When I found out that Rachel from The Girl With the White Parasol was hosting a Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, I chomped at the bit to participate. I love Stanny, pure and simple. She not only changed the way women demonstrated their power in film, she’s gutsy, gorgeous and persuasive in a very unconventional way.
Barbara Stanwyck, unlike some of her other vice-ridden murderous roles, plays Sally Morton an archetypal woman in peril, although not as individuated as ‘hysterical’ or pathetic like Leona Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’sSorry, Wrong Number 1948.
Stanny brought a unique kind of dynamism to the Suspense & Noir landscape. She’s got a face bred with burning spirit and animal coolness, that exudes a subtle psychology ferocious independence and dramatic intelligence.
The Stanwyck role was originally performed by Elisabeth Bergner in Martin Vale’s stage play. A suspense-thriller that fits within the realm of noir with Gothic tinges of horror. Humphrey Bogart appeared in the classic horror film The Return of Doctor X 1939. Bogart plays the subdued, yet sinister malefactor Geoffrey Carroll. He’s a cynical, eccentric and alienated artist. Stanny plays Sally the woman he kills his first wife for, poisoning her with glasses of milk just like in Hitch’sSuspicion 1941.
The Two Mrs. Carrolls is also the second pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith, who plays Cecily Latham the ‘other woman.’ She first acted opposite Bogie in Conflict1945 where he played Richard Mason pursuing his wife’s sister Alexis Smith’s Evelyn Turner.
Produced by Mark Hellingerfor Jack Warner and directed by Peter Godfrey (Cry Wolf 1947 also starring Stanny & The Woman in White 1948) The Two Mrs.Carrolls is a woman in peril, female victim story à la Hitchcock.
Stanwyck’s role diverges from some of her more famous female villains, the noir femme fatale who embodies the unacceptable archetype of the sexually aggressive woman. In this film she plays the more marginalized ‘good woman’ who is worthy of being a wife and often the victim, contrasted by the lustful and conniving Cecily (Alexis Smith) who embodies treachery and a freely expressed sexuality.
The film co-stars Nigel Bruce as Dr. Tuttle, Isobel Elsom (Ladies in Retirement 1941,Monsieur Verdoux 1947) as Mrs. Latham Patrick O’Moore as Charles Pennington (Penny), Ann Carter as Beatrice Carroll, Anita Bolster (The Lost Weekend, Scarlet Street 1945) as Christine the maid, and Barry Bernard as the blackmailing chemist Horace Blagdon. There’s a welter of melodramatic music by Franz Waxman, plenty of Gothic shadows by cinematographerJ.Peverell Marley (Hound of the Baskervilles 1939, House of Wax 1953) & gorgeous fashions by Edith Head.
Made in 1945 Warner Bros. most likely held back the release of this film as it was very close to Bogart’s role in Conflict that same year. Bogart the quintessential scruffy cigarette smoking everyman equip with trench coat fedora and gritty sneer is very capable of playing complex characters with a disturbed pathology of inner turmoil. I think of his role as the controlling and ill-tempered script writer Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’sIn a Lonely Place 1950, or Captain Queeg in The Cain Mutiny 1954.
In The Two Mrs. Carrolls,Bogart is cast as Geoffrey Carroll a Bluebeardesque psychotic who first feels driven to paint his muse, the object of his desire, only to feel compelled to destroy her once he’s done exalting her essence using poisoned milk as his method of murder. He is not unlike Vincent Price’s anachronism of a Hudson Valley nobleman driven by an insane need for an heir in Dragonwyck 1946, in an extension of the Bluebeard mythos as he kills his wives who are incapable of giving him sons.
Certain Noir films are the manifestation of psychosis, emerging in the form of the ‘mad artist’ most notably Edgar Ulmer’sBluebeard 1944.Franchot Tone was the obsessively deranged sculptor in Phantom Lady 1944, Architect Michael Redgrave in Fritz Lang’s incredible depiction of noir psychosis in The Secret Beyond the Door 1947 which had suggestive imagery of a dream like atmosphere with it’s overt Freudian fairy tale patterns tied to psychoanalytical interpretations of childhood trauma and sexual significance. Joan Bennett refers to her own ability to purge these ‘repressed poisons’ because she is so chatty and exorcizes her demons by talking too much.
Peter Godfrey’sThe Two Mrs. Carrolls and Fritz Lang’sThe Secret Beyond the Door 1948 are ideal examples of a leading man portraying creativity and obsessiveness driven to madness. In the former Barbara Stanwyck plays Sally Morton who has a whirlwind romance with painter Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) only to learn that he is actually married to an invalid wife. Though Carroll is desperate to possess Sally as he claims she has ‘saved’ him, so that he can now paint again. Before they had met, his work suffered. When Sally finds out that Geoffrey is married she flees their romantic sojourn leaving Carroll in a cave showing dismay and turbulence on his face. Carroll goes to London and sees a chemist, signing a fictitious name. After several glasses of milk the first Mrs. Carroll is dead, and Sally becomes the second Mrs. Carroll.
Sally becomes his new ‘subject,’ a replacement as artist’s inspiration and love object. But once the wealthy and decadent tigress Cecily Latham (she wears animal print) aggressively pursues him to paint her and become her lover, Sally’s fate is sealed. Carroll transfers his fixation to his new object, Cecily Latham, played by the gorgeous Alexis Smith (I saw her on Broadway in the 70s. She won a Tony award for her performance in the hit Broadway musical Follies… what a treat!)
The film is an odd and edgy thriller which opens in a pastoral setting in Scotland where Sally and Geoffrey are having a quaint picnic by the lake, while Geoffrey sits upon a rock and sketches her. The initial loveliness and serene atmosphere sets out to misdirect us as a place much like Eden. The couple we learn have been dating for two weeks. Everything bares the most ordinary of appearances, as Geoffrey and Sally’s budding romance seems filled with a lighthearted joyfulness in alliance with the surrounding paradisal scenery.
McGregor tells him he’s caught a fish, Geoffrey yells to him, “Well from this distance that takes real talent. Throw that whale back, the way I feel today I don’t want even a fish to be unhappy!”
Geoffrey Carroll tells Sally, “two weeks of the only real happiness I’ve ever known… I love you Sally, I love you.” As soon as Geoffrey utters these words and the couple embrace, the sky begins to well up with uneasy clouds. Accompanied by old man McGregor who has the typified Scottish accent warning them of the rough weather brewing.
As the opening serenity is quickly broken by the foreboding torrential rain storm, this symbol of strife and disturbance that oppresses the joy and becomes a metaphor as the film ends with a similar rain storm that besets Sally’s world.
This will inevitably turn into a nightmarish landscape for Sally but the serene local diverts us from the darkness to come, as we soon discover that Carroll is a disturbed artist who constantly needs fresh female inspiration in order for his art and sexual gratification to thrive. His art depends on it, and he is willing to kill the women he once desired to sustain himself.
The couple seek refuge from the rain in a nearby cave. As Geoffrey goes to get his fishing gear and picnic basket from McGregor, Sally remains behind holding his jacket. As she calls after him, a letter falls out of the pocket. She picks up the small white envelope and is horrified to see it is addressed to a Mrs. Carroll. The extraordinary range of emotions Stanwyck is capable of reflecting within a single frame is cogent and palpable, as she shifts from content glances to an interior that aches. Her eyes glimmer with crushed spirit. Franz Waxman’s dramatic score confronts the moment as Sally is framed in by the dark outline of the cave.
Once Geoffrey returns to the cave he finds Sally suddenly unyielding and in emotional distress.
Sally breaks down and flees the cover of the cave crying ‘No… no’ not wanting to hear Geoffrey’s excuses she runs out into the pouring rain.
He gives a tortured look as symbolic bars of rain obfuscate his figure. As Waxman’s music acts like a buzz saw in his twisted psyche he looks down at the letter lying at his muddied feet he grips his head.
The scene switches to Blagdon (Barry Bernard) the cash chemist sealing up a package with wax. He’s an unsavory character with a scar that gives him an added edge of sleaziness. Bladgon hands Geoffrey the register, “You’ll have to sign for this sir.” Blogdan answers the phone, he’s lost a bet on the horses.
Geoffrey Carroll returns home to his London flat where he greets his daughter Beatrice. He takes the little white package from the chemist and puts it in his pocket. Geoffrey asks how her mother is doing, she tells him about the same.
He says, “What are you talking about, well of course she’ll live. What you mean?” “Don’t get excited father. We both want her to live because we love her so much. That doesn’t mean she will live does it?”
A bell rings, it is time for Mrs. Carroll’s milk. Beatrice goes into the kitchen to prepare the hot white liquid for her mother. Geoffrey enters the room and takes the sauce pan and glass from his daughter pouring the milk himself. Standing outside the bedroom door, holding the glass of warm milk a queer look sploshes over his face like waves of disequilibrium. He suddenly tells Bea that starting tomorrow she’ll be going away to school.
Two years later, Sally now the second Mrs.Carroll and Geoffrey are living in Ashton in Sally’s Gothic manor house inherited from her father.
Charles Pennington (Patrick O’Moore) or Penny is greeted at the door by Christine (Anita Bolster) the house maid. As he waits for Sally, he studies the painting of the first Mrs. Carroll, not noticing Beatrice who is sitting in the armchair. She tells him the painting is tremendous.
Ann Carter as Carroll’s precocious daughter Bea figures prominently in the film as sort of the lens in which the conscience of the story reveals its moral code. Ann Carter exudes a mature seriousness reminiscent of Curse of the Cat People 1944 with her otherworldly air. She possesses a no nonsense touch to the mixed up morality she’s surrounded by that contributes to the pervasive despair and instability.
Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning as she enters the room. Sally tells Bea she needn’t leave, that Penny is a dear old friend. Bea tells her they’ve already met, and he’s ‘nice, quite nice.’Penny asks how old she is ’45 or 50?’“She does give that impression, but she’s sweet.”
Penny is kind and obviously still very much in love with Sally. In a very evolved and civil manner, he hasn’t forgiven her for running out on him. She feels terrible about it, and says she should have given him some word. But when she met Geoffrey, when he came back it was as if nothing else mattered. He tells her that all a disappointed suitor need do is look at her. He asks if she’s as happy as she looks. Sally tells him “he’s good to me.”“He better be. Purely out of morbid curiosity I should like to meet him.”
She tells him that Geoffrey is working upstairs in his studio, and that she’ll call on him. Penny tells her that he’s not the only visitor. Mrs. Latham and her daughter Cecily are expected any minute. They’re friends and clients of his.
Sally runs up the staircase excited about her guests, she addresses the vinegary Christine–
Waxman’s dynamically turbulent score breaks the witty moment, as Geoffrey paces his studio. Throwing down his paint brush and grabbing the canvas, he begins to rub the oil with turpentine wiping away what he has painted with hostility.
Of all the notorious rivalries identified with Hollywood celebrities the most enduring in the public consciousness is that of legendary Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. As the documentary ‘Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition‘ (2005) insightfully decries ‘Betty Davis was the screens great Sadist and Crawford was the screen’s great Masochist.’
“If equally matched adversaries are bound to create sparks and flames of conflict, then Bette Davis and the late Joan Crawford should offer a good battle.” – Publisher’s Weekly
Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “Her eyebrows are like ‘African caterpillars’ and her best performance was “Crawford being Crawford.”
Joan Crawford on Bette Davis: “She’s phony, but I guess the public really likes that.”
I want to preface this piece by qualifying something. With all that’s been written about the infamous feud, there’s also those who try to dispel it as a myth, stating that rather than loathing each other Bette and Joan were actually cordial to each other-even chatting on the phone occasionally from the 30s until the making ofBaby Jane? And that contrary to what’s been asserted, Davis wasn’t threatened by Joan’s coming to Warner Bros because she felt they were suited to playing different types of roles so there was no conflict there.
When Joan Crawford started to gain momentum with her best melodramas at the studio where Bette Davis’ was queen, Davis was already planning an exodus anyway. Finally in regards to Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte when Joan Crawford saw that Bette Davis was acting more like the director taking control and adding more of her own presence in the script while cutting Crawford’s dialogue to shreds, she decided to bow out of the picture claiming illness so she could be let out of the contract.
Some people assert that while they never became close friends, the two stars only wound up being not so friendly to each other in the end. But, for the sake of my theme of the feuding divas I felt like putting the more sordid version of the saga out there.
The notable feud, fueled by rumor, gossip, falsehoods, and dished up dirt, drew so much juicy attention to these fierce Divas whose careers and lives often traversed each other in ironic and titillating ways giving us a peek into the tumultuous allure of Hollywood.
Both were incredibly talented, super ambitious, independently driven and possessing strong personalities. They were each on divergent paths to stardom, Crawford gaining her power remote from the proverbial casting couch “She [Joan Crawford] has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.” –Bette Davis. Most of Crawford’s leading men found her sexual magnetism hard to resist.
But she proved she could command the screen with an invincible vigor and facility to emoteand Davis who had a determined streak of flair manifested itself into an unyielding spirit and incomparable depth. Both ironically similar both indomitable, independent and possessing great fortitude. Both married four times, and both were at the receiving end of hostile and vengeful children ultimately ending up as reclusive alcoholics.
Aldrich’s iconic offbeat Gothic thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962) brought these two legends together culminating in the classic pairing of two bitter adversaries not only on screen but behind the scenes as well. Baby Jane? would forever consign their iconic images engaged in dramatic conflict and defining their rancorous relationship for an eternity.
The film cannily exploited the genuine animosity between both stars who had been competing for good roles in the 40s. Michael Musto of the Village Voice says this – “They just didn’t get along. Bette thought of herself as a real actress she thought of Joan as just kind of a flashy movie star without any depth.”
Was their long drawn out public war due to Crawford’s marrying co-star Franchot Tone allegedly stealing him away from Bette? Or was it the competitiveness for good roles in the 40s that drew a wedge between them. These two women were the most illustrious female stars in their day, successful at playing ordinary working class gals with at times questionable reputations. But good roles were something they both had to fight to get. So was it a case of unrequited love or fierce competition? Either way, for both stars it was a genuinely personal and delicate affair.
On Davis’ last trip to London two years before her death, she revealed that the love of her life was Franchot Tone, but she could never marry him because he was Crawford’s second husband. “She took him from me,” Davis said bitterly in 1987. “She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will.” Crawford already dead for ten years, was still the recipient of an eternal hatred on the part of Davis now 80 years old and desiccated from her stroke.
Bette Davis was filming Dangerous 1935 a role that would win her first Best Actress Oscar. Warner Bros. cast her playing opposite the handsome Franchot Tone. In this fabulous melodrama Davis portrays Joyce Heath an egomaniacal actress considered to be box office poison living in obscurity in the throws of alcohol addiction. Tone plays Don Bellows a playwright who tries to rehabilitate her. The story is loosely based on Broadway star Jeanne Eagels who died of a drug overdose at age 35
Davis wound up falling in love with her leading man, unaware that he was already involved with Joan Crawford who was recently divorced from the dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This began the legacy of love jealousy and possession. At the time Davis was married to musician Ham Nelson. Everyone on set could see that Davis was attracted to co-star Franchot Tone.
Years later she recalled “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately. Everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.”-Bette Davis
Crawford first entertained FranchotTone at her Hollywood home. When he arrived he found her tanned and completely naked in the solarium. According to friends and neighbors he did not emerge from the seductive sojourn until nightfall.
“He was madly in love with her,” Davis confessed, “They met each day for lunch… he would return to the set, his face covered with lipstick. He made sure we all knew it was Crawford’s lipstick.”-Bette Davis
“He was honored that this great star was in love with him. I was jealous, of course.”-Bette Davis
But instead of Crawford retaliating she reached out to Davis hoping to be friends, but it was too late by then her heart was broken, she was furious. Crawford announced her engagement to Tone during the filming of Dangerous and they married soon after the film wrapped.
Both actresses were present at the Oscar ceremonies. Davis was nominated for Best Actress. The hostility showed it’s ugly face when Bette wearing a modest navy blue dress stood up when they announced she’d won the award. Franchot Tone enthusiastically embraced Davis calling her ‘darling”which caused his wife to take notice. Crawford wearing a spectacular gown herself, looked Davis over and coldly said “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.”
Interesting if you consider the inherent veracity of unrequited love that was systemic to their discord we may also consider the allegations that Crawford was herself a promiscuous bisexual in love with Davis, supposedly making several sexual advances toward Davis which were rebuffed with expressed amusement. Davis was an avowed heterosexual. “Gay Liberation? I ain’t against it, it’s just that there’s nothing in it for me.” “I’ve always liked men better than women.” –Bette Davis
Davis also proposed that Crawford used her body and sex to get ahead in Hollywood, “She slept with every star at MGM” she alleged later “of both sexes.”
Some of the women that allegedly were Crawford’s lovers included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, her friend Barbara Stanwyck & Marilyn Monroe.
The years of hostility and jealousy were only galvanized later by the battle that ensued on the set of Baby Jane? where Davis upended Crawford by endearing herself to director Aldrich. Davis got the Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Crawford did not. only to have Crawford undermine Davis at the award’s ceremony sabotaging Davis by accepting the award for Ann Bancroft who won for The Miracle Worker.
Allegedly Joan shoved Bette aside to grab the coveted statue at the podium. Shaun Considine’sbook ‘Bette & Joan The Divine Feud’ relates how when Ann Bancroft’s name was announced Davis felt an icy hand on her shoulder as Crawford said, “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept.”
Davis recalls“I will never forget the look she gave me.”It was triumphant. It clearly said ‘You didn’t win, and I am elated!”
Making matters worse the newspapers paraded the image of Crawford holding the golden idol that Davis failed to win. According to Bette Davis,Joan was bitter and conspired to keep her from winning the Oscar.
Crawford managed to insinuate herself into accepting the Oscar for Ann Bancroft in case Ann won. The night of the awards Bette Davis shows up fairly confident she could take home the Oscar. She was waiting in the wings with her purse ready to walk on stage when they the announced the winner. But Joan Crawford was also hovering in the wings waiting to take her revenge.
From an interview in ’87 -“I was furious. She went to all the New York nominees and said if you can’t get out there, I’ll accept your award. And please do not vote for her. She was so jealous.” Crawford’s scheme worked, it was a terrible slap in the face for Bette Davis.
“The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
“There may be a heaven, but if Joan Crawford is there, I’m not going.”– Bette Davis
And how much does the media fuel this rivalry? Is it partly the paradigm of a film industry that engenders a climate of sexism and agism that feeds tabloid culture devaluing women’s self-worth antagonizing the rift that already existed between the two actresses. Consider the symbiosis that occurs between the press and female celebrities, their exploitative and predatory hunger to devour them whole and the co-dependent dysfunction pervasive in the film industry. You have to wonder how much of the nasty fodder that kept the feud burning was fact and how much of it was a myth the media created?
