#86. The Black Cat (1934)

cohen catThe mention of cats reminds me of this anecdote in Sylvie Simmons’s biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, where one of Cohen’s friends gets worried about her cat becoming uncharacteristically standoffish, spending long stretches of time in seclusion under the bed, and so Cohen comes over and he takes the cat out from under the bed, lays his hands over particular parts of the cat’s body, and begins to make like an omm sound, striking some prolonged, meditative, baritone note, and then – if I’m remembering correctly – he starts to massage the cat in these two crucial places (its owner standing by just watching, wondering if she should intervene here) until Cohen deems his work here complete, and leaves. A few hours later the cat comes out from under the bed all on its own, coughs up something wretched, and gets back to its normal self. Thanks, Leonard.

As for this movie – I don’t understand why it’s on the List. It isn’t bad, but it’s not very good. A movie’s obscurity isn’t a default testament to its quality or lack of quality but, being a big fan of horror movies and having frequented horror movie discussion boards for so many years now, without ever having heard this title, I’m pretty sure that The Black Cat can’t be championed as significant even within its genre.

Maybe it’s on the List for genre inclusivity? When I saw The Unknown I was delighted to notice that the editors of the ist were appreciating such a dark and campy horror movie. Is The Black Cat maybe an effort to incorporate more stuff like that? Because the campiness here, of movie #86, stands in stark contrast to the stylish, cerebral, soul-searching L’Atalante, #85.

I guess there’s also the novelty of seeing Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Dracula and Frankenstein, interacting on screen together (although apparently they co-starred in eight pictures?). Reminiscing, manipulating, arguing – even fighting, for a moment. It’s a weird, sexual kind of fighting. Lugosi plays a liberated prisoner of war who’s returning to the scene of a gruesome battle that haunts him. Here, on the land where so many died, a man he knew in the war  (Karloff, playing Hjalmar) has built a huge art deco house – which blew my mind, by the way, to see that art deco was a thing back in the 1930s. I thought it started in like the ‘60s or ‘70s.

black cat art deco
A glimpse of the art deco-ness, which also seems to be influenced by Fritz Lang’s set design in the early stuff: Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis.

Anyway. Lugosi’s character suspects that this guy, Karloff, has information concerning the whereabouts of his wife and daughter. Shit gets tricky from there.

I don’t know much about the arc of Bela Lugosi’s career but I do know, thanks to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), that it doesn’t end well, that he becomes a parody of himself, and it got me thinking about the editors’ intentions as they assembled this List, the catalog of 1,001 movies that you “must” see before you die. I’ve been thinking of that List, up to now, as a collage, as like a constellation of several disconnected but worthwhile pieces, rather than registering the List itself, the chronology, as a narrative all on its own. I’d been thinking that an alternative title to this might be Cinema’s Greatest Hits, but now I’m thinking The Story of Cinema would be more accurate. And a big part of cinema’s story, if you’re trying to give somebody the full monty, concerns the lives of its greatest practitioners. So maybe that’s part of the editor’s motive in adding this dumbass movie to the List, is to show us what  happened to some of these stars after their biggest roles.

black cat lugosi and karloff
Lugosi and Karloff, the latter of which (to my surprise, at least) showcases both his lisp and short stature here.

The Black Cat is good as a curiosity piece for big fans of the Universal monsters, but even then I’d think of it as a movie to have on in the background while doing something mindless. Wrapping gifts or crosswording. Sex?

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