Sunday, January 25, 2009
The Black Cat
Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat is a remarkable movie that seems entirely aware of the workings of genre within its outrageous, Gothic story. The film is structured as a collision between genre worlds, inserting the romantic young lovers Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Jacqueline Wells) into a story that is otherwise populated almost entirely with character actors, a rogue's gallery of grotesque, exaggerated figures who could, separately, serve as the villainous geniuses and marauding thugs for an entire series of low-budget horror flicks. Instead, Ulmer crams a single film with these outsized personalities: the creepy, vengeance-obsessed psychiatrist Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi); the sadistic Satanist architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff); Poelzig's wide-eyed, frizz-haired, ghostly bride Karen (Lucille Lund), a precursor to Bride of Frankenstein; Poelzig's utterly sinister manservant (Egon Brecher) with his slicked-down hair and wordless obedience; and Werdegast's equally forbidding servant (Harry Cording) whose allegiances are anything but clear.
Ulmer is well aware of the Gothic, overblown quality of the melodrama his two young newlyweds have wandered into here, and he deliberately contrasts the earnest sappiness of the scenes between Peter and Joan against the eerie intensity of their surroundings. It is as though two characters destined for a light romantic comedy have instead accidentally stumbled onto the set of a morose psychological horror piece, without seeming to realize that the atmosphere has changed. The scenes between the newlyweds are played with a broad sentimentality and good humor, with the lovers constantly exchanging sappy grins, and Peter sweeping his young bride up into his arms so often that it can only become comical. Ulmer accompanies these scenes with a fittingly sentimental score, achingly romantic and utterly conventional, playing off of the darker musical underpinnings that run through the rest of the film.
This was the first screen pairing of Karloff and Lugosi, and the two horror legends are undoubtedly the focus of attention here. The former's Poelzig is an ex-military officer who has now built his ultra-modern, maze-like home on the ruins of the fort he used to supervise. Lugosi's Werdegast is returning, after many years in prison, to enact his vengeance upon his old friend, who betrayed him during the war so long ago. When the bus bringing Werdegast to his target's home crashes, Peter and Joan are along for the ride, and all three of them become guests in Poelzig's home, the newlyweds only slowly realizing that a wild melodrama is being played out between these two sinister men. Lugosi has never been better, carrying over a healthy portion of Count Dracula into his portrayal of the tormented Werdegast, who has an absurd fear of black cats, the origin of which is never really explained. Lugosi acts with his glittering, intense eyes and perennially arched eyebrows, crafting a memorable character with his pop-eyed expressions and characteristic thick accent. Karloff is easily his equal, starting as a hulking Frankenstein-type figure before he modulates into more of an urbane, subtle threat, keeping a museum of preserved corpses in his basement and playing chess with Lugosi for the life of the young Joan.
The film is packed with baroque touches like this, and Ulmer's direction accentuates the understated horror of the situation. Even ordinary moments are made stylized and potent under Ulmer's hand. Poelzig doesn't just wake up when his doorbell rings: he rises almost pneumatically, his body segmented like a machine, silhouetted behind a thin curtain so that his iconically familiar shadowed profile reveals his presence before he's actually seen in full. Similarly, he can't just walk into a room, but rather lets the door slide slowly open in his path, gliding in with his glowering eyes masked by shadows, his hair combed up into a ridiculous point atop the sculpted stone of his head.
Ulmer also consistently uses multiple layers within his frames, pushing aggressively into the foreground as though he wanted to force his images into the audience's face. When one of the house's silent servants carries the unconscious Joan upstairs and lays her on the bed, Ulmer takes up a perspective on the far side of the bed, so that the brute walks directly towards the camera and sets the woman's inert body down right in the foreground of the image, blocking everything from view. Even more memorable is the amazing sequence when the two lovers clench, kissing tenderly in front of Werdegast and Poelzig. Ulmer abruptly racks the focus back and forth from the kissing newlyweds to the extreme foreground, where Werdegast's hand instinctively closes around a statuette of a naked woman, tightly gripping the arm in the same way as Peter is holding his wife's arm. It's an evocative image, expressing without words the intensity of Werdegast's emotions: the psychiatrist has lost his own wife, and Joan reminds him of his long-dead bride.
Ulmer is just as proficient in an unexpected scene that injects some humor into the film, in the form of a pair of local policemen (Henry Armetta and Albert Conti) who quickly forget about their line of inquiry and begin arguing about whose hometown is the better tourist destination. Ulmer proves to be remarkably adept at juggling between moods and tones, fitting this surrealistic comedic interlude smoothly into the film's overall mood of creeping dread. The specter of death hangs over the entire film, particularly the aura of wartime death, the ghosts of history who continue to haunt the present. In this sense, Poelzig's Satanism is something of a red herring; the real horror here stems not from Satanic rituals and blood sacrifices but from the unspoken horrors that Poelzig was involved with back during the first World War, the men he killed and the betrayals he committed. These historical atrocities linger in the present: the bus driver who brings Werdegast and the young couple to Poelzig's home speaks of the dead piled high in trenches, the rivers run red with blood, as though he was a tour guide pointing out the local sights.
Werdegast, a true tragic figure, understands this continuity with the horrors of the past, and he also knows that the present is oblivious to the bloody acts that preceded it. The young newlyweds are thus the ultimate avatars of the present, living continuously in the now, unaware of the dark, bloody secrets of the past. Once the film's bluntly violent, brutal climax has passed, the body count is tremendous, but Peter and Joan blithely blunder out of harm's way, leaving these horrors behind them as though it was all just a bad dream they'd had, as much a product of Peter's overblown imagination as the lurid mystery novels he writes. This denouement is particularly poignant in light of the new horrors that would shortly erupt in Europe, the new carnage and destruction that would be built on the ruins of the old. Ulmer's film is a subtle, potent allegory for the destruction of war, both physical and psychological, rewriting wartime traumas as Gothic horror, with the silly hero and heroine skipping through it all, utterly unaware of the tragic reality of what they're facing.