward poverty row hell. This was due to a love affair and eventual marriage to Shirley Castle Alexander who was married at the time to a nephew (and a producer) of Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios. Effectively blackballed, Ulmer and his now wife Shirley Ulmer moved to NYC and he spent some years working on low –budget independent productions making all black cast films (Moon Over Harlem) and Yiddish films (The Light Ahead, The Singing Blacksmith). In the 1940’s he would slowly make his way back  west but was resigned to poverty row productions with films like “Bluebeard”, “Strange Illusion” and the classic film noir “Detour.”

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29 comments on “The Black Cat (1934) Edgar G. Ulmer

  1. zim zim says:

    Crowley wasn’t a Satanist. The late Anton La Vey of the Church of Satan fits that bill – not AC.

    Crowley’s magickal order the A : A and also Ordo Templi Orientis work with material that is pre-Christian… derived in part of Sumerian and Egyptian sources.

    Satanists are really inverse Christians, since many go along with the Satan legend of exoteric monotheism – some practicing ritual such as the Black Mass.

    Crowley is on regard saying that he “despised” black magic.

  2. zim zim says:

    I meant to say “Crowley is on record…”

  3. Best Universal horror, best film Karloff or Lugosi has ever made. And dear John, “we’re” not “in Hungry”, but in Hungary. *I’m* in Hungary, but even I’m not hungry. :)

  4. John Greco says:

    Wostry Ferenc,

    thank you for the correction. I fixed it in the test. No excuses, thanks again.

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    “Ulmer threw everything in the pot, expressionistic lighting, art deco sets, stark black and white photography, classical music, Satanism, orgies, incest and other strange behaviors all rolled up, shaked and baked into an original work of psychological horror.”

    Hey John, you said it all here John; it leaves me with little to add!!! LOL!!! Yes, of course I agree completely with this estimation, it’s the best of this lot, and one of the greatest Universal horrors: ahead of its time and perhaps the best pairing ever of the iconic horror figures. As I stated on a past thread the use of classical music – which Universal employed in the early 30′s in the other entries as well – was in hindsight most effective. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (Allegretto) and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture were used to great effect.

    One of the greatest names of a character in a film:

    Haljmar Poelzig.

    A great film and a great review. Perfect together.

    • John Greco says:

      “One of the greatest names of a character in a film:

      Haljmar Poelzig.”

      POElzig of course contains Edgar A’s surname…I would think this had to be planned and not just coincidence.

      • Michael Johnson says:

        The connection with Poe is interesting, but it’s also true that Karloff’s character was named after the genuine Modernist architect Hans Poelzig, with whom Ulmer had worked on Der Golem.

      • John Greco says:

        thanks for that information Michael, I was unaware of that. Certainly gives it a double meaning.

  6. Judy says:

    Great piece, John – this sounds like a film ahead of its time, as Sam says. I’ve just seen David Manners in an early 30s comedy-drama, The Millionaire, where he is slightly strangely cast as a garage mechanic, so am interested to find him cropping up in this very different movie!

    • John Greco says:

      Judy – Other than this film and Dracula and The Mummy I was not familar with Manners work. I just looked him up on IMDB and he made The Millionaire right after Dracula. He has a thriving career from the early to mid-thirties and then he quit acting and became a writer and painter.

      • Judy says:

        Thanks for the info, John. I’d mainly heard of him in ‘The Last Flight’, another 1931 rarity I’m keen to see, about veterans of the First World War getting drunk in Paris, where he was second-billed to Richard Barthelmess – it’s supposed to be a great movie, but hard to get hold of. I see the imdb says Manners said he had never seen Dracula, and didn’t want to!

  7. [...] has yielded it’s most distinguished entry (and essay) at “Twenty-Four Frames”: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2009/11/29/the-black-cat-1934-edgar-ulmer-2/   The Garden State’s finest, David Schleicher, is one of the first bloggers to review The [...]

  8. [...] career would get off to a good start, his fourth feature was the expressionistic horror film,  “The Black  Cat“ (1934) for Universal, Ulmer would spend most of his career exiled to poverty row partially [...]

  9. Mike Foley says:

    I love this film! It’s not just the great pairing of two iconic actors. It’s the wildly delirious plot, with characters ping-ponging around them randomly; the beautiful cinematography, the lush music, and the unforgettable Art Deco sets. (“Poelzig!!…Poelzig!”) I saw it in a theater last Halloween, and was very gratified to meet a very large number of people who have fallen under its perversely lovely spell. In what other movie, of any era, has the heroic character’s triumph been so godawful: “Have you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’s what I’m going to do to you! Flail the skin from your body!” And you can’t say that you don’t understand why he’d do anything that inhuman, or even that he’s entirely wrong.

    • John Greco says:

      Mike,

      Glad you are an admirer of THE BLACK CAT. You discussed all of the films high points that make it such a wild ride. Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat. Thanks much for sharing your welcomed thoughts here!