It isn’t hard to see how both these aging stars were forced to fight for screen supremacy. An irreconcilable difference that put Aldrich in the sad and awkward position of having to fire Joan Crawford from her role as Cousin Miriam in his second feature with the dynamic duo in his Gothic thriller Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Despite their feud the box office success of Baby Jane? encouraged Aldrich to change the story and characters but reunite the same controversial and quarrelsome stars. Originally called “What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?” written once again by Henry Farrell. Crawford agreed to get back on the screen with her familiar enemy. But when Aldrich asked Bette to star in a second picture with Joan she loathed the idea of ever acting with Crawford again.
Davis used to say that she and Crawford had nothing in common. She considered Crawford “a glamour puss” who depended on her fabulous looks alone, though Crawford did wind up working with some of my favorite auteurs like Michael Curtiz, George Cukor, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, and Jean Negulesco.
Both were very strong women who had to scratch and claw their way through a mire of misogyny to achieve their stardom. Crawford was always playing the formulaic vulnerable ‘girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Born in poverty she reaches for a dream and strives through hard work to make good. Stories reflecting the struggles of Depression Era and World War II appealed to audiences of the 30s & 40s.
Based on Bette’s early stage performances critics said she was made of lightning filled with fantastic energy. It was George Arlisswho decided Bette would be perfect for his next film The Man Who Played God 1932. He became a bit of a mentor, Bette said he played god to her. In September 1931, she felt finished with her career in Hollywood and was packing her things with her mother ready to return to New York when George Arliss came along and saved her.
Joan Crawford had been married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at the time and learned everything about Hollywood royalty and how to become pretentious. When Crawford first arrived in Hollywood she was a dancer, an it-girl flapper for MGM through out the late silent & early sound eras working alongside Clark Gable.
She didn’t have those signature eyebrows yet. At some point in the 30s she started changing her look which embraced the heavily arched eyebrows, the wider mouth and the notorious shoulder pads which became her iconic trademark. She left MGM and joined Warner Bros in 1943.
Robert Aldrich is one of my favorite directors with numerous memorable films that transcend a restrictive genre tag. He always brings us a cynical and gritty story with very flawed characters who are at the core ambiguous as either the protagonist or the antagonist. Aldrich took economics in college, then dropped out and landed a very low paying job at first as a clerk with RKO Radio Pictures Studio in 1941.
He studied with great directors like Jean Renoir. It was his training in the trenches that made him the auteur he is, delving inside the human psyche and questioning what is morality.
Aldrich has a flare for the dramatic. He likes to break molds and cross over boundaries. He also has a streak of anti-authoritarianism running through the veins of his films. There aren’t just traces of his ambivalence toward the Hollywood machine in his film philosophy, he also conflates the ugly truths beneath the so called American Dream and the “real” people who inhabit that world.
He died in 1983, and while he remained inside the Hollywood circle, he maintained an outsider persona. He memorialized the misfits and outcasts by making them the anti-heroes in his work, all of which ultimately were destined to fall because they refused to play the conformity game.
Aldrich partnered with Joseph E Levin to purchase the rights to the British writer John Farell’s Hollywood horror book in 1961 but at first no one seemed interested. Aldrich got Seven Arts Pictures curious about the film and so Warner Bros agreed to distribute the film but didn’t allow it to be made on the Warner lot.
Aldrich relates in an interview that “Eliot Hyman at Seven Arts read the script , studied the budget and told him candidly: “I think it will make a fabulous movie, but I’m going to make very tough terms because it’s a high risk venture.”
Baby Jane? was not an easy sell, even with the double billing, both the actresses box office draw had diminished by then. Later on Aldrich said that the problem with Jane was that “the topic was perceived as controversial and not a built in moneymaker which would alienate portions of the public”
Jack Warner was quoted as saying he “Wouldn’t give a plug nickle for either one of those old broads”Warner was an asshole!
It’s has been noted in interviews with Aldrich that his working relationship was already very good with Crawford having worked with her on Autumn Leaves (1959). However with Bette Davis he had to do a little more convincing. Eventually she was on board with the project.
By the time Aldrich bought out Levine the story price had gone from $10,000 to $85,000 and no one seemed interested. But Aldrich relates in an interview that “Eliot Hyman at Seven Arts read the script , studied the budget and told him candidly: “I think it will make a fabulous movie, but I’m going to make very tough terms because it’s a high risk venture.”
It was Aldrich’s persistence and his faith in the project that made Davis enthusiastic about the film. Crawford had already expressed a desire to work with Bette Davis in a film. For Bette to take on such an unattractive role was pretty gutsy for her.
I choose to focus on Baby Jane? and Sweet Charlotte, as they are not only my favorites of his, but also they are 2 incredible pieces of film art with the allure of the dynamic pairing of two of THE most legendary actresses from the silver screen.
What’s most fabulous about the film is that it has both Bette and Joan, which gives it such a dynamic double billing. The film really was a seminal work because nothing quite like it had been done earlier. Films like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Autumn Leaves (1959) set some ground work for older actresses to wax crazy dramatic in film. But ultimately the pot boiled over with Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Joan Crawford has the more glamorous role of an aging movie starlet, while BetteDavis must inhabit the role of the decrepitude has-been child of vaudeville.
And while Aldrich has a notable filmography to his credit, like his Cold War scare noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, his film that exposes the flawed Total Institution of the penal system, The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds, and his iconic war ensemble, The Dirty Dozen ’67. There’s his other psychological thriller with Joan Crawford playing wife to the psychotic Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves ’56 and the two Hollywood ventures exposing the darker side, The Big Knife ’55 with Jack Palance and of course Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare ’68.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Directed by Robert Aldrich is based on the novel by Henry Farrell with a screen play by Lukas Heller. Cinematography by Ernest Haller(Gone With the Wind ’39, Mildred Pierce ’45, Rebel Without a Cause ’55) Art Direction by the fabulous William GlasgowNorma Kotch won an Oscar for her costume design on Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte as well as Aldrich’sThe Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)
Co-starring: The main players–Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, Marjorie Bennett as Dehlia Flagg, Anna Lee as Mrs.Bates, Maidie Norman as Elvira Stitt and Barbara Merrill (Bette’s daughter) as Liza Bates.
The film premiered on October 26 1962. and released on Halloween of 1962. Davis was nominated for Best Actress and Victor Buono for Best supporting actor.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is filled with grotesque melancholy, the wasteland of forgotten womanhood, and abject psychosis drenched within the portrayal of a repressed woman-child born of rage and delusion. It’s also a striking condemnation of sexism and agism rampant in Hollywood. Another reason I want to talk about Aldrich’s’two seminal films is that both motion pictures set the tone for a whole cycle of films to follow. Aldrich’stwo Grande Dame Guignol films started a cinematic trend.
For the 50s and 60s, melodrama’s consisting of plots about mental illness weren’t typically conventional and a film as extremely grotesque as Baby Jane? could be considered very disturbing. Even as groundbreaking as Hitchcock’sPsycho (1960) was, released the same year as Baby Jane?Psycho’s narrative veiled Norman Bates as a mild mannered young man with an Oedipus complex. In Baby Jane?, her flagrant derangement is glaring.
Perhaps films like Val Lewton’sBedlam 1946,Anatole Litvak’sThe Snake Pit 1948 and Sam Fuller’sShock Corridor 1963 addressed the systemic institutional problems surrounding mental illness, but Aldrich’s films are very intimate ventures.
This lurid pulp melodrama of abject madness is superb particularly because of the uninhibited performances by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It was pretty courageous of both starlets to leave the glamor behind for such ghastly and unpleasant ceremony.
First of all, I LOVE Bette Davis with a passion, the actress and the woman herself. Have you ever seen the fabulous Dick Cavett interview? if not you should track down a copy. Bette is an enduring icon and one of a kind. She has a distinct style, a unique “hitch to her git along”, as Andy Griffith would say, and is a true Hollywood legend, thoroughly intrepid, dynamic and just down right glorious!
And I adore Joan Crawford as well. She was unbelievably beautiful when she first started out in motion pictures, before her signature crazed galvanized eye brows took over her face and those shoulder pads her wardrobe. It makes me sad to think that these woman might have truly despised each other. It’s truly a shame.
Aldrich directed this film with a crude veracity leaving us to dwell on some feelings of ambivalence toward these particular characters. I was with Jane even at her cruelest, although I pretend that the bird died of natural causes and the rat was found that way… I never warmed up to Blanche even though she was an invalid, I got the sense from her that she’s not what she appears to be.
To reduce Davis’ performance to histrionic camp would diminish the moments when she is starkly in control of the serious meter of Jane’s growing madness. The oscillation between Jane’s childish tantrums and musings and the all out fury and retaliations are an artful feat delivered by Davis quite masterfully. She must have enjoyed the role immensely. It must have also been challenging. Jane’s dissipated drunken swagger, the way she literally slouches around the house and her irritable disposition might be the culmination of not only 30 years of taking care of Blanche, but also a sign that she is inappropriately uninhibited by her years of the undigested bile of animosity, hostility and ultimately her malicious outbursts of paranoia, that lead to her aggression and violence.
In the end Jane’s macabre corpse’s white make up, painted like a mask with heart shaped beauty mark, Kewpie-doll lipstick and blond wig of massive ringlet gives Jane an extra bizarre persona. While Jane is supposedly a vain character, ironically she is under the impression that she is fashionable, she is a vaudeville clown with caked on face powder, slouchy dresses that are adult versions of the Baby Jane stage outfits she wore as a child. When Jane goes out in public wearing the fur and wilted corsage and antique jewelry, it represents her attachment to the past, although it is not flattering to her at all, when in fact she is perceived as pitiful. Apparently it was Davis herself who created the chalky pale freakish make-up that Jane puts on when she starts to plan her comeback. It’s almost a decrepit version of the artistic painted face of Geisha culture. In Peter Shelley’s book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema- A History of Hag Cinema from Baby Jane to Mother he compares the way Blanche looks at the end, with her pasty death mask and dark rings to the actress Irene Papas. It was definitely the dark imposing eyebrows.
