Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT (previously described here) is notable for being possibly the first Poe adaptation to take the title and nothing else from the source story — it certainly wasn’t the last. It’s also the first film to pair Karloff and Lugosi, Universal’s two great horror stars. And its Bauhaus castle is rightly noted as a triumph of modernist design in the horror movie.
But watching it with Fiona and our friend Mary, we were struck by a little-appreciated aspect of the film that deserves your attention: the wondrous variety and quality of night attire depicted.
Boris Karloff’s snazzy black robe with a cinched waist, dazzles the eye. Bela Lugosi’s slavic/chinese ensemble looks both practical and suave. Leading lady Jacqueline Wells has a whole array of nighties, robes and negligees, and at the film’s climax, as she flees the detonating mansion, her skirt flies off of its own accord, reducing her to boudoir-type attire. Hubby David Manners is, as usual, not so interesting as everyone else.
I seem to recall Lucio Fulci’s fave film was Ulmer’s DETOUR, so he must have liked this one also: he made his own, somewhat more faithful, version of the story in the 70s. And I’m sure Dario Argento has sung the film’s praises. He cites Poe’s “non-cartesian” approach as a major influence on his own storytelling. While Ulmer and his co-writers leave out everything except the titular cat, they certainly take a non-cartesian view of things, weaving an oneiric tapestry of perversity, tragedy and wildly inappropriate humour…
About those co-writers: credited scribe Peter Ruric was in fact George Carol Sims, who contributed to Lewton’s MADEMOISELLE FIFI (not a fright film, alas, but a very good melodrama/propaganda piece). Under the name Paul Cain he wrote thrillers for Black Mask magazine. His collection Seven Slayers features one yarn which, as my friend Comrade K pointed out, compresses the whole plot of Hammet’s Red Harvest into about ten pages. Hammet is famously terse. Cain is terseness personified. But it’s a little hard to detect his precise influence on THE BLACK CAT.
I can uncover little about Tom Kilpatrick, the uncredited additional scenarist, but he did have a hand in one other horror/fantasy classic, DR CYCLOPS. But nobody involved in this film ever made anything like it again. There IS nothing like it.
Another filmmaker who idolizes the movie is Raul Ruiz, and I can see why. Like his version of TREASURE ISLAND, it’s a “house of stories”. I never saw this one as a kid, but later read about it in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, where he points out the abiding strangeness of the film’s “plot” — moving in fits and starts, setting up lines of action and restlessly abandoning them, with blurry backstory branching off in all directions, and expectations spluttering out at every turn. Some of this is probably due to post-code censorship (when pre-code movies were trimmed for re-release, they chopped the original camera negatives, making restoration often impossible) — Ulmer’s daughter Arianne reckons there was more spiciness to the black mass originally. Never mind, what we do get is a lovely upended crucifix, and Boris Karloff mouthing Latin homilies in lieu of satanic verses (“In wine is truth… with a pinch of salt…”)
As good as it all is, nothing is as good as the basement of Hjalmar Poelzig’s castle, a reinforced concrete torture dungeon, where dead women float as ornaments, and Ulmer’s camera floats away from the action to chart the illimitable darkness of the vast, death-haunted bunker (“Even the telephone is dead.”) That place is like the bottom level of dream, the nightmare basement way down in our back brains, the place where sense itself stops functioning and obliterating fog roles in over reason and sanity…
We also watched EDGAR ULMER: THE MAN OFFSCREEN, which I’d held off on for ages because I wanted to like it so much I was afraid of not doing so. I needn’t have worried. We met Arianne Ulmer, the Great Man’s daughter, when she attended Edinburgh Film Fest’s Ulmer retrospective some years ago. She’s a font of movie-world knowledge and gossip, having been around film sets since infancy: naturally, Fiona & I were smitten. So I was disposed to like this film. Arianne Ulmer’s labour of love charts her father’s career/s, interviewing admirers and collaborators, and skillfully using extracts to evoke the mysterious beauty of the filmmaker’s low-budget masterpieces. Director Michael Palm films most of the interviews in moving cars, which works well, keeping the images moving, situating the interviewees in their various cities, and providing a rolling backdrop of illustrative opportunities: when Wim Wenders talks about being a German in Hollywood, we see a billboard behind him advertising TROY, directed by Wolfgang Petersen. The whole conceit pays off even more when Palm uses a car in front of a rear projection screen to interview the late, great Anne Savage, star of DETOUR (much of which unfolds in front of just such a screen), and Jimmy Lydon, star of the appropriately named STRANGE ILLUSION, who wanders behind the screen to give the film its loveliest image ~
Other talking heads include Joe Dante and John Landis, Roger Corman, and Peter Bogdanovich.
I rarely see movie documentaries which attempt anything interesting, and when they do, it often backfires. I still groan to think of the THIRD MAN doc which projects all its clips on Viennese monuments, a momentarily diverting idea which swiftly becomes irksome as the clips go on and on, and we can’t see what’s happening in them. THE MAN OFFSCREEN is a real success in the way it uses cinematic language without obscuring its informative purpose. And, fascinatingly, it allows doubt to be cast on some of Ulmer’s stories. It could easily have been a hagiographic exercise in hero-worship. Instead, it first tells Ulmer’s story as he told it, and then allows some more cynical voices to question whether he really worked on almost every classic of the German silent cinema, while also working in America at the same time. In the end, the question is left open — I’m certain Ulmer did work on at least some of the Lang or Murnau films he mentioned, but I’m pretty sure not all of them. But we can’t know. Fittingly, the life of the director of THE BLACK CAT branches off into tributaries, separate lifelines which fade out into a fog of mystery, and nothing can be said with certainty.
“We have seen too much of life.”