Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

CODED CLASSIC HORROR THEORY “The Uncanny & The Other”

“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”

“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)

Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018

Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually nonnormative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of it’s apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.

The horror film in particular, found it’s place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.

As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.” So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.

On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.

The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”

The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down the Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks and Fay Wray.

In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X starring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.

Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!

All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)

Fay Wray as Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific non conformists.

The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.

Bela Lugosi looking down upon David Manners in a scene from the film ‘Dracula’, 1931. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film which has no connection to Poe’s story but in name, is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophelia, incest, sadism, satanism and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all taking place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high constrast lighting.

Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933) with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.

And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fastasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!

The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters

Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”

By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”

Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveals similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similiar to the self discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity as Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.

There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing, led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.

Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff

Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies, points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operates with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.

Mad doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camararderie-and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express the homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.

According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”

George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victims hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul he becomes a monstrous queer.

In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of story telling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.

In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.” For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, that causes him to become sickened.

But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.

Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, it’s persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.

Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, with in their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientation in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in full power of it’s universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality, and the subversion of sexuality.

The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from dometicity and normalcy.

In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. What his motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be a sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. The scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.

MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?

Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on a Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.

Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, not just as rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of the science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as doctor and his subject Stephen.

Mad Love possesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”

In similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.

Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Monmartre tonight.”

Gogol’s maid Francoise talking to the statue,“What ever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”

A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.

Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire. Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein

Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephens hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist, but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.

On the surface the plot of Mad Love appears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)

In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom, and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the origianl story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.

Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.

In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves. Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire into Mad Love’s within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” what the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.

The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)

Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886 and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. In the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations, were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations, were ‘not socially sanction and shunned.’

It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)

“My darling”….

James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. In his picture The Invisible Man (1933) adapted from H.G. Wells story and starring Claude Rains, it was classified as a horror film by the Code.

Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”

What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for it’s ‘queer’ humor.

Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933

The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.

“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)

Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of Jame’s Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound, until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”

According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal) ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”

Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)

The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”

Continue reading “Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942) “Every man knows what sort of a woman she is!”

This post is celebrating Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen on Oct. 12, 2015

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“When I look at myself, I am so beautiful… I scream with joy!”-Maria Montez

Maria Montez the Queen of Technicolor

The Queen of Technicolor!….   Maria Montez!

“You must always act as if you are the most beautiful desirable woman in the world, you must always be treated like a queen and you must not let any directors intimidate you, because the public has the last word!”

Mystery of Marie Roget

BEAUTIFUL BEAST! MADDENING… WITH HER SOFT CARESS! MURDERING WITH STEEL-CLAWED TERROR!

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” was originally published in 1842 a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, it was his first fiction story that played out like a true-detective tale about an unsolved murder that he placed in Paris rather than in New York. This was Poe’s follow up to his Murders in the Rue Morgue and follows the exploits of crime solver detective Paul Dupin. Incidentally the detective had been named Pierre Dupin in Rue Morgue 1932

Adapted to the screen by Michael Jacoby (Doomed to Die 1940 with Boris Karloff, The Undying Monster 1942, The Face of Marble 1946).

The Beautiful Cigar Girl murder mystery

Loosely based on an infamous story that made the headlines in New York during the 19th century, it concerns the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers who earned the nickname “Beautiful Cigar Girl” who disappeared once, only to find out that she had run off with her sweetheart, a naval officer. The next time Marie showed up was three years later, floating in the Hudson River. Because of the notoriety Marie had become a national conversation piece for quite a while. Until the inquest, where her fiancé had committed suicide, leaving a remorseful note next to an empty bottle of poison. An unsolved mystery that still haunts New York.

This wonderfully atmospheric film is directed by Phil Rosen (The Crooked Road 1940, I Killed that Man 1941, Sidney Tolar/Chan films, Spooks Run Wild 1941 with Bela Lugosi) Patric Knowles play’s Poe’s detective Dr. Paul Dupin. Also part of the marvelous cast is the great Maria Ouspenskaya as Mme. Cecile Roget, John Litel as M. Henri Beauvais, Edward Norris as Marcel Vigneaux, Lloyd Corrigan as Prefect Gobelin, Nell O’Day as Camille Roget, Norma Drury Boleslavsky as Madame De Luc and Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon) as the zoo curator.