Mary Astor plays Jessica Welles a Trilby-Like Sylph who falls under the spell of her treacherous husband played by Louis Calhern. Robinson’s role the tagline would suggest, “It’s the most unusual picture since “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” is quite misleading as his character Damon is not a split personality, induced by mad science or a fractured id run amok. He is simply impersonating a fictitious mustache, spectacles and goatee wearing Frenchman in order to lure his vicious prey into his vengeful murderous trap. Louis Calhern is an archetypal Svengali/Caligarian figure and ultimately it’s Damon’s fake mustache accidentally left in a Gideon’s Bible that gives the crime away. Archie Mayo had actually directed Svengali in 1931.
The Man With Two Faces is a mystery thriller with comical overtones. Invoking Jekyll & Hyde is far off the mark as Edward G. Robinsononly dons a disguise to rid his bewitched sister of her treacherous, conniving, abusive and murderous husband. The character of Damon is more like Zorro or The Lone Ranger exacting out a theatrical brand of vigilante justice. As an actor the milieu is perfect for him to wear a ‘mask’ posing as a producer to lure his tortured sister’s husband Vance (Yiddish for bedbug, pronounced ‘vants’ but it applies as Stanley Vance is quite the vermin) into his trap so he can kill him…
Mary Astorhas a classy, understated beauty. She’s sophisticated and smart, refined and polished and worldly-wise. Often poised and self-possessed with a simmering kind of sexiness. Yet here in The Man With Two Faces, her light is just a bit diminished by the role of Jessica Welles who is forced to shape-shift from lovely star of the stage into a doll imprisoned in a fugue state.
I was thrilled when Dorian from Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth of Silver Screenings let me participate in The Mary Astor Blogathon. I wanted to pick a film that I hadn’t seen in order to enhance the fun of bringing some of her films to the attention of readers and really be inclusive while paying tribute to this great woman. I adore Mary Astor. And as much as I like The Maltese Falcon 1941, and simply adore Bogie, it wasn’t that iconic bit of Film Noir flight of fancy that brought Miss Astor to my attention. I hadn’t truly started to notice her work until I did an extensive feature on Robert Aldrich’sGrande Dame Guignol masterpiece Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte 1964 It was then that I became taken in with Mary Astor’s performance as the bitter and time worn Jewel Mayhew. Then of course being a huge fan of Boris Karloff’s Television series Thriller, I am one of the few people who actually think Rose’s Last Summer was one of the finest episodes of that series. MaryAstor bringing her classy swank and snark to the role of Rose French. I became a devout fan of hers from that time on, and have started trying to devour as much Mary Astor as I can…
It’s funny how most people might connect her with her role as Brigid O’ Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon 1941, but I think of her other contributions like Sandra Kovac in The Great Lie 1941 Mme. DeLaage The Hurricane 1937 Antoinette de Mauban The Prisoner of Zenda 1937 and of course in Dodsworth 1936 as Mrs. Edith Cortright.
The Man With Two Faces is a Warner Bros. black comedy not so much of a mystery, with tinges of the 19th Century melodramatic tradition written for the stage by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott with a screenplay by Tom Reed and Niven Busch. The original play opened in New York City in 1933 and had 57 performances. Margaret Dale who plays Aunt Martha originated her movie role on the stage. The original cast included Porter Hall and Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West from Oz)
Produced by Hal Wallis, Jack L Warner and Robert Lord and Directed by Archie Mayo(Svengali 1931, Bordertown 1935, The Petrified Forest (1936) Moontide 1942 Angel on My Shoulder 1946) and with the production and art design byJohn Houghs (Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948, The Thing From Another World 1951)
Mary Astoras well as Mae Clarke (Frankenstein 1931, Waterloo Bridge 1931 and Public Enemy’s memorable grapefruit in the face girl) seem to be wasted in both these roles where the women are subverted ridiculed, demeaned and inconsequential. I wish Astor had more presence in the film… even the housekeeper Nettie has more spark to her character as does Aunt Martha. Astor just isn’t given enough layers to work with because she is in a trance most of the time, her character Jessica’s lack of affect doesn’t suit her usual spirited performances, here there are only little bursts of the dimension she is capable of.
Mary Astor who plays actress Jessica Welles, is a delicate Trilby-like sylph who is married to a cold-blooded cad Stanley Vance (Louis CalhernThe Asphalt Jungle 1950) Vance is a conniving, controlling Svengali/Caligari-esque cutthroat who not only bilks old ladies out of their fortunes but actually murdered his first wife. He seems to possess the art of hypnosis and uses it to manipulate Jessica into a state of virtual somnambulist enslavement. With the mere tilt of his head and leering eyes that penetrate she goes deeper under his control. In his presence she is a wilting flower, powerless, catatonic and as submissive as Trilby, a piece of clay to be molded in any form Vance desires.
Joan Camden is hostage wife Karen Manelli prisoner to jealous, mad and murderous concert pianist husband Claude Manelli (Francis Lederer)Handsome Donald Buka (Street With No Name 1948) plays an American in Vienna in search of a passport to freedom and happiness. He steals the identity of the dead man in his cab, and fate throws him and Karen together. The film is produced by actor Turhan Bey and directed by Gunther Von Fritsch who co-directed with Robert Wise on The Curse of The Cat People 1944.
“Claude has one great love… himself. His love is like a religion and his God asks for human sacrifices!”
Directed by Lew Landers (The Raven 1935,Crime Inc 1935)this mystery/horror yarn stars the caustic Erich von Stroheimas Diijon a magician and stage illusionist who studies the art of hypnosis. When his wife leaves him for a younger man and he attempts a comeback that ultimately results in his humiliation he becomes driven by his obsession for revenge and plots his master plan to hypnotizing people into committing murders in order to avenge himself.
The film also stars Jeanne Batesas Victoria, Edward Van Sloan, William Wright and Denise Vernac.
“Religion. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.” – Ambrose Bierce
“Religious superstition consists in the belief that the sacrifices, often of human lives, made to the imaginary being are essential, and that men may and should be brought to that state of mind by all methods, not excluding violence.”- Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy
“Horror Hotel, next to the graveyard”
Horror Hotel (US) or The City of the Dead (British) (1960) is directed by John Llewellyn Moxeywho eventually emigrated to America and became in my opinion one of THE best directors of fantasy, horror and suspense films made for television. (The House That Would Not Die 1970, The Night Stalker 1972, A Taste of Evil 1971, Home For the Holidays 1972, The Strange and Deadly Occurrence 1974, Where Have All The People Gone 1974, Conspiracy of Terror 1975 once again about a secret cult of devil worshipers this time in the suburbs of California, Nightmare in Badham County 1976, Killjoy 1981 and Desire, The Vampire 1982 not to mention contributing to numerous outstanding television series, and other films too many to list here.)
With a screenplay by George Baxt(The Shadow of the Cat 1961, Strangler’s Web 1965, Vampire Circus 1972 (uncredited) and his really awful mess, Horror of Snape Island 1972) he was also the scenarist on Sidney Hayer’sCircus of Horrors (1959)Baxt went on to do another witchcraft themed film co-scripted with prolific writers Richard Matheson’s (The Legend of Hell House 1973, Trilogy of Terror 1975) and Charles Beaumont’s (The Intruder 1962 , Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death 1965) The other screenplay was based on Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife , which turned into yet another film directed by Sidney Hayer, and was an equally moody and unnerving piece in the trope of black magic themed films entitled Night of the Eagle or it’s alternative title best known as Burn Witch Burn (1961)
Horror Hotel or City of the Dead is also a story co-scripted by Milton Subotsky an American émigré who relocated to England and eventually took over as the head founder of Amicus the only true rival to Hammer Studios Gothic series of films at the time. Horror Hotel was their first film made by the company then called Vulcan Productions. Subotsky was also the uncredited producer on the film. Released in the states with the title Horror Hotel the film used the inane catch phrase “Just Ring For Doom Service” which is unfortunate as it downplays the truly profound artistic quality of the film’s visual narrative. The film also marks the first appearance of Christopher Lee in the Satanic Cinema genre. Then Lee appeared in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s quite interesting occult themed sequence rather than Hitch’s usual mystery methodology, an episode entitled, The Sign of Satan(released May 8, 1964 from Season 2 episode 27) where Christopher Lee plays the mysterious foreign actor Karl Jorla in a episode that also dealt with devil worship.
Horror Hotel was filmed on a sound stage in England, with an all British cast, yet the plot was set in an obscure village in America’s provincial Massachusetts for it’s historical relationship to the Salem Witch Trials and the mystique of the witchcraft frenzy that was so pervasive during the Puritanical 17th Century.
With a haunting bit of cinematography by Desmond Dickinson (Olivier’s Hamlet 1948, Horrors of the Black Museum 1959, the noir classic The Frightened City 1961, A Study in Terror 1965, one of my guilty pleasures which is Beast in the Cellar 1970, Who Slew Auntie Roo 1972 with my one of my favs Shelley Winters and Beware My Brethren 1972) and art direction by John Blezard and Original music by Douglas Gamley.
The cast includes Christopher Lee as Professor of Demonology Alan Driscoll, Dennis Lotis as Richard Barlow and Venetia Stevenson as avid student Nan Barlow. Interestingly enough, it’s quite shocking that the script actually kills off the supposed heroine Nan within the first 30 minutes of the film, much like Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’sPsycho 1960.
