The Black Cat (1934)

Edward G. Ulmer | 1hr 5min

Atop the ruins of Fort Marmorus in Hungary, where thousands of World War I soldiers died, an imposing manor has been built by Austrian architect, Hjalmar Poelzig. Within its basement, an evil Satanic cult gathers, preserving the bodies of dead women for its own nefarious purposes. It is also upon these dark grounds where Edgar G. Ulmer stages a showdown between two of Universal Pictures’ greatest stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, both chewing scenery with exaggerated accents and mannerisms that are wild by even their own standards. An “atmosphere of death” hangs over their decades-old rivalry, cast in stark shadows across lavish halls and secret dungeons, and Ulmer savours every demented moment of it, painting over The Black Cat’s uneven pacing with a pulpy, macabre expressionism.

Honeymooners and audience conduits Peter and Joan are the least interesting thing about this film of treachery, conspiracies, and mind games. Their encounter with Lugosi’s psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast is simply our introduction into a far more fascinating underworld run by Poelzig, Karloff’s enigmatic occultist. Rain pours down in the film’s exteriors, dousing the night in a pervasive gloom, while Ulmer’s interior architecture becomes a Gothic extension of Poelzig’s madness. Against bright backlights, silhouettes cut striking shapes out of his characters, while a pair of spiral staircases become central set pieces – one stretching wide across a gridded backdrop, and the other sharply dropping into the basement like a steep, rickety tower.

Like Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s laboratory, Poelzig’s manor stands in a lineage within Universal monster movies of creepy buildings standing atop lonely mountains.
Excellent use of chiaroscuro lighting for the introduction of Karloff’s creepy occultist, rising from his bed.
Ulmer returns to this set piece multiple times, each time finding new angles and shadows around it.

Most powerful of all Ulmer’s visual motifs though are the elongated shadows cast by Poelzig’s black cat, striking a fear deep into Dr. Vitus’ heart with its legs stretched out like fingers, and representing a “living embodiment of evil.” Karloff himself takes on characteristics of his feline companion too, prowling around the manor in long robes and scowling at his guests from beneath a heavy brow. When he invites Dr. Vitus to play a game of death, Ulmer even cuts away to an eerie montage of tracking shots down the building’s opulent hallways, hauntingly disembodying his voice like a lingering spectre. He is a force of malevolence on every level, certainly in the underworld of occultism, but also in his betrayal of his own nation to the Russians in World War I.

A commitment to the visual motif of the black cat, tying its shadows into the occult symbolism.
Ulmer using these angular beams to obstruct the shots of Poelzig’s Satanic cult.

The Satan worshippers who gather in Poelzig’s tabernacle are an unassuming lot, dressing in formalwear and looking more like wealthy aristocrats than social outcasts. Still, there is something unsettling about their glowering faces as we cut between them in close-ups, while Ulmer’s wide shots are obstructed by the obelisks and cross-like altar at the centre of the room. So too do the shadows and torture instruments of Poelzig’s dungeon construct some particularly oppressive frames around his final confrontation with Dr. Vitus, which gruesomely comes to an end with the Satanist’s execution on his own embalming rack. The Black Cat does not possess the same narrative strength as either Dracula or Frankenstein, and yet the morbid delight of seeing the stars of both clash across Ulmer’s expressionistic interiors makes for a darkly mesmerising occult horror.

A well-cut montage jumping around the faces of the cult members.
A huge influence from German expressionism in these shadows, angles, and designs – the foundation of this film’s profuse visual style.

The Black Cat is not currently streaming in Australia.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

W.S. Van Dyke | 1hr 33min

Back in the days of early Hollywood when it wasn’t uncommon for films to wear their genres as titles like The Broadway Melody, audiences knew exactly what they could expect by just a few, short words. It is a little surprising then to discover that Manhattan Melodrama packs an even greater punch than its uninspired name suggests, adding its own voice to the age-old ‘nature vs nurture’ debate by formally contrasting a pair of old friends who grew up as surrogate brothers, and yet find themselves following opposing paths leading them into conflict as adults. Not only is this the second film that W.S. van Dyke directed in 1932, with The Thin Man backing up his admirable filmography, but this is also the same year that Clark Gable made his breakthrough in It Happened One Night. While his performance here doesn’t quite touch the heights he reaches in Frank Capra’s romantic comedy, his brotherly chemistry with William Powell is substantial, building between them a sweet relationship that transcends any law that might drive them apart.

The sinking of the passenger steamboat PS General Slocum in 1904 marks the point at which young boys Blackie and Jim lose their biological families and start a new one with each other, connecting over the shared tragedy marking their childhoods. It also displays van Dyke’s greatest piece of direction in the film, a truly Eisensteinian sequence like Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps scene that builds a tragic disaster from the colliding fragments of a dextrously edited montage. Beyond the utter panic present in the busy staging and frenzied pacing, this montage still carefully tracks various figures within the chaos – the man who has fallen beneath the feet of a trampling crowd, the trapped child banging on a window, the choking passengers toppling over the side of the ship, and most importantly, the two boys making their own escape to shore.

Van Dyke following in the footsteps of Eisenstein in his editing of this historical disaster, adopting the Soviet montage barely ten years after its innovation.
Manhattan Melodrama also features some dynamic camera movements, keeping up with the horses here at the race track.

Though they grow up side-by-side in New York, their shared history is one of the only things they have in common. Through their years as teenagers, van Dyke returns to his inventive montage editing, but this time a split screen accompanies them as the studious Jim works hard towards a law degree, and the mischievous Blackie gambles his way to owning a successful yet illegal casino. As they become adults, another similarity soon emerges as well – Gable and Powell bear a striking resemblance to each other with their slicked-back hair, smart suits, and pencil moustaches, looking like a pair of twins. When Myrna Loy finally enters the scene as Eleanor, the stage is finally set for a love triangle that will see her romantic interest switch from one to the other, perhaps seeing them as flip sides of a single person.

An inspired split screen montage showing the diverging paths of the two surrogate brothers as they grow up.

By crafting such robust formal connections between his characters, van Dyke draws out rich, internal conflicts that bring their very principles into question. Blackie’s murder of a man who has threatened Jim during his run for New York governor might have come from a place of love, but it is a foolish act that presses his friend to doubt the legitimacy of his own election, as well as to consider unethically commuting Blackie’s sentence. As one sits in prison awaiting his execution and the other is sworn into office, Manhattan Melodrama keeps on drawing these poignant comparisons that have sent them to either end of the social ladder, composing elegant frames that trap Blackie behind prison bars and wired windows.

Gable is often framed behind bars throughout the final act of the film, but in this composition as the friends say their farewells we see them both trapped by their separate fates.

It is only when both men stop trying to cover for each other’s mistakes and accept the natural consequences of their actions that they ultimately find any closure in their relationship, as van Dyke lets them part ways towards their independent futures with a poignant farewell. Tragedy thus marks the beginning and end of Blackie and Jim’s fraternal love, touchingly binding them together as star-crossed soulmates, and, yes, even delivering on the teary melodrama promised in the film’s self-conscious title.

A poignant frame as Blackie walks towards his execution, tying off his storyline.

Manhattan Melodrama is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.