Patric Knowles as Paul Dupin and Lloyd Corrigan as Prefect Gobelin truly steal the show as their banter is marvelous and they succeed in playing a team of the straight man and the comic foil.

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Maria Montez with her black hair as shiny as a raven’s wing, the most sensual full shaped lips and creamy complexion Montez was considered The Reigning Queen of Technicolor in the 1940s A Diva on and off the set. She had a single minded professional drive and wouldn’t settle for anything less than being a star.

Peter Rubie who wrote Hispanics in Hollywood claims that the beauty from the Dominican Republic- Montez learned English by reading magazines and listening to American pop songs. After her short term marriage in 1939 she dumped her husband left for New York and decided to become a model. Creating an incredible wardrobe for herself and hiring several maids to keep up on her trousseau.

Maria-montez

She’d go out at night with her dazzling wardrobe flirting and flitting about at all the ‘in’ places to dine and dance, until a talent agent from RKO saw her and signed her. Later on Universal saw the screen test she made and they scooped her up with a better offer.

Montez arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1940 and started working on becoming a star….

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Maria Montez in Sirens of Atlantis (1949)

Universal could promote her easily because the camera loved her. They did these promotional stills of her. She was so sensational to photograph, and had a presence that just leaped off the page.

She was loaned out to 20th Century Fox to be in a film with Carmine Miranda, Don Ameche and Alice Fay called That Night In Rio 1941
Ameche, Montez and Miranda

Though she was only in the film for less than a minute, LIFE magazine took so many photos of her, she could not become anything but a STAR….

Now about the suspense film where she plays a Parisian beauty who goes missing twice, the second time having been murdered. It’s called The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942)

A slick Universal mystery with all the eerie trappings to attract the horror trade. “Who is the Phantom Mangler of Paris?

This is an effective Universal chiller, though a ‘B’ movie in the ranks, what elevates it to a higher level of macabre deliciousness isn’t just that it’s based on a Poe short story, but the means by which the murderer mutilates his victim’s faces is rather horrible and grotesque for the time period it was released. One could see sparks of competition with RKO’s master teller of chilling tales, Val Lewton due to it’s device of using a real leopard, i.e The Leopard Man (1943) Cat People (1942).

Even Mme. Cecile’s (Maria Ouspenskaya ) pet Leopard might be a suspect as the murderer in this mystery chiller.

In The Mystery of Marie Roget, the killer has a fetish for using a steel-claw as the murder weapon, which is how he destroys the women’s faces beyond recognition. It also might remind you classic horror fans of the underrated SHE-WOLF of LONDON (1946) starring June Lockhart.

Cinematographer Elwood Bredell Man Made Monster (1941) The Strange Case of Dr X (1942) Christmas Holiday 1944, Phantom Lady 1944, The Killers 1946 The Unsuspected 1947 Female Jungle 1956.

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MAN MADE MONSTER 1941

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The Strange Case of Dr X (1942)

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Robert Siodmak’s The Killers 1946

Murders in the Rue Morgue 1932

In Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932) Poe’s detective Dupin is played by actor Leon Ames. Reprising the role, his name is changed to Paul Dupin as the forensic expert in this film with actor Patric Knowles ( THE WOLF MAN 1942 & FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN 1943.)

Maria Ouspenskaya has more presence in this film than in The Wolf Man 1941,

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playing off the Prefect of Police’s Lloyd Corrigan as Gobelin, the gesticulating police chief, who’s marvelous facial expressions make for great comedic relief.

To capitalize on Montez’s growing popularity she became the Universal attraction in this mystery chiller, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short follow up to his Murders in the Rue Morgue. Montez receives star billing in the film’s opening credits!

Jacoby who adapted the screenplay also imbued the story with a bit more sensationalist pulp from the original tale, adding veritable Poe-esque elements of the macabre, also using ‘B’ movie red herrings necessary to throw us and Dupin off the scent of the truth.

When the story opens in the late 19th century Paris, we are thrown into the middle of the frenzy concerning the missing popular musical comedy star of Comédie Française -the beautiful Marie Roget.

