I’ll see if I can get it all straight. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who has just been released from a World War I prison camp, and is on his way to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), whose actions during the war resulted in the deaths of many men as well as Werdegast’s imprisonment. The purpose of Werdegast’s visit is revenge, and to learn the fate of the wife and daughter he left behind. During his journey, Dr. Werdegast encounters a pair of honeymooning Americans played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells. The three end up on an ill-fated bus trip that results in them all staying in Poelzig’s imposing mansion, so that the young bride can recover from injuries sustained when the bus crashed. Werdegast learns that his wife has died (possibly murdered by Poelzig) and that his daughter has subsequently become Poelzig’s bride. Oh, and apparently Poelzig is also the leader of a satanic cult, and Werdegast is afraid of cats.
Yes, it’s all a bit convoluted, but somehow none of that matters, because at the center of it all Karloff and Lugosi make wonderful adversaries. The way they toy with each other’s emotions and psyche becomes a waltz of intimidation. Manners and Wells seem to only be there to get into danger as the battle escalates. In fact Wells’ soul purpose is apparently to scream and be rescued. In another era this film could have been just the two men and a chessboard. The two leads are all it really needs.
Of course there are a few other elements that make The Black Cat stand out. There’s a gruesome, though mostly left to the imagination, torture scene at the end, and there’s Poelzig’s rather perverse inclination for collecting the corpses of beautiful women (including Werdegast’s wife) in glass cases. Nice components, but they’re hastily assembled. Like The Mummy, the movie’s greatest assets are its stars.
And if you’ve never read the Edgar Allan Poe story that lends its name to the film, don’t worry about spoilers. Of the three Poe adaptations I’ve viewed so far, this one bears the least resemblance to its source material. In fact, I think the only reason Lugosi’s character has a fear of cats is to justify the title.
This week’s supporting features:
Tom and Jerry in The Midnight Snack (1941)
The Our Gang short The Pooch (1932)
She-Wolf of London (1946) starring June Lockhart, Don Porter, Sara Haden, and Jan Wiley