KARLOFF ENTERS! THE BLACK CAT (1934)
By 1934 Boris Karloff was certainly no stranger to great movie entrances. In 1931, under the direction of James Whale, he seared his image, and that of the monstrous creation of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, into the collective consciousness by shuffling on screen and staring down his creator, and of course the terrified audience, embodying and fulfilling unspeakable nightmares. Frankenstein, an instant phenomenon, was one of 16 pictures Karloff made that were released in 1931.
And in the following year, 1932, in addition of Howard Hawks’ Scarface, Whale’s The Old Dark House and Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, Karloff had another terrifying entrance in cinematographer-turned-director Karl Freund’s horror landmark The Mummy. As the title fiend, Imhotep, Karloff is first glimpsed in full bandage, sarcophagus laid open behind an unfortunate archaeologist who, engrossed in the parchments he’s discovered, doesn’t notice the mummy’s arm slide down from its bound position. A withered land lays itself on one of the documents, the archaeologist turns, sees the full visage of Imhotep (which we, as yet do not), and slides straight into cackling madness. The last we see of Karloff, in this scene, is a trail of dusty, ruined bandages, dangling from his reanimated corpse, being dragged out the door of the ancient chamber and into the modern world.
In 1934 director Edgar G. Ulmer gave Karloff yet another bone-chilling introduction in his “adaptation” of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. Ulmer arose from the German theater around 1910 working as a set designer and eventually made his way to the cinema, working on such landmarks of German cinema as The Golem (1920), Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924), Nosferatu (1927), Sunrise (1927), Spies (1928), City Girl (1930) and M (1931). Ulmer emigrated from Germany to America but found few opportunities to make his mark as a director—by 1933 he had only a few undistinguished westerns and a syphilis education film, Damaged Lives, to his credit. The Black Cat was Ulmer’s big opportunity, a horror movie which teamed the stars of Universal’s biggest horror hits to date, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and Ulmer poured himself fully into it.
In reality, Poe’s name was appropriated by Ulmer mainly for its associative qualities, the director having cast aside several existing screen treatments in favor of an original tale that bore only the slightest hints of the author’s original text, claiming that “the Edgar Allan Poe story is not a story that you can dramatize.” Rather than attempting a literal adaptation of the 1843 tale of interior horror and psychological collapse, Ulmer reached back to an encounter he had during the filming of The Golem with novelist Gustav Meyrinck, who had told him of a French fortress that had been decimated by German forces in World War I. Some survivors of the devastation apparently did not emerge from the ruins for years after, and in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich Ulmer talked of the commander of the fortress, “a strange Euripides figure who went crazy… because he walked on that mountain of bodies.”
That fortress became The Black Cat’s Fort Marmaros, upon which, high in the hills of the Hungarian countryside, Ulmer’s commander, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) has built a monstrous, modernist spectacle of 1930’s Deco architecture, Castle Poelzig, a cavernous mansion of sharp angles, vast spaces and harsh, metallic, chilled beauty that perfectly reflects the detached, vaguely inhuman posture of its central resident. Castle Poelzig is widely considered to be Ulmer’s finest achievement in production design, and some of its most outre, modernist qualities are reflected in Karloff’s physical presence and carriage in the film—his hair and brows are sculpted into sharp angles that resemble the clean, brittle design of the castle’s staircases and hallways, down and through which he glides garbed in minimalist robes and adorned with medallions sporting vaguely sinister patterns that hint at Poelzig’s darkest, as-yet-unrevealed machinations.
But about that Karloff entrance… Near the beginning of the film, Poelzig is summoned from his chambers late at night by the arrival of a pair of newlywed travelers (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners, Karloff’s costar in The Mummy) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). Stranded after their bus crashes during a thunderstorm, the visitors seek refuge in Poelzig’s mysterious mansion, with only Werdegast, who shares a previous association with Poelzig related to the horrors of Fort Marmaros, aware of their host’s genuinely sinister nature. And Poelzig is introduced to us in brilliant fashion, a flourish of directorial style that entirely indicates Ulmer should have had a greater, more illustrious career than, critical reappraisals aside, the one he ended up with.
Ulmer starts on a close-up of a futuristic-looking intercom—it resembles a neon-girded porthole crossed with an old school drive-in movie speaker— through which the arrival of the visitors is announced, then pulls back to reveal a darkened bed chamber where lies a sleeping woman, lit for our benefit, the rest of the room in shadow. We suddenly realize the woman is not alone when her partner in repose—Poelzig, as it turns out– rises purposefully, almost robotically, turns on the bedside lamp which, in a perversely beautiful touch, lights only the space behind the curtained wall behind Poelzig and keeps him entirely in crisp silhouette. He moves toward the door.