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An real character reading the paper with her husband laughs- “Every man knows what sort of a woman she is, I’ll wager she has gone off with one of her sweethearts.”

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during the argument when Beauvasi threatens to have the prefect relieved of his commission.

Gobelin-“Believe me I haven’t slept for the past ten days, I have every gendarme in the city on the case now what more can I do? ”

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Henri Beauvais (John Litel), a friend of the Roget family is in the office of Police Prefect Gobelin (Lloyd Corrigan The Manchurian Candidate 1963, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World 1963 ) who’s facial expressions are delightfully droll and add such great comedic relief to the dark and dreary mystery. Henri is harassing Gobelin to find Marie who has been missing for over ten days, that it is of the utmost importance.

Gobelin introduces chief medical officer Dr. Dupin to M. Henri Beauvais (John Litel) the minister of naval affairs, a very close friend of the Roget family.

Beauvais “ Dupin?… you had something to do with those murders in the rue morgue didn’t you?”
Gobelin say- “He practically solved those murders single handedly”
Beauvais barks- “Yes then why haven’t you done something about this Marie Roget case!?”

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Beauvais threatens both Gobelin and Dupin that they better solve it quickly
They are interrupted when comes in an reports that a woman’s body has been found floating in the river Seine at the wharf below the second bridge, believed to be Marie Roget… It has been mutilated beyond recognition as her face has been completely destroyed. “She has no face!”

Gobelin says-“Good Good Marie Roget You see we found her ! I told you we would”
Beauvais “Why are you so sure it’s Marie Roget?”
Dupin “ Why that’s easily decided Monsieur, You yourself can identify her.. will you come with us now?”

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‘Her face! (he winces) -Dupin “ Steady Monsieur can you identify the body?” Beauvais-“I don’t know… About the same size as Marie Roget, same shaped head and color hair.” Dupin “ Does it look familiar Monsieur?” He says “Yes, yes it must be she. But it has no face.”

Gobelin asks “Who could have done it Dupin?” Beauvais says it’s the “work of a fiend.”
Dupin answers… “Or a beast. It looks as if the face had been torn to a pulp by the claws of an animal.”

Gobelin and Dupin go to the Roget home to tell Madame Cecile the grandmother and Maire’s

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Mme Cecile Roget (Maria Ouspenskaya) is in her wheelchair feeding scraps to her pet leopard. Camille says “Oh Granny even if we heard anything definite.”

Mme Cecile “My child.. the police are doing everything possible to find your sister.

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Beauvais and Gobelin enter, Camille asks if they found Marie… He tells her that she must be brave. Granny Cecile says “Speak up. Where is she? Come come what have you found?”

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When he tells her that unfortunately there is nothing more they can do for her granddaughter. “We found her body in the river.”

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Camille doesn’t believe it… as Beauvais tries to calm her… suddenly who sweeps in like a gust of dressed up wind… But Marie Roget!

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sister Camille about the news, suddenly Marie Roget enters the house as lit up as a string of paper lanterns, acting as if nothing has happened. When they tell her that her disappearance has been a sensational news story and ask where she has been.

“The police found a body in the river that they thought was yours.”

Cecile “Marie where in heaven’s name have you been?” Camille is just happen she’s home, but Beauvais says she owes them an explanation. Gobelin tells her that she’s had the whole city in an uproar. Cecile hands her the paper.

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Marie remarks about the news headline and asks who Gobelin is- “What an awful picture of me… Who is the little man?”

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“Madamoiselle I happen to be the Prefect of Police” Marie “hhm how nice!”

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Granny Cecile insists on knowing where she’s been-“Oh Granny You too!”

Gobelin goes on that she doesn’t understand he must make a full explanation to the public
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Beauvais  tells him to consider the case closed. Granny Cecile says “You heard him… there’s no more need for the police monsieur. ”

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As Gobelin leaves Grandmother Cecile’s eopard growls he comically frightened asks “What’s that?”

“A leopard, what’s the matter with you! (Granny Cecile barks at him) …. Haven’t you ever seen a leopard before?”
Beauvais remarks “It’s perfectly harmless I assure you.”

Gobelin shaken mumbles to himself- “yes, of course.”

