Peter: Aren’t you hungry?
Joan: No darling, are you?
Peter: Of course not.
Joan: Are you sure?
Above is the first exchange of dialog in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). A newlywed couple, Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) are aboard a train in Eastern Europe, and just as the viewer is about to lament over the artifice of their words, the two characters burst out laughing. It is as though they are playing the parts of naive newlyweds concerned over the generalities of their diets, when in fact they may exemplify a modern American couple—as modern as they can get in the 1930s. They are soon joined by the strange passenger Vitus Werdegast, Bela Lugosi wearing a fashionable plaid scarf and basically acting like he is still Count Dracula. They are all on a train headed into the depths of Hungary and the horrors of World War I, embodied by the icy and exacting engineer Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff.
Ulmer’s The Black Cat is one in a long line of Universal films that are supposedly inspired by an immortal Edgar Allan Poe story, which turn out to have virtually nothing in common with the original pieces of literature. Perhaps the only thing it adapts from the story is Werdegast’s irrational fear of cats, which is barely a part of Poe’s writing in the first place. Universal Studios exploited Poe’s name on a number of films (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Raven, etc), while the actual content consists of outlandish yarns that are highly entertaining, yet nearly incomprehensible. This does not stop the films from becoming memorable pieces of cinematic history in their own right. The Black Cat boils down to the ideological and personal vendettas between Werdegast and Poelzig that hearken back to their friendship and betrayal on the Hungarian battlefields of World War I. The most haunting aspect of this Universal classic is the dialog and fascistic ideological underpinnings that foreshadow the fierce brutality of World War II. Siegfried Kracauer wrote about the relationship of German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, and The Black Cat is yet another horror picture that mirrors fascism in Europe, which by the film’s release in 1934, was already in motion.
On a dark and stormy night, the Alisons and Werdegast find themselves at Poelzig’s Bauhaus fashioned mansion, which is built on the graves of a thousand men. I don’t know what the audience at the time of release thought of the then-state of the art structure, but it is the kind of place I wished I lived in now. Silent, sliding doors. Sleek and minimalist furnishings. A basement that is a former military bunker. A room of inanimate, or somehow frozen or taxidermied women displayed behind glass. Poelzig’s abode is an architectural fantasy world of beauty and death. As Lugosi’s Werdegast puts it: “A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction.”
Just as Werdegast is getting truly worked up, attempting to get Poelzig to reveal the location of his former wife Karen and their child, a black cat walks through the room. Werdegast freaks out and throws a letter opener at the cat, killing it. Like so many other things in this film, from the architecture, to the long, novelistic dialog, this feline-induced breakdown seems like a digression that brings the audience deeper and deeper down the drain of the film.
The plight of the average family, in this case the Alisons, takes a back seat to the true drama going on between Werdegast and Poelzig. The showdown becomes serious when it is suggested that the lives of the Alisons become pawns in the game of the two war veterans. Poelzig, sporting one of the most intense widow’s peaks in cinema, asks indignantly, “Do you dare play chess with me?” Aside from creating some of the most iconic nightmare monsters in American history, Universal solidified one of the greatest cinematic rivalries of all time—Lugosi versus Karloff.
Something not often mentioned about The Black Cat and other Universal horror classics is the filmmakers awareness of the sometimes over-the-top nature in the very content they are making. It is easy to watch these films in a contemporary setting and make light of the over-acting as a campy device. Yet, the characters in The Black Cat seem aware of the mood they are evoking. At one point Poelzig asks coolly, “For what use are all these melodramatic gestures?” Meanwhile, the soundtrack is almost a playlist of choice heavy-handed classical tunes, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. Even supporting pawn Peter Alison gets in on the reflexivity when he says he is an author who focuses on mystery stories.
Just in case the audience isn’t catching on, Karloff’s Poelzig in particular, constantly brings up the theme of death. After Werdegast’s first attack of ailurophobia, Poelzig waxes poetic stating that “the black cat is deathless, deathless as evil.” Later on, when our evil engineer is trying to trap the Alisons, he makes sure one of his henchmen cuts the phone lines, at which he says with a smile, “You hear that Vitus? Even the phone is dead.” Sometimes when watching movies made pre-1939 it is hard to imagine that the cast and crew still hadn’t experienced, or lived in a time when the atrocities of World War II had occurred. Yet the preoccupation that Werdegast and Poelzig have on the horrors of the First World War only makes the films anticipation of the next war more haunting. Mass murder is constantly evoked.
The fact that Poelzig turns out to be a member of a satanic cult by the end of the film turns the mood into outlandish fun, discarding the seriousness of war stories. The Black Cat succeeds as a classic work of horror cinema because it is able to juggle the serious and whimsical natures of macabre entertainment. Lugosi and Karloff act in some of their best and most original roles, which is a bit ironic seeing as how the film is supposedly an adaptation. Edgar G. Ulmer took the name of Poe’s story and decided to just make an absolutely unique work of cinema instead. Universal did not always need to rely on larger than life monsters for their horror hits, in this case relying on characters made gruesome because of real life events.