Ulmer transitions to another room where Werdegast tends to the injuries of the young woman, who was slightly injured in the crash. He and the woman’s husband are leaning over her bed when there is a cut to the door, a vertical line bisecting the screen which slowly opens, revealing Poelzig in all his malevolent imposition, glaring at these intruders with an ominous portent that rivals that of the first appearance of the Frankenstein monster. There follows a painterly medium shot of Werdegast on the left, the woman sleeping in center, her husband doting on the right, all from Poelzig’s point of view, and then a most unexpected dissolve to a tight close-up of the unconscious woman as her husband tenderly brushes her hair from her face and then retracts his hand.
Cut sharply to the same angle as before of Poelzig, who is no longer lingering in the doorway but has now moved fully into the room, still keeping his distance and having not yet made a sound that would alert the two men to his presence. He pushes the door closed with a slam. Cut to the same painterly medium shot, only this time the husband turns and recognizes that someone has entered the room. Ulmer then cuts back to Poelzig from the same angle, but instead of the static shot the camera is caught in movement, dollying toward the sinister figure as he continues to silently stare.
And just as the shot becomes a head-and-shoulders close-up, Ulmer shocks us with a cut to a position on Poelzig even further back than the shot that introduced him to the room, with the camera dollying once again toward him, this time ceding to a medium shot of the master of the house. He never breaks his stare, only moves his head to his left in acknowledgment of Werdegast, who enters frame right. Werdegast explains the situation in a series of statements, between any one of which the doctor (and Lugosi, of course) leaves plenty of space for Poelzig to interject. Instead, Poelzig continues to direct that menacing stare at Werdegast. After a moment, Werdegast turns away from Poelzig and back to his patient, and we see Poelzig isolated in a vanity mirror reflection, still staring, now imagined by Ulmer as an actual element of the castle in which Poelzig will entrap these visitors and subject them to the unspeakable evil that echoes from the past through his bizarre, self-constructed world.
The Black Cat and its sinister game of chess between Polezig and Werdegast, two men scarred and consumed by the horrors of the past and ones much more current, entirely lives up to that brilliant entrance. Ulmer lets fly with a pre-Code blast of sadism, Satanism, and even a climactic and vicious flaying, and it’s truly mind-boggling to see what he managed to get away with in regard to pushing the envelope of Hollywood standards of the time.
Even so, Universal studio head Carl Laemmle Sr. and producer Carl Laemmle Jr. were reportedly repulsed by the degree to which Ulmer indulged in these various horrors and demanded reshoots to tone down some of the (implied) violence and to make Lugosi’s Werdegast, himself driven by revenge for Poelzig having stolen his wife and murdered his daughter (or so he thinks), a more sympathetic character. Ulmer initially, and begrudgingly agreed to the reshoots, and then cleverly seized the opportunity to subversively deepen the movie’s depravity by devising a new sequence in which Poelzig gives Werdegast a tour of his castle’s prize trophies: a basement room filled with exquisitely preserved, quite dead and embalmed women, all housed in glass display cases which are occasionally opened to afford the master’s taste for necrophilia. (How this one made it past the scolding Laemmles is a mystery for the ages.)
Despite the huge success of The Black Cat, Ulmer was never afforded the career he might have had– a romantic relationship with, and eventual marriage to the wife of one of Laemmle Sr.’s nephews, ensured that he would be ejected from Hollywood for the margins of the film industry. Instead of the mainstream Hollywood career he apparently hoped for, Ulmer would spend the rest of his career making microscopically-budgeted B-movies and independent films, including films made in Yiddish (Green Fields, 1937), a film cast entirely with African-Americans (Moon Over Harlem, 1939), a film made for Ukrainian immigrants (Cossacks in Exile, 1939) and several memorable noir-inflected melodramas like Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusion (1945) and his Poverty Row masterpiece Detour (1945).
Ulmer enjoyed an auteurist-fueled critical reappraisal in the 1970s and is now considered, rightfully, one of the movies’ master minimalists of style, having routinely spun cinematic silk purses from the crudest of sow’s ears. But The Black Cat, his sole contribution to the legacy of Universal horror movies, would have emerged a classic no matter what, a masterful work of dread which gave us moving and nuanced work from Lugosi, as well as that absolutely memorable first appearance of Boris Karloff and the great performance that fulfilled it. Every time I see this movie I can imagine the twisted pleasures of audiences in 1934 and the screams that must have filled theaters when Karloff first rises from the shadows of that eerie bed chamber. They are easy to imagine, because they echo my own.
(In next week’s Fear of the Velvet Curtain I examine Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, a brilliant novel about the movies which uses Ulmer’s strange career as a master stylist as a jumping-off point for an sinister story engorged with a decadent and whispered history of movies. See you then!)
(My thanks to Bret Wood for some of the background on The Black Cat provided by his article on the movie published on the Turner Classic Movies Web site.)