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Gobelin puffs on his cigar tells his clerk to file the case away, and Dupin comes in and tells him that the murderer did a thorough job. Gobelin says it’s the most curious case, “A woman without a face.” Dupin has different means of identification and he will not quit…

Gobelin also has a hunch that there’s a definite connection between the mutilated body and the Roget case.

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“Maybe it’s too fantastic to mention but you yourself said that the claws of an animal could have done it!” Dupin answers “Yes but I said could of I didn’t say did. What’s on your mind?”  “The Old Lady old Madame Roget! now there’s a queer customer. She’s eccentric. She’s a little bit twisted I think. She’s got scads of money and a yet she lives in an old fashioned house in the Latin quarter. And listen to this. She’s got a pet cat. (Dupin just sit quietly calmly listening to Gobelin as if he had lobsters crawling out of his ears- Gobelin leans in -) Only it’s a leopard!” Dupin remarks quizzically- “A Leopard?”

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“A full grown leopard” “That’s very interesting Gobelin but it’s a blind alley” Well I”m not so sure…” Dupin tells him… “ You can forget it!”
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Dupin walks out of his office… Gobelin still trying to talk to him, “I can, well wait..” Dupin slams the door on him…

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Camille (Nell O’Day) is sitting in the parlor with Marcel Vigneaux (Edward NorrisThey Won’t Forget 1937, The Man with Two Lives 1942, Decoy 1946 ) She’s telling him that she wants Marie to be the first to know of their engagement. Marcel wants to elope and surprise everyone. “But I’d have to tell Marie Marcel I’ve never had any secrets from her” “Well does she tell you everything?… Do you know where she’s been for the past ten days?”

“No, but it’s been the first time she hasn’t. For that matter you haven’t told me where you’ve been yourself for nearly two weeks” She pouts…

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Marie comes into the room, telling Camille that it’s nearly 8 O’ Clock and they’re going to be late. Then she notices Marcel… and acts happily surprised. Camille tells Marie that they are going to be married. She wishes them “all the happiness in the world” She says she will be late, then she turns and tells Camille that she forgot her purse. “Would you be an angel and get it for me” Marie walks Camille out thanks her touching her back gently then slams the door and turns around as if she were a python about to strike! “Our plans didn’t include you marrying Camille!” “I don’t intend to marry her. (the cad, the scoundrel) “Then why did you propose to her?”

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“Now take it easy Marie don’t let your temper spoil all our plans!”

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Just then Grandmother Cecile walks down the stairs with a cane in each hand. The shadow on the wall, could be a frame right out of a Val Lewton shadowplay film. She overhears the two arguing. Marie threatens to tell them everything. She doesn’t care if anyone hears…

“You’re not going to change my mind!” Marcel tells her “Don’t be a fool Marie” “A fool is what I’m not going to be. I won’t let you marry her. I’ll tell her everything. That you promised to marry me.

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“Are you going to let petty jealousy ruin all our plans?” “Our plans did not include you marrying Camille. I won’t let you. I won’t!” “ I have no intention of marrying her.” “Then why did you propose to her?” the scene cuts to Cecile behind the door listening to the couple conspire. Marcel tells her “It should be very obvious to you. It’s only to cover us. Who would possibly suspect me her fiance when she disappears tomorrow night can’t you see!” 

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“Marcel, darling you’re so clever! and I am stupid, you do love me don’t you?” “Nothing can ever change that if you’ll just believe in me.” “Then we’ll go through with our plans at the party. Once Camille is gone, we’ll have everything.” The two embrace. The scene cuts to Cecile who has now stumbled onto the nefarious plan to kill her other granddaughter.

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Marie’s half sister Camille’s fiancé, Marcel (Edward Norris), who is on the staff of the Navy is secretly having an affair with Marie. Marie is also toying around with a flirtation but non committal relationship with M. Henri Beauvais (John Litel), Marcel’s boss. Maria Ouspenskaya as the wonderfully crafty Cecile the grandmother overhears Marie’s plan to kill Camille before she turns the age of 21. And so she hires Dupin the grave robbing, brain extracting forensic scientist hero to keep a close eye on Camille when she goes to Marie’s welcome home party.