Patricia Jesselis the imposing Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs.Newlis an obvious anagram for the 300 year old witch much like name switcheroo used by Sidney Blackmer’s Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby 1968. Tom Naylor plays Bill Maitland Nan’s prowess boyfriend. Betta St. Johnis Patricia Russell the granddaughter of the blind Reverend Russell played by Norman Macowan. Ann Beach has an impish sort of Patty Duke like quality to her as the poor mute Lottie a slave under Mrs. Newlis’ iron grip and Valentine Dyall (love him as Dudley the caretaker ‘all you city people’ in Robert Wise’sThe Haunting ’62) plays Reverend Jethrow Keane also resurrected from those by gone days of witch burnings.
I’m not sure why this absolute gem has been so overlooked, when it’s still such a genuinely frightening and effectively creepy contribution to the classic horror genre. It’s moody and saturated with an unearthly fog that blankets the town and exudes an impending sense of doom and dread. The film is almost impressionistic with it’s tonality of the macabre which permeates the landscape with the undead specters walking amidst the fog soaked night, and we as spectators know of the looming arcane rites of the ritualistic blood sacrifices held by ambiguous figures in monkish robes.
The camera work is startling at times, and surprisingly cerebral for a low budget film, as in the opening sequence when they are executing Elizabeth Selwyn, the camera closes in tightly on several grotesquely puritanical, pious and unrelentingly exaggerated expressions of hostility and hypocrisy as the villagers call out with their blood lust to burn the witch, their fever for punishment, lacks any godliness, as they are framed more hideous than Elizabeth Selwyn who is tied to a stake and set on fire. Only a quick glance at a little girl’s face read in panic as Selwyn evokes the power of Satan and a darkness washes over the villagers like a paint stroke of black light. The use of shadow is almost reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur’s thoughtful psychological terror plays of the 40s, (Cat People 1942, I Walked With A Zombie 1943, noir classic Out of the Past 1947 and Curse of the Demon 1957) While not in the same league as the master of shadow and light the great Val Lewton or Tourneur, there are some elements with the added sphere of paranoia that creates an atmosphere filled with uncanny dread and unknowable spaces and devilish premeditation, that evokes some of the same type of moodiness.
Again, not being hindered by the restraints of a small budget, the film appears as a beautifully eerie Lovecraftian fable, filled with an entire village inhabited by listless cult followers dedicated to the worship of Satan. They haunt the streets swathed in ritual robes shrouded in shadows and fog, wandering through swirling mists, and an ominous sweep of fog that obscures these undead spirits of the night, soulless, dressed in robes or outdated clothing. The entire village is vexed by black magic reigned over by the resurrected witch Elizabeth Selwyn who was burned at the stake more than 300 years before in 1692. While it’s obvious that the degenerating, decomposing village of Whitewood is a sparsely designed set on a humble sound stage, John Llewellyn Moxey manages to infuse this little city of the dead with a very disquieting ambiance. Dickinson lights the inhabitants of Whitewood and the hazy mysterious village itself using very enigmatic black and white compositions.
The film opens as the fog shrouded village of Whitewood is at first an empty frame consumed within a smokey cloud of air except for a giant iron fire pit blazing to the left of screen. Like specters emerging through the deathly fog, several villagers move closer into focus until they are upon us in mid screen. They are thirsty for the blood of the declared witch Elizabeth Selwyn who has brought about the death of Abigail Adams. They decree that she should be put to death as a witch, and so they converge on her little cottage, dragging her out and tying her to a large wooden stake. As she faces her accusers it seems as if she is emitting a hissing sound like a serpent. A pilgrim woman slowly grinds out the words, “Wiittcch!!!!“ as Elizabeth Selwyn contemptuously spits on her.
The elders and the crowd of villagers scream out for her death. To burn the witch. The pyre is set on fire, but as she becomes engulfed in the purifying flames, she declares her devotion to Satan. Meanwhile Jethrow Keane secretly still an acolyte of Elizabeth pretends to deny that he has consorted with the witch, privately begging “Help her Lucifer, Help Her.” As the fevered villagers watch Elizabeth burn, she cackles and laughs her unspoken vow to come back and wreak revenge on the descendants of Whitewood. She has made a pact with the devil for eternal life in exchange for providing him with human sacrifices, which she manages to procure by luring unsuspecting visitors to her rustic Raven’s Inn.
It’s modern day… the village is now left in desolation and gripped in an eerie pal that hangs over everything with it’s deathly fog. Now 1960 Professor of Demonology Alan Driscoll is relating the story of Elizabeth Selwyn, demonstratively narrating to his class the lurid story, ending with the same chant the villagers had been shouting, “Burn Witch Burn, Burn Witch Burn…” An intense look occupies his deep and darkly riveting eyes. While most of the class is bored and distracted, Nan who is consumed with the legend of witchcraft and Elizabeth Selwyn’s legacy, stays after class to continue talking to Professor Driscoll, much to the dismay of her hunky boyfriend Bill.
Nan looking for some good material for her thesis asks Driscoll for some guidance. He informs Nan in a very grim manner that the myth of human sacrifice isn’t just a story, that it still exists, and that it is said that Elizabeth Selwyn still walks the murky streets of Whitewood. So Professor Driscoll sends Nan Barlow to Whitewood, Massachusetts to conduct her research about the local prevailing myth that witchcraft is alive and well and still being practiced by a coven in the decaying old New England village. Nan goes willingly to uncover the truth behind the rumors of sightings of Elizabeth Selwyn believed to have come back from the dead.
Professor Driscoll is not just an avid academic of the occult, he is also an ancestor of Whitewood and a practicing Warlock in cahoots with Elizabeth Selwyn now having taken the name of Mrs.Newlis who has in fact been resurrected from the grave and now runs the claustrophobic and infernal Raven’s Inn, equip with trap door that leads to the subterranean primitive altar where blood sacrifices are held, and shadowy figures come to dance cheek to cheek to smokey jazz music by the flickering light of the fireplace at the Raven’s Inn.
Of course Nan’s brother a scientist, is not thrilled with Nan going on a witch hunt, but thinks that she should be allowed to pursue her academic dream. However boyfriend Bill is not happy at all by the news that his girlfriend is about to take a road trip to some small village out of the way chasing ridiculous nonsensical theories.
Nan gets in the car and begins to drive. Passing by a gas station she asks if she’s headed in the right direction, and of course the attendant gives a worried look when she tells him that her destination is the town of Whitewood.
THE BLACK CAT (1934) U.S. (Universal) runs 65 minutes B&W, was the studio’s highest grossing picture in 1934. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movies. Directed byEdgar G. Ulmerand written for thescreen by Ulmer andPeter Ruric.
Also titled: House of Doom; The Vanishing Body (the alternative British title was used in it’s re-release in 1953 as a double bill with The Missing Head an alternative title for the “Inner Sanctum’s” offering Strange Confession.
With the success that Universal Studios garnered from Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’sDracula in 1931 starring Hungarian born actor Bela Lugosi, and the equally sensational popularity of Mary Shelley’s adapted Frankenstein1931 directed by James Whale starring Boris Karloff, it would seem only natural for the studio to harness the cult popularity of these two stars, creating horror vehicles to pair them together in. This is the first of the collaboration between Boris and Bela. Also both stars were equally billed in terms of their leading roles. In Lew Landers The Raven 1935, Lugosi dominated as Dr. Richard Vollin and in Lambert Hillyer’sThe Invisible Ray 1936, the emphasis was more on Karloff’s complex character Dr. Janos Rukh. The Black Cat was a huge success for Universal and opened up the flood gates for seven more films featuring the collaboration of Karloff and Lugosi;Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Black Friday (1940), and You’ll Find Out (1940).
Although The Black Cat 1934 claims in it’s opening credits that the film is ‘suggested’ by Edgar Allan Poe’sstory from 1843 the film bares no resemblance to his short story, nor did Poe ever pen a single word about Satanism in all his volumes of the curiously macabre. The film does evoke the spirit of Poe’s fixation with morbid beauty, the preservation or perseverance of love after death, the suggestive ambiance, conflation of beauty and death and the unconscious dread of the uncanny. The architectural lines seem to also evoke the nihilistic sensibilities of Jean-PaulSartre‘s ‘No Exit’ or a Kafka-esque fantasy of entrapment, with a mood set forth of futility and hopelessness.
“Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.”-Werdegast
Karloff’s character Poelzig is actually based on the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Ulmer and Ruric were inspired by an odd news story circulating in the world press shortly before the making of the film. Stranger than fiction, it seems a naive young couple who were visiting a remote home of a magician, became entangled in the occult rituals involving an unfortunate animal sacrifice, a victimized black cat named Mischette. The magician was Aleister Crowley, and the isolated location was his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. The press got wind of this when Crowley accused one of his writer friends Nina Hamnett of libel in a London Court. Hamnett had mentioned Crowley in her 1932 autobiographyLaughing Torso.
The passage that incited Crowley’s vengeful wrath was Hamnett’s description of his days at the Abbey of Thelema “He was supposed to practice Black Magic there, and one day a baby was said to have disappeared mysteriously, There was also a goat there. This all pointed to Black Magic, so people said, and the inhabitants of the village were frightened of him.” Crowley became known in the public’s perception as ‘the wickedest man in the world.” It was from this story that the seed of sensationalism gave rise to the idea for The Black Cat whichemerged as a tale of savagery and horror for Ulmer.
