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IN EDGAR G. ULMER'S "Classic chiller," Boris Karloff plays opposite Bela Lugosi. You therefore expect, and get, a wide range of bizarre deeds--for starters, Satanism and skinning alive. The more extreme of these deeds are supported by a host of lesser strange touches, partly in Ulmer's visual style and partly in the fine acting. These touches make the film the masterpiece it is. They constantly reveal the personalities of the characters--especially the two leads, whose traits and drives take in all mutations of moral position and psychological experience. Karloff initially seems perverse and decadent; Lugosi, virtuous. But Lugosi's night-marish past experience and present insecurity drive him to acts of dreadful savagery even as we begin to see that Karloff's aristocratic veneer conceals the longing for beauty of a great artist.
Black Cat succeeds because Ulmer's is a highly stylized drama of personal change. Its script is full of out-of-place lines and suggestive unresolved themes--the black cat as evil's embodiment, Joan Allison's actions under a narcotic. In another director's hands their non-resolution would be irritating; for Ulmer they must remain suggestions. Only thus can they work as partial explanations of his characters' actions. Similarly, the script omits a lot of explanation of characters and events. But their resulting strangeness contributes to Black Cat's transcendence of normal experience. Ulmer uses all the odd events of his films to make his characters' evolution seem right.
It's no accident that these events are odd. Certain branches of the novel of personal change have long toyed with extreme metaphors for psychological and moral progress. Poe and Hawthorne, for example, used poison and death in connection with love and self-realization. The moral weight they put on psychological experience resembles Freud's--whose ideas are so dear to American screenwriters. Ulmer is certainly Freudian--see Ruthless or Murder is My Beat. But his stylization moves him beyond Freud in his view motivation and personal development. The rapidity of the changes he puts his characters through makes these changes seem ambiguous, part of an ill-defined weird atmosphere. They are not; we are simply too slow to follow Ulmer through his complex, intuitive character developments except in a general way, seeing the more striking changes.
THE "general way" is Black Cat's spooky atmosphere. It comes from Ulmer's constant shifting of weight, moment by moment, within scenes--continually presenting a new view of the situation, new moral positions and psychological experiences for the characters within the situation. Every successive shot in an early train-compartment sequence is a new camera angle; each takes in a new field of vision and a new set of characters and back-grounds. Any easy stability in the moral relations between characters is destroyed by constantly evolving changes of position. A feeling that Lugosi influences the young couple comes from all the shots, and is thus a very complex amorphous feeling rather than a direct force baldly presented in one shot.
In the hotel-bus sequence which follows, characters in the bus are lit from one side. Lightning repeatedly illuminates the darker sides of their faces, making the bright side darker. The weight and direction of each shot is changed by these flashes of light; just as the lightning changes the plan of the road in front of the bus, one has with the characters a feeling of moral change, change almost of personal identity. Finally, some camera motions which amount to moral voyages over the settings and people depicted, lift us into a realm of new truths about personal experience.
All these are in one sense just good film-making; they exploit a given dramatic situation. Choosing a certain camera angle or a certain lighting merely extends the expressive possibilities which the script offers the director. But in Ulmer's case exploitation becomes flights of pure imagination. In one scene Karloff goes to put out the cat. He walks down a dark hall into a gallery lined with glass cases. Passing from one, in which a blonde woman in a white frock is suspended, to the next, his reflections in the glass and the woman's frame each other and make the sequence flow. The romantic music beneath, instead of making the moment sentimental, shapes its transformations of appearance and experience into something completely lyrical. Ulmer's sense of his characters' complex and constantly changing souls, realized in fantastic camera devices, has a truth that integrates all its extreme stylization. It must be for this reason that I cannot avoid crying on seeing this, the most beautiful sequence on film.
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