The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)

“Strange about the cat – Joan seemed so curiously affected when you killed it.”
“That was coincidence, I think.”

Another in the great tradition of Hollywood movies starting with great actors playing interesting characters in cool locations, then throwing a bland romantic couple into the middle of it. They’re not as bad as your usual bland romantic couple, these two. David Manners was Harker in Dracula and a main dude in The Mummy with Karloff, and Jacqueline Wells had just costarred in a Tarzan movie.

Lugosi is a Hungarian psychiatrist, a prisoner of war for 15 years, free again and visiting his old friend Karloff, a great Austrian architect. Lugosi plans to confront Karloff and demand back his wife and daughter, whom he suspects Karloff has stolen from him – but he brings along the couple, having just survived a car crash. Jacqueline stumbles in all dazed and woozy, and they give her a narcotic and tell her to sleep (“SLEEEEEP”), excellent medical advice.

“Are we not both the living dead?” Lugosi (whose character name sounds too much like Fetus) has “an intense and all-consuming horror of cats,” which I suspect will come up again later in the movie. Lugosi’s daughter turns out to be alive, 18 years old and sleeping with Karloff. Karloff is also a satanist, keeping Lugosi’s wife’s body suspended in his basement. So they sit down for a game of chess – winner gets to keep the body. It’s a ludicrous movie, and closes with a meta-joke about its own melodramatic craziness.

The beginning and end of Ulmer’s major-studio Hollywood career – he had a major hit but fell in love with the wrong girl and spent the rest of his life on the specialty and b-movie circuits. Before this, he’d done set design for Fritz Lang (Die Nibelungen, M, Metropolis, Spies) and production and art design for Murnau (Tabu, Last Laugh, Sunrise, 4 Devils) – so the expressionist look to The Black Cat wasn’t just Hollywood ripping off a hot trend, but a 20-year vet of great German cinema importing his own style.

Found a good article by “The Nitrate Diva” about the WWI references and emotional resonance within the film. The story was “suggested” by the Edgar Allen Poe story which was more faithfully adapted by Stuart Gordon recently.