“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.

A true low-budget “b movie” classic. Made by an indie studio with no-name stars, a rough, dirty-looking film print with short jumps and gaps, shown as part of Emory’s noir series. First Ulmer movie I’ve seen (unless watching The Amazing Transparent Man on Mystery Science Theater counts).

Tom Neal is kind of a pathetic character, a wannabe concert pianist playing a crappy New York restaurant with his sweetheart Sue singing – but she won’t marry him until one of them makes good, so she sets out for Hollywood. Later, Tom has failed to make his fortune, but decides to hitch-hike to L.A. to see his girl. He’s picked up by a slightly dangerous-seeming guy named Charlie, who lets Tom drive while he naps, apparently dying in his sleep. Or maybe he dies when Tom opens the door to see if he’s alright, and Charlie falls out of the car, knocking his head into a rock. Or maybe he’s not dead at all – either way, Tom panics, takes the man’s clothes, wallet and car, and carries on.

But Tom, the dummy, picks up a hitch-hiker who turns out to be severe control freak Ann Savage. She’s onto him, since Charlie had given her a ride in the same car, so she threatens to turn him in, gets him to rent them an apartment and buy her clothes and booze. In perhaps my favorite 40’s-noir death scene so far, one night he grabs the phone cord (I think it was to keep her from calling the cops) leading under her closed bedroom door and pulls with all his might, not knowing that the cord was looped around her neck. Now Tom is a two-time murderer, doesn’t want to bring his fugitive past into sweetie Sue’s life, so he hits the highway, stopping irritably in a diner (where Sturges regular Esther Howard is the waitress) to pause and recount his tale to us via voice-over.

Which leads to The Last Shot of Detour, the subject of a ten-page article by Morgan Fisher in Cinema Scope, which soon lost me when I realized it was a “close reading” of a one-minute piece of film, but after skimming a few pages I got interested again, in his discussion of strangely self-conscious moments in the movie that could only have been inserted on purpose. When watching the movie, the final shot made me laugh – Tom’s narrator voice tells us that one day on the road he’ll catch his final, fateful ride, and at that very moment the state patrol pulls up and takes him away. I hadn’t thought to consider it as a subjective shot, a flash-forward illustrating his thought, but without any cuts or visual cues that we’ve left the present.

Tom Neal, the non-brute lead of The Brute Man, was best known for beating the hell out of Franchot Tone in 1951 and killing his wife in 1965. Ann Savage memorably reappeared sixty-three years later in the great My Winnipeg. Detour was remade in the 1990’s with Tom Neal Jr.

D. Coursen:

Ulmer is actually taking several American fantasies (“going west,” looking to Hollywood for success and happiness, finding freedom and happiness on the open road) and performing unnatural acts on them, with devastating effects … Each ridiculous plot twist narrows his alternatives, increases his victimization, further emphasizes his lack of free will. In fact, the closest thing to a moment of freedom in the movie (though the character doesn’t perceive it as such) comes in the extraordinary sequence in which, working in the nightclub he professes to despise, he plays a brilliant, disjointed piano improvisation, shown largely through closeups of his crazily moving fingers.

“Filmstudio 1929 presents its first experiment: People On Sunday, a film without actors.”

Like Natalie Portman in Garden State, I like to do things nobody else has ever done before, hence I watched the German silent film People On Sunday on my laptop whilst listening to John Zorn’s manic, screechy, pounding “Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman.” Once my Portmanic originality had been established, I switched to Zorn’s more pleasing “Filmworks Anthology” disc.

Things the movie proved to me:
– All germans eat are sausages, and all they drink is beer.
– In the 1920’s/30’s, young men held spanking parties.

The movie suffered from the fact that I’d just watched Lonesome, a much more exciting movie from the same era with the same working-people-on-vacation vibe. This one has less urgency and romanticism, just taking it easy on a lazy Sunday, some friends out for a picnic and paddleboat ride, trying to score with women in the park. My favorite plot point was the girl from the original group who never makes it to the park, stays in bed and sleeps through the whole movie.

Nicely-shot and well-paced, a fine way to spend 80 minutes. It’d probably be a forgotten footnote if not for the amazing combination of soon-to-be-famous filmmakers who worked on it – co-directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, cowritten with Billy Wilder, shot by Eugen Schüfftan (Eyes Without a Face, Port of Shadows), all just starting out in the movies. An IMDB commenter: “Within a few years most of these people were in Hollywood, and Hitler had destroyed both the wonderful film industry they had helped build and the joyous Berlin that this film depicts . . . the film allows us a glimpse of Berlin between the wars and it is sad to watch it with the knowledge of what was soon to be.”

N. Isenberg:

Shot in Berlin on the eve of the Great Depression with almost no budget, an equally modest cast of amateur actors, a relatively untested, unknown crew, and no major studio backing . . . a remarkably straightforward depiction, by turns affectionate and comical, of courting rituals, leisure activity, and mass entertainment circa 1930

In the first act the sleepy model and her man tear up each other’s movie star pictures – recognized Greta Garbo and Harold Lloyd:

Stylishly scrawled end titles: “4 million people waiting for next sunday,” one word at a time.

Some fun editing, including one weird bit with rapid cutting between a man in the park and various statues. Lots of close-ups and few intertitles. A different kind of movie, free-spirited and outdoorsy, can see why they labeled it an experiment.

Sweet record advertisement (from the same songwriter as “Jollity Farm”):