So, in actuality the title has nothing to do with Poe’s short story at all, as it merely alludes to Dr.Vitus Werdegast’s (Lugosi) all-consuming fear and dread of cats. A more faithful adaption would be The Living Dead (1934) directed by Thomas Bentley, and Tales of Terror (1962). The Black Cat (1941) starring Basil Rathbone was more of an old dark house mystery.
This mysterious and decadent tale was directed by Austrian born Auteur Edgar G.Ulmer’s who was part of the vast succession of émigrés of high-art who came to America, Ulmer passed away in 1972.
It is one of the darkest films of the 30s.The Black Cat is an effusive, atmospheric and brutal masterpiece of decadent horror among some of Ulmer’s other interesting contributions (People on Sunday 1930, Bluebeard 1944,film noir classicDetour 1945,and the wonderfully lyrical science fiction fantasyThe Man From Planet X 1951).
Influenced by the German Expressionist movement, the film lays out a sinister territory, strange and foreboding, unsavory and dangerous, clandestine and provocative. Ulmer worked for Fritz Lang in the early days living in Germany involved on films including Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). He also worked with F.W. Murnau on Sunrise (1927) Ulmer also worked with Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch in the 20s and Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnermann and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan,who was responsible for Metropolis’ miniature sky-scapes and vast edifices.
The Black Cat is considered to be Ulmer’s best film, though his career did start to maneuver it’s way downward into poverty row’s fabulous cinematic gutter toiling in low budget features, after beginning an affair with a script girl named Shirley Castle Alexander who was married at the time to one of Carl Laemmle’s favorite nephews. At the time Laemmle was head of Universal Studios, and so Ulmer was essentially blackballed by the mogul from Hollywood. Another factor might have been Ulmer’s unwillingness to sacrifice aesthetic sensibilities over commercial profits.
Ulmer and Shirley got married and wound up moving to New York City spending many of his years working on low-budget films. He began this part of his career by making bargain-basement westerns under the pseudonym John Warner directing a series of cheap ethnic-market movies incorporating groups like Ukrainian,Yiddish and African Americans, before he moved onto the more stylish low budget thrillers.
By the 1940s Ulmer wound up back in Hollywood but had already resigned himself to making poverty row productions. All of which I find thoroughly enjoyable, such as his Bluebeard (1944) starring the ubiquitous John Carradine, Strange Illusion (1945) and film noir cult classic Detour (1945) starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage who’s battered and desolate characters actually fit the noir cannon with an authentic realism despite the anemic budget. I also love The Strange Woman (1946) and another great film noir Ruthless (1948) with Zachary Scott. Ulmer still remained a very productive director with PRC, even if it was one of Hollywood’s bastard children. Studio head Leon Fromkess never gave Ulmer enough money to fund his pictures, Ulmer wanted to produce high art films and first class effects as his origin had come from a place where he was such a ”visual artist as well as a filmmaker. The one good by-product of the deal was that it gave him creative license to run with what ever vision he had for a working project of his.
Director Ulmer also doubled as set designer on The Black Cat to create a work of visual stateliness, beautifully stylish and elaborate with its collection of modernist set pieces, working with the art direction and set design of Charles D. Hall and cinematographer John J. Mescall’s (The Bride of Frankenstein) vision of the striking, uniquely cold and Futuristic Modern Gothic art deco ‘castle fortress’ and it’s interior shots creating the arresting landscape of luxury belonging to the enigmatic Poelzig’s (Karloff) inner-sanctum.
The eclectically sharp and angular camerawork establishes a stylish Machine Age imagery and eerie symmetrical aestheticism. Mescall’s camerawork creates a very non-Hollywood and non-stereotypical horror film, filled with a sense of melancholy responsiveness from the heavily influenced authentic Eastern European films of the period. There’s also a quality of cinematic eroticism with Mescall’s use of muting the focus within the shot to create an added emphasis on suggestive sexuality, as the camera dances through various scenes.
The stark use of light and shadow, the well defined contrast of light and dark with it’s cold black spaces and diffuse whites constructing margins that pay homage to the expressionistic lighting used by German Expressionists film makers of the 1920s and early 30s. The atmosphere is oppressive as well as claustrophobic with an added air of perversity that effervesces within the elegant framework.
Ulmer co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Ruric (who used the pseudonym Paul Cain for his hard edged detective novelettes for pulp magazines, with screenplays such as–Grand Central Murder 1942 and Mademoiselle Fifi 1944). Their script for The Black Cat deals with a deadly game of chess, ailurophobia (fear of cats) rather taboo and provocative subjects such as war crimes, ‘Satan Worship’, human sacrifice, being flayed alive, drug addiction and the underlying perverse fetishism of necrophilia.
Heinz Roemheld’s blustering classical score, with the pervasive use of work from classical composers, all set the stage for a mélange of sadism, decadence, erotic symbolism, torture and hedonist themes of pleasure pain and death. The underscoring of this deliberate use of slow, solemn and imposing classical music emphasizes the atmosphere of entrapment and hopelessness.
Karloff’s character, Hjalmar Poelzig’s morbid and unwholesome preservation of his deceased wife whom he stole from Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), having manipulated Werdegast’s wife into marrying him telling her that her husband died in the war, ultimately murdering her and then forcibly marrying Werdegast’s daughter is all very salacious material. Werdegast’s wife’s body is kept in a state of suspended animation like a sleeping doll which is visually shocking and gruesome. He tells Werdegast that his daughter too is deceased but in actuality she is Poelzig’s new young bride. a drugged sexual slave. The film possesses so many strange and disturbing elements. The allusion to incest, sacrificial orgies and the heightened presence of music drawing heavily from Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B and Schumann’s Quintet in E Flat Major, op.44, Tschaikowsky and most notably for me, Beethoven’s movement no.7, a personal favorite of mine.
The film was made just prior to the strictly enforced production guidelines of The Hayes Commission that policed all the sin and immorality on the silver screen. Allegedly there were various edits to the production that Universal insisted upon, but the film still bares a very deviant and erotically depraved tenor to the narrative’s mise en scéne.
When Universal executives both Carl Laemmle Jr and Sr. screened the film they were horrified by Ulmer’s rough cut, they insisted that he edit the film and so they hacked it up and toned it down. And actually Bela Lugosi himself was unsettled at the thought of his protagonist showing lusty desires for the very young American girl Joan. Ulmer reluctantly went back and edited some of the harsher scenes out, including the infamous ‘skinning’ sequence, A comparison to the original script from the final version shows that many of the most disturbing elements, including a more unabashed orgy at the black mass, were quickly snipped away and scenes which were more violent and containing more suggestive elements were exorcized like the devil.
But in a subtle victory of wile, Ulmer added a few more scenes showing Karloff taking Lugosi through his historical dungeon artifacts of the encased suspended beautiful women in glass, the posed dead bodies in perpetual lifelike form as if by taxidermy, collecting them as his fetish, the idea of possessing them eternally as an ‘object’ in a state of death, the theme of necrophilia must have slipped by the Laemmles.
The subject of contemporary Satanism had only been dealt with on the screen once before by Lugosi in his supporting role in the long forgotten and believed to be lost The Devil Worshipper (1920 German) Die Teufelsanbete.
Universal’s marketing department downplayed the aspect of Satanism in the picture, nervous that the idea of devil worship might not be acceptable to the public theater goer as entertainment. So in actuality the original version must have really pushed the boundaries farther and been even more sinister. British censors found the film so offensive and unacceptable that the British print of the film, entitled House of Doom replaces any reference to black magic, using less disturbing references to ‘sun worshipper’, (silly) which essentially obliterates the entire transgressive significance and it’s impact.
Carl Laemmle had given Ulmer a free reign on the story’s content, but kept a close eye on the director in other respects. Ulmer had not been given the larger budgets that either Dracula or Frankenstein had been endowed with. He was also given a very short span of time to shoot the film, a mere fifteen days. This did not deter or side track Ulmer at all who was used to working with small budgets, and knew how to construct a film that looks as elegant as any largely budgeted project. He began imagining the story, scrapping many scripts that Universal had been collecting. Any pretext associating the picture with Poe’s short story was cast to the wind. And so he created an entirely new vision. At the core, the film works thematically as a revenge piece. But of course there is so much more bewitching the film’s narrative.
In the 1960s Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ulmer in ‘The Devil Made Me Do It‘ who recalled another theme that influenced The Black Cat. He had been in Prague… and met novelist Gustav Meyrink the man who wrote The Golem as a novel. Like Kafka, Mayrink was a Prague jew who was tied up with the mysticism of the Talmud. They had a lot of discussions, contemplating a play based upon the Fortress Doumont which was a French fortress the Germans had destroyed with their shelling during World War I. There were some survivors who didn’t come out for years.The commander who ultimately went insane three years later was brought back to Paris, driven mad because he had literally walked on a mountain of bodies and bones. “The commander was a strange Euripides figure.” Ulmer told Bogdanovich. (Euripides being an archetypal figure as a representational mythical hero, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. Also Euripides voluntarily exiled himself, rather than be executed like his colleague Socrates who was put to death for his perceived dangerously intellectual influence.)
Much of the ambiance of this historic incident is reflected in Bela Lugosi’s dialogue in The Black Cat.
“And that hill yonder, where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on it’s very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world.” – Vitus Werdegast
Within The Black Cat is there an aesthetic tension between Expressionist Caligarism and The New Objectivity movement or Neue Sachlichkeit, which begin in Habsburg Central Europe at the dawn of the Nazi era? The New Objectivity espoused a new attitude of public life in Weimar Germany with it’s art, literature, music and architecture created to adapt to the changing mood of the culture. It was characterized by a practical engagement with the world, which was regarded by Germans to be an inherently American style or the cult of objectivity, functionalism, usefulness, essentially- Americanism. While the film injects a modern wholesome American couple into the plot, they are mired down in the decaying ghosts of the past atrocities and sins perpetrated not only on the land, but by presence of the vengeful and malignant atmosphere. An atmosphere represented within the framework of a very Caligarian milieu. This creates a friction or contrast by injecting the fresh American presence into the plot, surrounding them within an environment of an arcane and non-naturalist landscape.