  10. Neil Lipes says:

    What is not common knowledge, is the fact that major ‘cutting’ was done to the film along it’s journey from filming to viewing the ‘dailies’…..Ulmers ‘vision’ for this classic was far darker and dripped with overtones of rampant sadism. Pulling out all the stops in his little bag of cinematic tricks Ulmer painted a story that when viewed by Universal head Carl Laemmle, Sr ran into a virtual artistic brick wall……..no matter his ‘vision’, or close personal relationship with production head Julius (Jr.) Laemmle, Ulmer was ‘directed’ to cut many scenes of masochism and or tone down/lighten others……….which extended the production well past it’s budgeted shooting schedule.
    Ulmer was no saint, and continually ‘hit’ on actress Lucile Lund (Karen in the film) who rebuffed his advances……….as her ‘punishment’ she was kept hanging in those glass enclosures when the cast and crew were given breaks for lunch etc.
    That he had directing ‘chops’ is not questioned…….but his penchant for the opposite sex finally caused his exit from the Laemmle lot……..as he began a not too private affair with the wife of Laemmle nephew Max Alexander.
    Poor Edgar never learned that one does not defecate where one seeks gastronomic fulfillment.

    • John Greco says:

      Neil,

      Welcome! I appreciate this backstory. I know little of Ulmer’s background except for his affair with the wife of Laemmle’s nephew, so for me at least, this is new and interesting information. The film remains a visually stunning dark work. Can only imagine how much darker it would have been had Ulmer had his way.

      • Neil Lipes says:

        John,
        I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to your wonderful site! I have been a life long devotee of Universal and the Laemmle family. Some of my most prized possessions are the letters between Jr. Laemmle and myself in the late 1970′s.

        IMHO Jr. stands just as tall as the first “boy wonder”……..Irving Grant Thalberg…….never forget Jr. learned at the knee of Uncle, and wrote and produced the “Collegians” during the early 1920′s………he was an avid reader and play goer.

        Fellow Laemmle devotee and historian Rick Atkins is working on Jr. Laemmle material that will be part of an upcoming book…..I consider Rick a good friend and a never ending well of information concerning all things Laemmle.

        I strongly recommend obtaining the new Criterion two dvd release of the Universal films of director Paul Fejos…….the set is entitled Lonesome.

      • John Greco says:

        Fascinating stuff Neil! A book on Carl Jr. would be a welcome adddition. Searching the web, I see Rick has a recent book on Carla Laemmle. tTanks for the recommendation on LONESOME. Will check it out.

        BTW- One of my most recent pleasures was getting to see FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN on the big screen, thanks to TCM. What a joy to see these treasures in a theater. and one that was well attended too.

      • Neil Lipes says:

        Film Forum recently screened a new print of All Quiet On The Western Front…….the entire audience stood and cheered at the end…….I was more than annoyed that the ‘fool’ in the projection booth started the film out of frame……..and Carl Laemmle presents was severely truncated…..try to find “Filming All Quiet On The Western Front”…….could not put it down.

      • John Greco says:

        Will do on the book. ALL QUIET is a great film. It’s always great to see a film with an audience sophisticated enough to appreciate the art. One of the things I miss about not living in NYC anymore is the access to so much film.

  11. Neil Lipes says:

    Some additional thoughts: So much of the drive of Universal ‘horror’ is due to the music that tracks the films action. Most of the golden age at Universal was musically golden because of one man, although there were others… I speak of Heinz Roemheld…….who took the classics of the standard repertoire and weaved bits and pieces of them into a cohesive whole to accentuate the horror being viewed on the screen…….Liszt, Beethoven, Schuman, Schubert……all utilized to excellent result. Remember the scene when Karloff is at the organ……while Lugosi tends to Julie Bishop upstairs………..well he is playing the Bach Toccata and Fugue long a staple of horror.
    Music utilized in horror and fantasy films is covered by author Randall Larson, his book is a must for all those who love music and film.

  12. John Greco says:

    Great information, thanks again Neil, I will have to look into this book.

  13. Mike Foley says:

    Loved the music in The Black Cat! All that lush romanticism!

    • John Greco says:

      It definitely adds to the overall atmosphere.!

      • Mike Foley says:

        IMDB lists the main pieces in the score:

        Tasso, Poem No.2, R.413
        (uncredited)
        Music by Franz Liszt
        Played as background music

        Quintet for two violins, viola, cello and piano in E flat major, opus 44
        (uncredited)
        Music by Robert Schumann
        [Played as Boris Karloff's leitmotiv]

        Sonata in B Minor
        (uncredited)
        Music by Franz Liszt
        Played as background music

        Les Preludes
        (uncredited)
        Music by Franz Liszt
        Played as background music

        Romeo and Juliet Overture
        (uncredited)
        Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
        Played as background music mostly as a leitmotif for the honeymooners

        Symphony no. 7: Second Movement
        (uncredited)
        Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
        Played as background music

        Symphony no. 8 (Unfinished)
        (uncredited)
        Music by Franz Schubert
        Heard on radio in film

        Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565)
        (uncredited)
        Music by Johann Sebastian Bach

        Les Preludes is a piece that plays in the Flash Gordon background, so it should be pretty familiar to movie fans.

  14. John Greco says:

    Impressive Mike! Thanks for sharing this!

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