The Black Cat - 1934
Some have acutely noticed how Mr. Doctor's photograph on DIES IRAE's front cover has something of Boris Karloff in THE BLACK CAT and is maybe no coincidence that exactly a photo of Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig (whose character was modelled on black magician Aleister Crowley) is also included on DIES IRAE's cover. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a 30-year old Austrian director who had previously worked as designer (at 17!) on the THE GOLEM (directed by Paul Wegener, 1920) before becoming art director for Murnau and assistant director to Fritz Lang and Erich Von Stroheim, THE BLACK CAT was the very first movie which coupled Universal's two horror stars: Bela `Dracula' Lugosi and Boris `Frankenstein' Karloff. Based on a story written by Ulmer with screenwriter Peter Ruric and loosely inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story (the same which had been filmed in Germany a couple of years earlier on the Expressionist movie UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN), THE BLACK CAT is by far the darkest Universal movie of the `30s and, together with MAD LOVE, the most perverse Hollywood movie of the decade. Ulmer's Bauhaus-like settings and art direction are marvelous and Karloff is at his most charismatic and demonic, well supported by an unusually benign Bela Lugosi. THE BLACK CAT include an amazing quantity of music: mainly re-arranged versions of classical pieces (supervised by Ulmer himself, who was a big music lover) from the repertoire of J.S. Bach (the inevitable Toccata & Fugue in D- played by Karloff/Poelzig, and the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in F which accompanies the Black Mass), Liszt (the Devil Sonata, of course!), Brahms (Rhapsody in B Minor) and Beethoven (THE SECOND TEMPO/MOVEMENT OF HIS 7TH SYMPHONY, A PIECE WHICH HAS BEEN ALREADY REPORTED AS BEING AMONG MR.DOCTOR'S FAVOURITES). Shot in 19 days at a final expense of $95,000, it premiered on May, 3, 1934, to mostly positive reviews, becoming Universal's best selling movie of the season. Despite this, Ulmer's career would have very few opportunities to prove the director's talents as all his subsequent assignments were low-budget or even no-budget movies, often plagued by perfunctory acting and poor screenplays. At least two Ulmer movies from the 40s are unreservedly recommended, though: the excellent BLUEBEARD (1944) with John Carradine in the title role and the irresistibly simple cult `film noir' DETOUR (1945).
-Jane and Francis-