Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff both had successful and prolific acting careers before the 1930s, but the pair became horror icons when they were cast in their signature roles, Lugosi as the title role in Dracula and Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein, by Universal Pictures. As two of the crown jewels in Universal’s horror stable, Lugosi and Karloff were bound to be teamed up, and the first film in which the two actors took the screen together was 1934’s The Black Cat.
The Black Cat is the story of a pair of newlyweds named Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners, who worked with both Lugosi in Dracula and Karloff in The Mummy, and Jacqueline Wells from Tarzan the Fearless) who are traveling through Hungary on their honeymoon. Due to an overbooked train, the couple must share their cabin with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a psychiatrist who has been a prisoner of war for the past fifteen years and is on his way to see his old friend, an architect named Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). After they disembark from the train, Dr. Werdegast and the Alisons share a taxi which promptly crashes in the pouring rain and Joan is hurt badly. Peter and Werdegast are able to get Joan to Poelzig’s home, and Poelzig invites them to spend the night while the Doctor treats Joan’s injuries. After Joan is stabilized, Peter realizes that not only is Poelzig not the humanitarian that he seems to be, but Dr. Werdegast’s visit is much more than just a simple social call. Peter and Joan are trapped between the two men, in danger but unsure of whom they can trust to get them through the night safely.
Drawing its name from an Edgar Allan Poe story, the screenplay for The Black Cat was written by Peter Ruric (Grand Central Murder) with help from the picture’s director, Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour). While the titular animal figures prominently in Poe’s tale, the cat is merely set dressing in this film, relegated to making creepy appearances and being carried around by Poelzig as he stalks the corridors of his vast home. Although the film lacks the intense foreshadowing and symbolism of the short story, Ulmer’s movie is still a classic example of terrifying Universal horror.
The most remarkable aspect of the film is the chemistry between Lugosi and Karloff. The men share a substantial amount of screen time, and it’s difficult to concentrate on anything except them; poor David Manners, no slouch of an actor in his own right, becomes just another prop when Lugosi and Karloff get going. Although not apparent to Peter and Joan, the fact is made clear to the viewer early on in the narrative that Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast is the protagonist of the film, with the couple’s best interests and safety at heart while Karloff’s Poelzig has other ideas for them. In one scene, Dr. Werdegast and Poelzig play a game of chess with the couple’s fate at stake: Dr. Werdegast plays for their freedom, Poelzig plays for their captivity. The chess match is an understated scene, one that is full of tension and frustration for both men, and is expertly acted. The Black Cat is full of scenes where sparks fly between Lugosi and Karloff as the horror masters play off of each other’s considerable talent and skill.
Because The Black Cat is a Universal horror film, its cinematography should not be overlooked. The film was shot by John J. Mescall (The Bride of Frankenstein) and it has all of the unforgettable imagery of the classic Universal pictures. Mescall combines surreal, elongated sets with high-contrast lighting to create a frightening visual journey. There are several scenes in which Boris Karloff glides down darkened hallways, black cat in his arms, gazing at brightly lit glass boxes on the walls that contain the sleeping/dead bodies of young women. All Karloff does is walk, and he does it with evil precision, but the dream-like feel of the backlit photography is what turns these scenes into the creepy images that become the film’s signature. Mescall’s cinematography in The Black Cat adds to the exceptional performances of the cast, creating an unforgettable and eerie filmic experience.
Despite rumors of jealousy and tension between the two stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff would make seven more movies together, five more for Universal. The Black Cat provided the blueprint for their collaborations, showing that, with a good director, the two men could create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.