The Expressionist Caligarism wasstarted by director Robert Wiene who’s surreal masterpiece Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari will always be remembered as the iconic ultra-expressionist watershed moment of the genre. ‘Caligarism’ Painters turned set designers Walter Röhring and Walter Reimann were responsible for the brilliant expressionist style which influenced other films with both the ornamental patterns transfixed in the dysmorphic repertoire of shapes and configurations that permeated the set designs for 20s science fiction films like Andrew Andrejew’s AELITA – Queen of Mars 1924.
The use of the color black or more accurately, the absence of light, can also been seen as part of the symbolism in The Black Cat: We are the voyeurs to this claustrophobic madness, as spectators we see the horror as highlighted by the stark blackness of the clothes, the black trees which are filmed in silhouette against a blackened sky. Poelzig is often silhouetted in distinctive blackness. This use of the color black or again more accurately in lighting it with the absence of any color or ‘light’, is used thematically as a way of installing a sadistic marker of the imagery.
Cast of Characters:
Boris Karloff is Hjalmar Poelzig
Bela Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast
David Manners is Peter Alison
Julie Bishop is Joan Alison (as Jacqueline Wells)
Egon Brecher is The Majordomo to Poelzig
Harry Cording is Thamal Werdegast’s faithful servant
Lucille Lund is Karen Werdegast
Henry Armetta is Police Sergeant
Albert Conti is Police Lieutenant
John Carradine plays the Organist (uncredited)
Boris Karloff playsHaljmar Poelzig who is perhaps one of his most impressively darker characterizations. His all black attire, strangely androgynous hair style, and exaggerated use of make-up accentuates his features giving him the appearance of extreme and austere wickedness. Karloff’s eyebrows arch, his eyes flare and the use of his black lipstick make him almost deathly. Jack Pierce (The Man Who Laughs 1928, Dracula 1931,Frankenstein 1931 White Zombie 1932, The Mummy 1932 Bride of Frankenstein 1935 ) was responsible for the subtle yet dramatic make-up.
Karloff’s voice, his wonderfully lilting voice is typically modulated within the drift of his dialogue. He is remarkable as the incarnation of profane evil, with his icy cold reserve and detachment from the world.
Both protagonists are enigmatic, Karloff’s Poelzig’s utter malevolence and Lugosi’s hero Dr. Vitus Werdegast who is sympathetic yet also damaged, callous and obsessed by his lust for revenge, make both these disparate figures, magnetic archetypes that are equally compelling.
The film takes place in Hungary, starting out with scurrying masses boarding the grandeur of the Orient Express. The Allison’s are on their way to Budapest,Visegrad for their honeymoon. American Newlyweds Peter a mystery writer and his new bride Joan Allison board the opulent train. David Manners who plays spare hero Peter Allison had portrayed Jonathan Harker in 1931’s Dracula opposite Lugosi, and again appeared as the leading man with Karloff in The Mummy 1932.Jacqueline Wells plays Joan. At first the young love birds have their compartment all to themselves until Dr. Vitus Werdegast, psychiatrist and veteran of World War I, a captive who has just been released from a prisoner of war camp after 15 years imprisonment, (Ulmer himself was a refugee of Hitler) enters the compartment due to a mix up needing a place to sleep. He tells the young couple that he is on his way to visit an ‘old friend.’
While Joan and Peter fall asleep the gentle yet peculiar Werdegast becomes fixated on her, stroking her hair while her husband Peter who is now awake watches silently for a moment. Werdegast explains that his wife and daughter were left behind when he was sent away to prison.
When the honeymooners get off the train, it is pouring rain… they agree to share a bus ride with Werdegast , but there is a storm and the desolate rain soaked roads are treacherous, causing the bus to crash. The bus driver dies, and Joan is injured in the wreck. Needing to seek shelter Dr. Werdegast recommends that they join him at his friend’s home, the Castle Poelzig, so he can take care of the young bride.Werdegast treats Joan’s injury, injecting her with a powerful hallucinogen called hyoscine.
The name Poelzig is an homage to Hans Poelzig set designer/architect of the 1920s who’s version of Der Golem was stunning. Real life Poelzig was responsible for the astonishing Prague set that underpinned the mythic mood of The Golem.
In Hans Poelzig’s own words, “The effect of architecture is magical.”And he meant that literally as he believed that every building was a living thing, had it’s own musical rhythm and a mystical sound that could be ‘heard’ by the those who were initiated into the world of magic. Though a very private man it was known that Poelzig dabbled in magical arts, holding spiritualist seances with his wife at their home and using their daughter as a medium.
According to Poelzig’s biographer, Theodor Heuss, his library was “filled with the works of mystics, the occult sciences and astrology” he was in the pursuit of the mysteries of eternal forms that he erected and revered through his sacred work constructing his grand style architectural designs as his ‘magic’ medium. Poelzig also found cinema to be an environment for his magical sensibilities, jotting in his notebook “Film… the magic of form-the form of magic… Devil’s Mass…”
Poelzig intrigued a lot of people with his mysterious persona. Director Max Reinhardt hired Engineer Hans Poelzig to build sets for his theatrical stages. Ulmer was one of the architect’s junior assistants who later worked on the set of The Golem as a silhouette cutter for Paul Wegeners monumental production. Ulmer had studied architecture in Vienna and so carried that knowledge with him which sheds light on his sense of set design.
Hans Poelzig had a grand imagination, a creative fortitude and a host of eccentricities, one of which was to be at times a very overpowering presence and domineering personality.
This left an impression on Ulmer, who took those memories from Germany to Hollywood and created a cinematic resurrection of designer Hans Poelzig’s persona in the image of Karloff’s shadowy devil worshiper Hjalmar Poelzig, creating the shades, shadows and the template for Ulmer’s mystical engineer sadist of The Black Cat’s.
F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926 too, definitely bears it’s influence on Ulmer who worked as a crew member on the film. Faust, in terms of cinema of the Satanic, was a major studio production who’s main protagonist was the Devil and who was a complex character, and not merely a vehicle for a simple horror themed picture, it sprung from a confluence of intellectualism and metaphysical ponderings.
DEVILS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION IN CLASSICAL FILM
The Black Cat does seem to be one of the earliest illustrations of the Satantic cult film. While the era of Silent Film had a slew of films that dealt with the devil and black magic, (Dante’s Inferno 1911,The Student of Prague 1913, Henrik Galeen’sThe Golem 1914Thomas Edison’sThe Magic Skin 1915, The Black Crook 1916, The Devil’s Toy 1916,The Devil’s Bondswoman 1916, Conscience 1917,Murnau’sSatanas 1919, Der Golem 1920,The Devil Worshipper 1920, Dreyer’sLeaves of Satan’s Book 1920, and 1921’s Häxan, Nosferatu 1922. The Sorrows of Satan 1926 and F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926) After the economic crash of 1929 these very recognized landmark films seem to disappear.The 30s had The Black Cat 1934 and The Student of Prague (1935), both these films might be the protracted essence of the Satanic Expressionism of 20s German cinema.
The ‘devil worship’ film or ‘Satanic’ cinema evokes our primal fears, paranoia and unconscious dread that is implicit toward the ‘Other’ As was in Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s brilliant portrayal of this very paranoia. Satanic films trigger our fears of the intrusion of an outsider who infiltrates society, or rather the comfortability of our moral landscape. It also sign posts our secret pleasures which are derivative or surrogate as catharsis by way of the horrors of satanic power. In the 40s the few offerings were, William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster 1941,Maurice Tourneur’sCarnival of Sinners (1943) and Mark Robson/Val Lewton’s literate and intensely woven The Seventh Victim (1943) and Thorold Dickinson’s imaginative masterpiece The Queen of Spades 1949.
While Universal had successes with both Dracula and Frankenstein, The Black Cat is a more intensely layered film with it’s hidden and not so implicit meanings. It has a depth that explores the undercurrent of the 1920s aestheticism and fascination with magic. There are heterogeneous elements that run through both compelling performances by Karloff and Lugosi’s characterizations.
Werdegast“You sold Marmorus to the Russians… scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered at, that you should choose this place to be your house. A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction… the masterpiece of murder. (he laughs) the murderer of ten thousand men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken a prisoner to Kurgaal, Kurgaal, where the soul is killed… slowly. Fifteen years I rotted in the darkness. Waited… not to kill you, to kill your soul… slowly. Where is my wife Karen and my daughter?!!!!”
Poelzig– “Karen? Why what do you mean?”
Werdegast –“I mean you told Karen I had been killed, I found out that much in Budapest. I mean you always wanted her in the days at Salzberg before the war, always, from the first time you saw her. I mean that after you saved your own hide and left us all to die in Marmorus, you took Karen and induced her to go to America with you. I traced the two of you there.And to Spain and to South America and finally here. Where is she?”
The film is also powerful in it’s evoking of the horrors of World War I, which was still a very haunting specter in the public psyche. Most Universal films offered escapism, in contrast The Black Cat confronts the viewer with a bit of historic retelling of the nightmares of war, more penetrating than the usual concocted monsters the studio was proffering.
