1930s

Mythic Conduits for Intimate Pain in Edgar G. Ulmer’s ‘The Black Cat’

The Black Cat Movie Film

The title card for Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) declares that it is “suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic,” an 1843 short story of the same name. While the film bears no immediate resemblance to Poe’s story, the two pieces share intriguing thematic engagements: namely, the use of archetypal and mythological symbolism to contend with painfully intimate psychological experiences (addiction and madness in Poe’s story, and psychological trauma in Ulmer’s film). Poe’s piece depicts a tormented, alcoholic protagonist who perceives a repeatedly re-emerging black cat as a manifestation of his awful misfortune. The story deploys unreliable narration to obfuscate connections between the title animal’s supernatural influence and the main character’s escalating acts of violence; it is tightly contained and populated by a small cast of characters, with almost all its action relegated to the protagonist and his cat, Pluto (named after the ruler of the underworld in Roman mythology). 

By contrast, the protagonists of Ulmer’s film are hapless newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop), whose honeymoon plans are quickly upended by a chance encounter with Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). After the couple is forced into sharing a train cabin with Werdegast, the trio shares a bus toward their respective destinations; the vehicle crashes on a rain-slicked road, leaving them stranded. Werdegast then leads the couple to Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)’s mansion, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus (a battle site that Poelzig commanded catastrophically during World War I). Poelzig’s surrender of Marmorus to Russian forces left Werdegast to be taken captive as a prisoner at Kurgaal, separated for 15 years from his wife and daughter (Karen senior and junior), during which time Werdegast accuses Poelzig of “stealing his wife.” Joan is injured in the bus accident, and the couple is stranded at Poelzig’s mansion without transport. The Black Cat quickly makes it clear that Peter and Joan are not the narrative’s focus, but rather plot devices to protract the mounting tension between Werdegast and Poelzig. Given the presence of these innocent bystanders, Werdegast is not free to immediately avenge his lost family and agency; as such, the first half of the film sees Werdegast and Poelzig forced to negotiate their conflicts with an air of false gentility. The Black Cat eventually builds toward a grisly showdown that takes place during a satanic Dark Moon ritual conducted by Poelzig, at which point all false diplomacy dissolves into violence. 

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The Black Cat Movie Film

Although Poe’s story employs its title animal more overtly for plot-related purposes than does Ulmer’s film, the two share similarities in that black cats play key metaphoric and thematic roles in both. As mentioned above, Poe’s story applies its focal animal as a symbol of addiction and madness, whereas in Ulmer’s film, the cat acts as a cipher for Werdegast’s psychological trauma. Consider an early scene wherein Poelzig’s black cat enters a study and Werdegast cries out in horror, hurling an object across the room to kill the animal. This shocking scene foreshadows the film’s brutal resolution, which sees Werdegast skinning Poelzig alive (Lugosi performs this episode with a menacing grin, asking Karloff’s character outright if he has ever seen an animal skinned). These two moments centralize the cat as an embodiment of Werdegast’s mental torment, the mythologized manifestation of evil he witnessed in the mechanized murder of World War I. 

The Black Cat’s mythological attributions to the animal connect to Poe’s engagement with Roman mythology, emphasized when Werdegast refers to “certain ancient books” that describe the black cat as “the living embodiment of evil.” Ulmer bolsters the cat’s metaphoric role throughout the film, repeatedly depicting Poelzig wandering his mansion with the animal cradled in his arms. Playing a Satanic priest who houses himself in a Bauhaus mansion constructed on a site of recent atrocity, Karloff serves as an expressly religious symbol of evil. When Werdegast skins Poelzig alive, the film lays bare the two characters’ archetypal statuses: the dark avenging angel Werdegast tears apart the physical symbol of his psychological trauma, the devilish Poelzig. In terms of mythic presence, Ulmer also maximizes on the status of his two stars — Dracula (Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s monster (Karloff), onscreen together for the first time.

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The Black Cat Movie Film

Although this reading might seem to suggest simplistic Manichean dualism, it is worth noting that The Black Cat carefully undoes good-evil binaries in nuanced ways. While Ulmer undoubtedly draws on mythic and religious symbolism — specifically via the engagements with Satanism, the titular black cat and Poelzig’s description of Werdegast as an “avenging angel” — the film does not resign itself to baseline moralism. In a monologue scored by the haunting second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Poelzig lays bare both characters’ pain in the wake of their shared past. “You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years,” he presses Werdegast. “And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsty for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.”

In its visceral dealings with the psychological aftermath of warfare, The Black Cat bears as many similarities with Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (first published in 1932 and translated to English in 1934) as it does with Poe’s story. Like Céline’s novel, Ulmer’s film observes the horrifying psychological consequences of warfare, using Werdegast as its catalyst. Subverting then-contemporary preconceptions of Lugosi’s menacing onscreen presence (exemplified by Dracula [1931], White Zombie [1932], Island of Lost Souls [1932] and Murders in the Rue Morgue [1932], among others), The Black Cat draws on the actor’s background in silent cinema to convey a man debilitated and maddened by psychological wounds. While the charming lead couple eases the audience into the plot, the film concerns itself primarily with Werdegast’s voyage back to a site of trauma, Poelzig’s manor. En route to this eerie location, the bus driver debriefs Peter and Joan on the grisly history of Fort Marmorus: “The ravine down there was piled 12-deep with dead and wounded” he tells them. “The little river below was swollen: a red, raging torrent of blood.” During this monologue, Ulmer cuts to a close-up of Werdegast; possibly drawing on his own real-life experiences with combat in World War I, Lugosi expresses profound pain without speaking.  

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The Black Cat Movie Film

Poelzig’s mansion thus develops an air of foreboding and menace before the trio arrives. Ulmer employs ingenious set design to visualize this space, which is symbolically haunted by the ghosts of those who died on Fort Marmorus. The cold, angular rooms showcase an aesthetic that is equal parts art deco and Bauhaus, shot with Expressionist flair by cinematographer John J. Mescall. Drawing on World War I’s nascent means of mechanized murder, the house’s lower depths contain repurposed weapons from the battle that left Werdegast scarred and alone. In line with Gothic conventions, the atmospheric space is itself one of the film’s key characters, powerfully representing the grotesquely false edifice of modernity that Poelzig has imposed on events too horrific to be swept aside. 

While The Black Cat does not share many explicit connections with Poe’s 1843 story, both texts use archetypal symbolism to explore painfully intimate experiences (in Poe’s case, addiction and mental disarray, and in Ulmer’s case, psychological trauma). The honeymooning couple in Ulmer’s film might serve as empathetic guides for the viewer, but at its center is Lugosi’s Werdegast, hellbent on releasing his pain by destroying its human cipher, Karloff’s Poelzig. 

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, podcasts and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest and The NoSleep Podcast, and his film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage and The Seventh Row. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.