Monday, January 14, 2013

NYJFF ’13: The Black Cat

It should have been the start of something big.  Czech immigrant director Edgar G. Ulmer helmed Universal’s biggest hit of 1934. He also launched an affair with the wife of the studio chief’s nephew, who he would ultimately marry.  As a result, Ulmer was doomed to become a cult director.  Ulmer’s strange and fateful The Black Cat (trailer here) screens as part of a special presentation on Jewish horror films at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Although supposedly inspired by Poe’s short story, Peter Ruric’s screenplay is about as faithful to “The Black Cat” as it is to The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Golden Bowl.  There is a noir feline who shows up at inopportune times, but that is about the extent of it.  It does not matter.  U’s Black Cat is quite bizarre and surprisingly twisted for its time.

A boring American couple is honeymooning in Hungary for no good reason.  When Joan Alison is injured in a bus accident, their traveling companion, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, whisks her off to the home of his nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, to recuperate.  Werdegast is one of the few survivors of a Russian massacre of Hungarian soldiers, facilitated by Poelzig’s betrayal.  Prospering after the war, Poelzig has built his ultramodern home over the ruins of the notorious Fort Marmorus, the site of the wartime atrocities.

One of the intriguing aspects of Cat is the way it apparently tries to explain human manifestations of evil.  Poelzig, the turncoat war criminal, is also a Satanist (who happens to be measuring Mrs. Alison for his cult’s next human sacrifice).  Pre-dating the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow Show Trials, The Black Cat has a decidedly Hobbesian perspective on the world and human nature.  Of course, Ulmer was a product of the Old Europe, where wars and even pogroms were still very real dangers.

Odder still, Poelzig’s architecture is transparently modeled on the Bauhaus school, many members of which were avowed Communists.  His very name is a dubious tribute to architect Hans Poelzig, with whom Ulmer claimed to have worked on sets for The Golem (clips of which could well turn up in Hoberman’s presentation this Thursday).  Regardless, the striking International-style sets look fantastic, perfectly suiting the dramatic light and shadow of John J. Mescall’s moody black and white cinematography.

As a further distinction, Black Cat has to be Boris Karloff’s most sexualized screen appearance.  The audience first sees him in silhouette, rising in bed, with another body clearly lying beside him.  When the tables turn on his Poelzig, we see his shirt ripped from his body, as Werdegast proceeds to flay his skin.  You do not have to be a strict Freudian to read some funny business into that scene.

The Black Cat is easily one of the most stylish films from the golden age of Universal horror.  Granted, it shares some of shortcomings of its brethren.  The local cops are cartoonish buffoons (where’s Lionel Atwill when we need him?), whereas David Manners is impossibly chipper and guileless as Peter Alison.  Nonetheless, it is a very cool looking and unusually sophisticated in the themes it addresses.  It even features a life-and-death chess game decades before The Seventh Seal.  A wonderfully eccentric work of 1930’s creepiness, genre fans are definitely advised to rediscover The Black Cat.  Available in Karloff-Lugosi DVD collections, it screens as part of J. Hoberman’s consideration of Jewish horror films this Thursday (1/17) as the 2013 NYJFF continues at the Walter Reade Theater.