For Reel

The Black Cat (1934)
July 18, 2012, 2:36 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

The first collaboration between Universal horror icons Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff (who would star in a total of eight pictures together), The Black Cat is most notable for its spectacular lighting, creating dramatic blacks and whites that echo the chessboard that the adversaries brood over late in the picture. Director Edgar G. Ulmer, who had worked under both F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang earlier in his career, knew how to stretch both a dollar and the limits of the studio heads – although the film was made before the strict enforcement of the Production Code, it is nonetheless shockingly violent and sexually depraved. Karloff plays an architect, and fittingly his mansion is a masterpiece of deco design, ultra-modern and fitted memorably with a stainless steel staircase by art director Charles D. Hall. Beyond the formal achievements, however, the film is largely a mess. Perhaps due to censorship concerns – Ulmer was forced to reshoot several scenes, including a playing down of a gruesome flaying – little holds together, with such elements as Lugosi’s fear of cats standing out as particularly absurd. The most unforgivable misstep is a classical music soundtrack which serves as continuous background noise. While it provides an artificiality that coalesces with the visual stylization, it completely undermines the psychological games played between Karloff and Lugosi, falsifying the tension with an unearned grandiosity.

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