Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat and Lew Landers’ The Raven were made only a year apart in the mid-1930s. Both films were ‘suggested’ by stories from Edgar Allan Poe and were the first two instances in which Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff – each already a star in his own right – co-starred. These Universal B-Movies have little else in common, however. Ulmer’s film is based on a solid story, sharply scripted, is beautifully photographed and contains fine performances from both its leads as well as adequate support from its minor actors. In contrast, The Raven is a very poorly edited cash-in on the successes of Lugosi as Dracula and Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, with the leads’ roles practically identical to these but with no attempt to allow these stars any chance to play off each other, resulting in poor performances from each. The contrast between the two films is of interest because it displays the extent to which the quality of elements such as direction, editing and story can have an impact on actors’ performances.
While it seems that in The Raven the stars’ central performances are all that matters, the opening scenes of The Black Cat reveal a more sophisticated approach. We are presented with a recently married American couple on a train to Hungary who are told by the porter that due to booking complications they will have to share their carriage with a stranger. The ominous, silent intrusion of Lugosi’s psychiatrist Dr. Werdegast is like a Hitchcockian stain, insinuating itself violently but only apparently momentarily into the happy couple’s pleasantries. Werdegast saves the girl from being ‘crushed’ by her case, which falls from above her as the train jolts, and a good-natured smile opens a cheery conversation. This early scene gleans a subtle performance from Lugosi who delivers the line ‘I go to visit an old friend’ in a slow, enigmatic tone that seems to imply both that the doctor is greatly fatigued by life and that he has gained a deep inner strength from difficult past experiences.
Lugosi is crucially performing ‘against the grain’ here, both as an actor and as a character, for Karloff’s architect Poelzig is anything but an ‘old friend’ to Werdegast. This manner of performance, encouraged by the storytelling, is fundamental to the film’s overall strength. Karloff’s Poelzig is equally restrained as he stands locked in a brutally rigid attitude before the American honeymooners. This pose, which is certainly menacing, also brilliantly suggests Poelzig’s efforts to avoid giving away too much, all of Karloff’s acting concentrated in the cautious look he gives the strangers. Throughout The Black Cat the presence of the Americans forces Lugosi’s and Karloff’s characters to keep us on a knife’s-edge, proving the worth of Hitchcock’s famous claim that far more important than shock are the restraints of suspense, which are here provided beautifully by the subtleties of restricted performance.
The Raven may be of interest to those who enjoy B-Movies for their often ropey special effects. The Black Cat, however, transcends the supposed limitations of a low budget: it is a deeply atmospheric, visually innovative film and it offers Lugosi and Karloff the perfect roles to play together.
Ben Dooley is the co-founder of A Year in the Dark.