Karloff’s aloof and restrained malevolence guided by the subtle intonations of his melodious voice tethered to Lugosi’s sympathetic and often poignant performance as the broken Vitus Werdegast, in particular the scene when he first sees his dead wife Karen exhibited as if in a museum, suspended in death, evoking authentic tears, “Why is she like this?” All set to the maudlin Ludwig Van Beethoven’s ‘Symphony no. 7: Second Movement.’
Beethovin’s symphony no. 7 often used in films and a most powerfully contemplative piece underscores Karloff’s soliloquy as the camera glides through the dark and dank dungeon of Marmorus taking us on a tour of the decaying deathly oxygen of the place.
Poelzig leads Werdegast through the subterranean enclosures of Marmorus. It is here that Werdegast sees his wife who had died two years after he was in prison, and that his Karen (Lucille Lund) is now encased in glass.
Poelzig reveals the perfectly preserved body of his wife in necrophilic stasis, that he’s encased in glass like an immoral specimen of his unholy fetishism. This might be the only other reference to Poe and his morbid preoccupation with beauty in death. He reveals the dead body of ‘their’ beautifully angelic wife, encased in her crypt like glass vessel. Poelzig lies to Werdegast telling him that his daughter is also dead.
Werdegast is devastated and demands retribution but Poelzig insists that fate must wait until the ‘outsiders’ are gone. Of course Poelzig intends to kill the Americans, sacrificing Joan, but forces Werdegast to play a diabolical game of chess the outcome for which the lives of the young couple hinges upon. Werdegast loses and Joan is then taken to another room to await Poelzig, as she is to be his next sacrifice at the black mass ritual during the dark of the moon, in his Bauhaus ceremonial inner sanctum of worship, his sepulcher of debauchery, his sadistic sanctuary, the archaic shrine to the devil.
The essence of which makes the film as disturbing and queasy as any in this contemporary age of violent horror films. Ulmer convinced Laemmle Jr to let him make a film in the European Caligari style, surreal, post modern and artistic. The one condition was that he use Poe’s title for the picture. The story line is hallucinatory, dream like and nightmarish, framed within the architecture of a set that becomes part of the character of the plot. Poelzig it is revealed is the High Priest of a Satanic Cult, there is a scene where we catch sight of him reading a book entitled The Rites of Lucifer, which promotes the customary sacrifice of virgin blood while Werdegast’s beautiful blonde daughter Karen believed to be dead, sleeps next to him most likely kept in a drug induced cataleptic state, to maintain her appearance of a morbid deathly slumber in order to feed Poelzig’s penchant for conflating sexuality with death.
Hjalmar Poelzig owner, engineer and designer of the castle is an intense and eccentric man who’s castle rests upon the bloody ruins and remains of Fortress Marmorus and the slew of graves where the dead betrayed soldiers, victims of his treason during World War I are buried. Poelzig is as removed from his treacherous past as is his Modern castle which denies it’s bloody legacy.
Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the Hungarians to the Russians, while he was the commanding officer of the Fort during the war. Telling him that he was responsible for leaving him and the other soldiers to die or be captured. He also believes that Poelzig stole his wife and child when he was sent to prison, and that they must still be in the fortress somewhere. Poelzig has a room secretly hidden especially for his satanic black masses. As the conflict unfolds, the young couple become the unwitting hostages of these two men.
One of these men is an unorthodox heretic who is consumed with power, death, sublimation and perverse sensuality. The other is blinded by revenge and hatred for the man who destroyed his life. He also has an all consuming fear of cats, and early on in the film kills Poelzig’s black cat, although Poelzig is seen carrying around a black cat with him while he glides around his house as he revisits the women he has encased in glass.
We are first introduced to Poelzig as he is laying on a bed with his young wife Karen, a quite provocative image by 1934 Hollywood standards. The vision is sterile and hypothermic, surrounded by glass, chrome and steel. As the camera moves into Poelzig’s bedroom lair, we see him as he rises up from a prone position emerging in silhouette like a wraith.
Once Joan enters the castle Poelzig is drawn to her, as she is young and attractive possibly baring a resemblance to his dead wife. As the narrative progresses, it becomes even more strange and uncanny, as Poelzig’s dead wife is revealed to have been married to Werdegast, who believed he died during the battle of Marmorus. She marries Poelzig but he murders her soon afterwards, raising their daughter and then in an imbroglio of incestuous lust, marries the ethereal young girl, it’s so creepy and blasphemous.
Werdegast tells Joan “Did you ever hear of Satanism, the worship of the devil of evil? Herr Poelzig is the great modern priest of the ancient cult. And tonight at the dark of the moon, the rites of Lucifer are recited. And if I’m not mistaken, he intends you to play a part in that ritual. a very important part. There child, be brave, no matter how hopeless it seems. Be brave it is your only chance.”
When Poelzig wins the chess game, Peter Allison is chained up and locked away in the dungeon below. Werdegast is spiraling into madness now and has his loyal servant Thamal merely pretend to be loyal to Poelzig in order to help his true master Werdegast. Joan meets Werdegast’s daughter Karen who wanders into her room like a lithe spirit. She introduces herself as Madam Poelzig. Joan tells her that her father is actually alive and in the castle waiting to rescue her. When Poelzig finds out he brutally kills Karen and leads Werdegast to find her body in order to torture him further.
Poelzig’s ascends the grand staircase as his cult guests begin to gather around him. the image is pictorial and impressive. as they ready themselves for the Satanic ritual. The soulless expressions on their faces is quite chilling.
Poelzig begins his intonations to the dark master as Joan is led towards the alter.
Karloff improvises giving a compelling invocation to Satan yet actually consisting of a few harmless latin non- sequesters, phrases he used from his college latin, like Vino Veritas which basically means ‘In wine there is truth’. Cave Canum, ‘Beware of the dog’ and Cum grano salis which is ‘With a grain of salt.’
Werdegast and his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) stop the ceremony, interrupting the sacrifice and eventually avenge his wife’s death and the plundering and despoiling of his beautiful daughter. They rush Joan away from the ceremony and hide her from Poelzig.
This is when Joan tells him that his daughter is quite alive and now been forced to marry Poelzig. Joan’s screams alert Peter who can not enter the barred room. He thinks Werdegast is assaulting her when he is trying to help her find the key to the door and so Peter shoots him, but he lets them escape.
Thamal has been wounded by Poelzig’s servant but rushes to help his master. The two men strap Poelzig to his Art Deco inspired contraption, embalming rack that looks like an angular cruciform, while Werdegast rips away Poelzig’s shirt, grabbing a scalpel he begins to skin his adversary alive.
I’ll leave it here. It’s enough that you’ve seen Poelzig flayed alive. The film deserves a fresh re-viewing. I hope you’ve enjoyed my little overview of this striking masterpiece of Gothic horror featuring two of the most iconic genre stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Please let me know what you think, and please… be kind to black cats…
Davis plays kindly, attentive Nanny who is in charge of looking after precocious 10-year-old Joey Fane (William Dix-Tommy Stubbins in Doctor Dolittle), who has just been released from a hospital for emotionally disturbed children. It is believed that Joey was responsible for the bathtub drowning death of his little sister.
The film works so well fielding paranoia as Joey persecutes Nanny, trying to get his family to believe that it was Nanny who was the one who killed his sister and now looking to do him in. Once his mother Virgie Fane (Wendy Craig) becomes poisoned, a very tautly wound game of cat and mouse ensues as he enlists the help of the girl Bobbie who lives upstairs played by the wonderfulPamela Franklin. The film also stars Jill Bennett as Aunt Pen, James Villiers as Joey’s father Bill, and Maurice Denhamas Dr. Beamaster. Bette Davis is purely marvelous as the very emotionally destructive older woman who has a few secrets that haunt her…
No one straddles the Grande Dame Guignol trope quite like the inimitable, the superb Bette Davis.
I’ll be doing a more extensive post about this film, as well as Dead Ringer 1964, as I just can’t get enough of those eyes – that voice…
Walter Brandi(The Playgirls and The Vampire 1960,Bloody Pit of Horror 1965) plays Albert Kovac an attorney who arrives at a strange desolate castle to settle the estate of the recently deceased Dr. Hauff. Starring the magnificent icon Barbara Steele who plays Cleo Hauff, the young widow who is having an affair. Riccardo Garrone plays Joseph Morgan and Mirella Maravidi plays Hauff’s daughter Corinne. Alfredo Rizzo plays Dr Nemek, and Luciano Pigozzi is the trusted servant Kurt. The history of the castle has been haunted by a curse, furthermore Dr Hauff used to dabble in the black arts and claimed to be able to summon the spirits of the dead victims of the plague to wreak vengeance on those he felt betrayed him.“The water will save you.”
In this atmospheric Gothic Italian horror film from the 60s, there are several creepy and classical effective moments of morbidity and gruesome death scenes. And disembodied hands are always sort of yucky.
Truthfully, I could watch anything that Barbara Steele was in, she has such a splendid kind of sensuality that just oozes off the screen, and those darkly fervent eyes that mesmerize. (wow didn’t really mean to rhyme there)and while this isn’t really a stand out vehicle for her in any way as compared to her other work, the film is not a bad little romp through some vintage Euro chills for it’s 87 minutes, even without the Italian version’s brief gratuitous breast shot. Directed byMassimo Pupillo (Bloody Pit of Horror 1965 with Mickey Hargitay, La Vendetta di Lady Morgan 1965 with Erica Blanc and Barbara Nelli as Lady Susan Morgan and Django Kills Softly 1967) Cinematography by Carlo Di Palmi who worked on Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966’s masterpiece Blow Up.
See ya round the snack bar, no butter on mine thanks-MonsterGirl