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Gobelin goes to Dupin’s lab where he has determined that the dead girl is English. “You see we are what we eat” They can consult with Scotland Yard….

He also decides that Gobelin might be right that there is a connection between the dead girl and the Roget case. He decides to work on the case unofficially even if the case has been closed. He’s working on a few angles. Dupin asked Gobelin to arrange for him to meet this Marie Roget. Since there’s a party given in her honor that night he will go. Then a gendarme brings a message for Dupin.

“My dear Dr Dupin it is imperative that you see me immediately. Do not waste time it is a matter of the utmost importance. You’ll come alone and at once”–Signed Madame Cecile Roget…”

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Dupin and Gobelin arrive at Mme. Cecile’s home-Elwood Bredell’s photography create street scenes that are set up like wonderful postcards.

“Exactly what is her relationship to Marie?”The grandmother” Dupin asks him to come along, and jokes that Gobelin is afraid of the pet cat… “I’m very fond of animals really, but it’s not so little really.”

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Madame Cecile tells Dupin that she made it clear she wanted to see him alone. He apologizes but Gobelin is his most trusted friend.

“Trusted friend my foot there’s no such animal” she wanted to avoid police men. She invites them to sit down. There is something she wants him to do. Then she barks at Gobelin. “Well why don’t you sit down” It’s hilarious how she bullies the poor Prefect as if he were a little boy being scolded.

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“And it’s worth fifty thousand francs”  “Well that’s quite a sum of money Madame” Gobelin says. She replies, “You keep out of this!”

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“I don’t believe I’d be interested in that sort of money Madame” but she tells him that’s all anyone is interested in… money. She will give Dupin fifty thousand francs to escort her granddaughter Camille to madame De Luc’s party given for Marie that night.

When dupin asks why she is having her granddaughter escorted in such a curious manner Mme Cecile tells him “I happened to know that she is going to be murdered tonight!… And I want you to prevent it” Gobelin says “Madame… do you know what you’re saying?” “Of course I know you fool and I don’t want any police notoriety about it!… Do you hear.”

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Dupin asks. “Why did you select me Madame?” “For your work on the Murders of the Rue Morgue… my memory’s even sharper than my ears” “Your ears then you heard something?” Gobelin asks. “That’s none of your business. I am speaking to Dr Dupin as a private individual and not as a member of your fine police department” She says sarcastically.

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“Madame… I have the honor of being the Prefect of Police!

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“Go have yourself stuffed!” Cecile says with audacity!

Gobelin asks how dos she know Camille is to be murdered tonight
“ let me remind you that this is no concern of yours” Dupin tells her. “In that case madame I’m afraid I can’t do as you ask.” “You’re not fooling me. You want to know what she is to be murdered? She comes into her grandfather’s fortune tomorrow… it’s better than a million and a half francs. Now do you see.” Gobelin ires her once again by asking who benefits by her death. She reprimands him once again, “Don’t ask me fool questions.” Gobelin finds it hard to believe that if Cecile suspects Camille to be murdered at Madame De Luc’s party why she’d let her go.

“Who cares what you believe. That’s why you’re nothing more than a gendarme” He looks offended again. His facial expressions of stupefied are very effective in the midst of the serious suspense melodrama. He rises to defend himself.

Dupin understands Cecile’s logic. That if an attempt on Camille’s life the party would be the logical time to try and catch the killer, before they try it again …

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Dupin asks. “I trust you don’t allow your little pet to roam the streets at night Madame?” “Certainly not, she’s never out of  my sight”

Gobelin comments that those claws are dangerous. Cecile acts curious as to what he is talking about but changes the subject and asks Dupin, why he’s not interested in earning fifty thousand francs. But then…

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Camille comes into the room. Granny Cecile introduces her to Dr Dupin. “You were saying Dupin?” “I was saying Madame that it would be indeed a pleasure” after he sees the beautiful Camille…

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Madame De Luc (Norma Drury Boleslavsky-Stage Door 1937, That Hamilton Woman 1941) is furious having to give a party for—“Making me the talk of all my friends… giving a party for that notorious creature, bringing her into her own home!” “But it’s business my new show’s a big hit thanks to her… She’s sensational, every man in Paris is interested in her.”  Madame De Luc “That’s just what I’m afraid of…”

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Beauvais meets Marie out on the terrace, longing for her attentions he jokes that he could send Marcel to Indochina for a year. “He’s nothing to me, it’s Camille he’s going to marry… they can have a honeymoon in China for all of me.”

