The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer / U.S., 1934):

Europe between wars as an Art Deco manse erected over the skeletons of genocide, "a masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of a masterpiece of destruction." The house is a former fortress, a submerged cemetery, a site of betrayal and slaughter. "Few have returned," muses the Hungarian psychiatrist (Bela Lugosi). "I have returned." When the door bell is rung, a silhouetted figure rises from bed like Caligari’s Cesare, and there you have the host, the Austrian architect (Boris Karloff) in his triangular coif and inky kimono. The unfinished business between these two ghouls involves the betrayal of the Austro-Hungarian cause, the killing of thousands of soldiers, and the fate of Lugosi’s wife, now the centerpiece of Karloff’s morbid private harem. (To add an extra layer to the perversity, the architect has also married his foe’s long-lost daughter.) America, meanwhile, is a callow novelist (David Manners), transversing the continent with his young wife (Julie Bishop) and unimpressed by the "supernatural baloney" around him. "Next time, I go to Niagara Falls." Not a Poe adaptation, and not at all "camp," but Edgar G. Ulmer’s grandest danse macabre, a magnificently sustained trance. The setting is Bauhaus-streamlined and death-scented, with the angular planes and verticals of modernity trying in vain to paper over the past’s unmentionable horrors -- framed in profile on the balcony, Karloff inhales the winds like sulfur. (The score, with its public-domain earfuls of Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Schubert, is its own lugubrious entity.) Ulmer’s camera, prone to unearthly movements autonomous from the narrative (vide the dissolving tracking shots in the catacombs as Karloff monologues off-screen about death), is just the thing for the profound spectacle of an expatriate artist recreating UFA in thrifty Hollywood sets. There's a premonition of the Bride of Frankenstein finale, and also of Bergman's fateful chess match and Polanski's living-room Satanic mass. The concept of "credibility," the cornerstone of unimaginative reviewers, figures in the punchline. Cinematography by John J. Mescall. With Egon Brecher, Harry Cording, and Lucille Lund. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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