The film I want to discuss today is indeed a universal movie, but not one of their monster features. The Black cat was the first film to use both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together, naturally these two are great, they always are. However the film takes advantage of having them both together and instead of getting the usual run round a spooky house, we get a deadly game played between two bitter rivals in an art deco nightmare. Featuring Satanism, skinning and suggested necrophilia it’s sometimes difficult to believe they would of gotten away with this in 1934. It’s sad then that the film has one or two tiny flaws that stop it from being the masterpiece it deserves to be.
Peter and Joan Alison are newlyweds on the way back from their honeymoon in Hungary when due to a mix they end up sharing their compartment with the mysterious Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). Werdegast is on the way to visit Poelzig an Austrian architect who built his home on the ruins Fort Marmorus. During the war Poelzig was in command of the Fort but betrayed it to the Russians resulting in the deaths of thousands of Hungarians. Poelzig then stole Werdegast's wife whilst he was taken to prison, when she died marrying his daughter instead. The Alison’s become involved in the bitter feud between the two men, neither realising that Joan has been chosen by Poelzig to be sacrificed in an important satanic ritual...
Obviously one of the main reasons to watch The Black Cat is its two stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Karloff plays the antagonist Poelzig appearing rising from his bed simply a dark silhouette. In his first few scenes he says surprisingly little and indeed it seems that Werdegast has perhaps got the better of Poelzig by surprising him in his own home, the tables inevitably turn though and Poelzig rises from being silent and menacing to downright terrifying. Not only does Karloff look superb in a black smoking jacket with a quirky black and white hairstyle but the way he delivers such simple lines as: “even the telephone is dead” gives his character the image of the devil personified. Lugosi is equally as impressive, especially considering that whilst I have personally never been much of an admirer of his work, I now want to go back and take another look. I think what I enjoyed most about his performance is that we believe him when says his soul has been dead the past 18 years. He manages to portray extremely well a man who has literally lost everything, the only thing left now is for revenge. The scenes when he has lost the chess game and he looks on in guilt and fear knowing that what is happening is directly the fault of his actions, is sublime. The triumph of the entire performance though is the scream of anguish he gives when discovering the body of his daughter. I get shivers just thinking about it. Don’t think though that everything about Lugosi’s portrayal is perfect, indeed we’re it not for a failed delivery of the line “What do you mean?!” it would have been.
The other two scene stealers though are the sets and scripts. The underground remains of the fort are especially noteworthy, the long winding staircase coming to mind instantly. One of the characters remarks early on that Polezig’s home reminds him of a Mental Institution and indeed it does come across as clinical in its appearance, adding to the unease the viewer feels throughout the whole of The Black Cat’s run time. Indeed the sets deserve every bit of praise they are given as they manage to create the nightmarish world of Polezigs' mind visually for the viewer. His presence seems although the more terrifying when descending a white art deco stair case.
Not everything is perfect however and the film has a few mistakes that had they been rectified would have meant The Black Cat was viewed in the same light as a masterpiece such as Frankenstein. The biggest of these flaws is every now and then a moment of stupidity somehow finding its way into the script. These include the comic relief Policeman, the casual reactions to Werdegast killing a cat and the powerful ending being ruined by a cheap gag. The Black Cat is such a bleak and serious film, a dark tale of two men battling it out to the bitter end that it’s a shame that however short these scenes may be they shatter this atmosphere and thus ruin the affect. Imagine if the bleakness had continued throughout the entire run time and instead of a cheap gag the final shot was of the Heroine crying into the protagonist’s arms? I understand that of course we live in different times and perhaps audiences would not of reacted well to that kind of ending but none the less, I found it disappointing that the same script that provided us with such a unique plot, let us down with such embarrassing moments as the ones I have mentioned. The use of a continuous classical music score also feels out of place at points, after seeing how silence can be utilised to great effect in Island of Lost Souls, this was rather disappointing.
Despite in places being a wasted opportunity this is nothing but nitpicking and on first viewing The Black Cat gives the viewer an impression that will stay with them forever. It’s a powerful tale that despite not being the great it could be makes the most of its stars and has made its way into my Amazon shopping basket.