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“Whom do you think you’re fooling… You know you once gave me to understanding… “ she interrupts him… “Oh you take everything so seriously” “And you never do” “I could make you very happy I could give you everything… won’t you reconsider?” She laughs at him… “Henri you’re a dear and I love you but let’s go in before you overwhelm me.”

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Inside Camille shows up with Gobelin and Dupin. Marie reprimands her “Camille what kept you?” The host Madame De Luc introduces Dupin to Marie Roget and Beauvais whom he met at the Prefect’s office earlier.

Then Marcel walks in and apologizes to Camille or being late. Marie says “Have you met the famous Dr. Dupin?” Montez looks exquisite in her Vera West gown and beautiful jewelry. Marcel compliments Dupin on his success with the murders in the rue morgue. Marie shoots a knowing look at Marcel. Then Marcel asks Marie to dance, and Dupin asks Camille. A waltz is playing.

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“What are the police doing here” “I wish I knew” “We can’t go on with our plans it’s too dangerous” “We’ll never get a better chance than this” “We’ll go through with our plans despite this”

Dupin is dancing with Camille there is an obvious chemistry between the two…

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Once they stop waltzing, Marcel takes Camille to get a drink and Marie asks Dupin out onto the terrace. “You know there’s something very mysterious about you. Very becoming too.”

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“Every woman is mysterious until the man marries her” “ It isn’t just any woman who creates a sensation just when she disappears and returns mysteriously as you did” “Is that an official inquiry monsieur?” “Oh no I didn’t mean it that way.” Marie gets angry and turns away from him… “Pleas I don’t wish to discuss it any further”

“She we drink to a mutual understanding and a lasting friendship?” he raise his glass.

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Marie is asked to sing one of her new songs.

As she is escorted off the terrace a phantom hand reaches up and puts something into both glasses, while Dupin has his back turned. But Gobelin rushes out to ask him of his impression of her. He tells him it’s too early to classify her yet. Then he notices that both glasses have been taken away by the same mysterious hand. Dupin asks where Camille is…

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“ There she is. I told you nothing would happen to her. That old lady was talking a lot of nonsense, you know she oughta to be in an asylum where she belongs, I mean it.”

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The orchestra begins to play… Marie is ready to entertain the party… She begins singing (over dubbed by the Dorothy Triden singing ‘Mama Dit Moi’ written by Everett Carter and Milton Rosen)
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Marcel is worried that the old lady found out, he’s concerned about Dupin being there as Camille’s body guard. Marie thinks it’s impossible that the old lady had found out about their plans “Oh you’re just making a mountain out of a mole hill, why don’t you just say you don’t want to go through with it” “ oh don’t be silly” “It would only take a few minutes after you get her out here… delivery is so near, it could look like an accident” “Yes, maybe the police being here is just what we need, we’ll do it under their very noses” “You know Marie, sometimes you’re very clever.”
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A strange set of gripping hands grab Marie’s neck.. she screams

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Dupin is out on the balcony when Gobelin tells him that it’s nearly midnight and they should be taking Camille home. First Dupin wants to smoke a cigar and offers him one… Marie smiles and begins to walk toward Dupin when a pair of hands reaches out of the brush and pulls her in… she screams.

Dupin and Gobelin react instantly! He runs into the house, and sees that Camille is perfectly safe talking with Madame De Luc -Gobelin tells Dupin that the scream came from the garden and points in that direction. It’s a fabulous noir shot. Dupin discovers Marie Roget’s purse. Gobelin goes back into the house looking for Marie and meets Madame De Luc. who tells him that she went into the garden the last time she saw her. “She’s a sort of an illusive sort the men tell me.”

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Dupin continues to search the garden and finds Marie’s scarf…

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Beauvais wants to take charge of the body. But Dupin hasn’t finished his examination.

