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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

THE BLACK CAT (1941)

 Seven years after duelling with Boris Karloff in the sado-masochistic The Black Cat (reviewed on 16/5/2016), Bela Lugosi found himself in a remake also unconnected with Edgar Allen Poe’s original short story. By now, the career momentum he’d enjoyed from 1931’s Dracula was disastrously slipping and he was often forced to accept cameos in major and minor studio B-movies. His star-making employer Universal gave him a very minor yet memorable cameo role in this 1941 version amongst a strong cast. The result is essentially an entertaining and well-paced romp, powered by a lively undercurrent of comedy albeit wasting the talents of Lugosi and Basil Rathbone.

Director Albert S. Rogell handles the script by Robert Lees and Robert Neville with confidence, ensuring that the over-familiar stock ingredients are kept moving, the humour contrasting and undercutting the heavy lifting of the plot. The only element of Poe’s story that influences the film is the cat obsession belonging here to rich, aging matriarch Henrietta Winslow played with shrewd presence by Cecilia Loftus. Her house is over-run with felines, and no wonder since her avaricious human relatives don’t inspire cuddles, circling her and homing in like buzzards at the slightest ailment. She has secret foibles of her own; superstitiously she banishes black cats from the house but has a totemistic statue of one in the family vault she secretly visits.

Basil Rathbone sports a caddish pencil moustache as Montague Hartley, befitting not only a financially shady operator but, aptly in a house of moggies, he’s something of a love-rat. His character is seriously under-written for such a worthy actor. Serving only as part of an ensemble collecting suspicion, it could have been taken by many a journeyman contract player. Monty is cheating on his admittedly imperious wife Myrna - three-time Oscar nominee Gladys Cooper. Audiences would grow accustomed to her face and high-handed persona in one of her nominated roles as Mrs Higgins in 1964’s film My Fair Lady. We also get an early screen appearance from 27 year-old Alan Ladd who would soon reach film noir stardom (from a carefully concealed real height of just 5ft 4 inches) as Myrna’s equally cold brother Richard.

For sexy and sinister value who better than Gale Sondergaard who had cornered the market by now as frosty horror film housekeepers and revisits the same qualities and position as Abigail Doone. She holds that freeze-dried composure until a bravura moment when she realises she now holds the catbird seat so to speak, and roars with a startlingly macabre laugh on enjoying a premonitory black cat heading into the house.

Representing the relatively good side of humanity, firstly Lugosi makes the most of the unlikely role of Eduardo, Henrietta’s loyal, mysterious Spanish gardener. It’s hard to judge whether he is aiming for the character’s accent or simply channelling his own and yet he inhabits the part with a rough colour and vulnerability as only his supporting turns (such as in Son of Frankenstein) usually revealed. The most sympathetic of the family bunch is grand-daughter Elaine - Anne Gwynne, later seen in House of Frankenstein (1944). Once the sly old dame croaks after apportioning out the inheritance, Elaine is at least honest enough to acknowledge “She knew what a rotten lot we were”.

The outsider contingent and narrative energy thrust is in the burly hands of Broderick Crawford as real-estate dealer and old family friend Hubert ‘Gil’ Smith alongside popular comedy veteran Hugh Herbert playing antique dealer Mr Penny. Crawford’s abrasive, two-fisted manner contrasts nicely with the petty, ineffectual family and he soon gravitates to alpha-male dominance as the murderous story unfolds. Herbert was famous for his comic persona in movies - his distinctive ‘hoo-hoo’ rim-shot that ends his lines is an acquired taste if you’re not keen on vaudeville gag-meisters like the Three Stooges (Curly Howard’s ‘woo-woo’ was in fact inspired by Herbert). His bumbling, nervous chatterbox reminded me more of Lou Costello; The Black Cat would have worked with he and Bud Abbott as Smith and Penny years before their profitable horror franchise for the studio.

Gil’s sandpaper tones rub the relatives up the wrong way even though the businessmen are no worse than the other queuing fleecers-in-waiting. Grizzled Eduardo is devoted to mistress Winslow, affirming to the men “Thees house will nevair be sold”. Henrietta likes Gil’s less grasping practicality, which is fortunate as he saves her just in time from death via poisoned bed-time milk. This is in vain though as an unidentified killer skewers her in her mausoleum with a knitting needle.

The pace quickens as events become more perplexing. Abigail is apparently knocked unconscious by someone and found in corpse-like slumber in an ottoman. Gil becomes the group’s fully-fledged action man, launching himself off a high balcony to confront Eduardo whom he accuses of absconding with a kidnapped Elaine in his cart (in actuality sabotaging the poor man’s painstaking moggy-wrangling). Ultimately he should have stuck to his azaleas instead of these feline doom-harbingers - Eduardo ends up being shot dead by the real villain of the piece, the scorned Myrna, before she carries Elaine off to the vault with impressively masculine strength. She had not only the motive for self-serving slaying, she was privy to the rebuild of the house and all its secret passages.

Fans of horror movie she-devils will relish Myrna’s demise: whilst battling Gil, a candle-flame sets her dress on fire, causing the shrieking banshee to go ungently into that good night and burn in the woods.

For Rathbone, The Black Cat was just a detour during the security of his long Sherlock Holmes film series excursion. Lugosi's more precarious status however did not provide him the luxury of a creditable long-running franchise. Next up was his notorious Monogram Nine run whilst dabbling with Universal’s other monster icons’ fated diminishing returns…

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