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A couple int he street are reading the headlines… “Marie Roget is missing for the second time” “What do you suppose she’s up to” “that my lady is what the police would like to know”

Another body is fished out of the Seine. Gobelin exclaims “my goodness Dupin this one doesn’t have a face either!”

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In a twist, Marie not Camille once again disappears during the party and is found as the other body had been, floating in the Seine with her face mutilated. By modern standards of criminal psychology I would say it was not only a case of personal, overkill, it has everything to do with obliterating her identity as a way of demeaning her beauty. But for this 1942 film’s purpose, her face was smashed to a pulp… And I’m not spilling the beans why.

Mme. Ouspenskaya who has the pet leopard in the film had said that she loved all animals. They could see she was not afraid of the big cat. Though she appeared so vulnerable in her wheelchair, it was the rest of the crew who always looked worried.

The wonderful music is composed by Hans J. Salter and the spectacularly mesmerizing allure of Montez adds another layer of flamboyant mystique as she flits around in Vera West gowns…!

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The film is just around an hour long, and the sensual Montez is brought in to give her desirable appearance, though it may not count as a leading role, her presence adds the right seductiveness to the plot.

What we do come to learn is that Marie is considered a wicked woman. Dupin (Knowles) uncovers and becomes the judge of her character. As a forensic scientist he ghoulishly extracts her brain in the morgue to study it at lengths, which invokes the profane ideals of Frankenstein 1931. He announces that the lady had a twisted criminal mind… Dupin has no desire to resurrect the dead woman as did Henry Frankenstein, he merely aspires to understand the workings of the criminal brain. But it’s still a creepy passion…

What ever the truth, The Mystery of Marie Roget is an easy surrender to an hour, a nifty little programmer that uses Maria Montez’s aloof sensuality perfectly in the role of the missing/found/missing/murdered girl.

It would have been my wish to have had time to do a companion post to this one in tribute to the Hispanic Heritage Month Blogathon… by paying tribute to yet another sensually volcanic actress Lupe Vélez who terrorized poor Virginia Bruce in the ‘B’ chiller Kongo 1932!

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It’s no mystery gang, I’ll always be your everlovin’ MonsterGirl

💀 Halloween’s creeping up like that chill on the back of your neck!

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THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE (1914)

Directed by D.W.Griffith based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Tell Tale Heart!

Here’s Henry Walthall descending into madness…

We’re getting to Halloween in a heart pounding way! Your EverLovin’ MonsterGirl

THE BEACH PARTY BLOGATHON- CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) & Night Tide (1961) : Gills-A LOVE STORY!!!

THE BEACH PARTY BLOGATHON hosted by the fabulous Speakeasy & Silver Screenings

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CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) directed by Jack Arnold

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There have been sympathetic monsters that elicit our understanding, who cause you to care about them and their ordeal whether they’re the focus of a rampaging mob of villagers with flaming torches and pick axes or scientists armed with spear guns at the ready as surrogate penises –okay maybe I didn’t think about that surrogate penis thing when I was 9, but I see it so clearly now!!!!

Back in the day of the musty cool matinee theatre’s air smelling of buttered popcorn and old leather shoes, you could slink down in your good ‘n plenty and Milk Dud encrusted red velvet seat and wish that the monster would not only get away… but that just maybe he’d get the girl– instead of the self righteous hyper-science macho hero who objectifies everything! After all, the creature is not the one invading their territory, he’s prevailed in that environment for ions, before these macho nerds came along!

As a little monstergirl I used to think, and still do… just leave the ‘Gill Man’ alone!

We can sympathize with monsters, like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, & The Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. We can find our involvement (at least I can), as one viewed with empathy toward the monster’s predicament. embedded in the narrative is a simultaneous pathos, that permits these monsters to express human desires, and then make sure that those desires are thwarted, frustrated and ultimately destroyed.

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Richard Carlson Julie Adams Richard Denning and Whit Bissell as Dr. Edward Thompson study the fossil of an amphibian man found near the Amazon.
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The crew catches something in their net… and whatever it was… has ripped a giant Gill Man size hole in it leaving behind a claw!

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” Friedrich Nietzsche

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Mr. ‘It’s mine all mine” and Kay and Mr. “But think of the contribution to science!” looking at the poor trapped Gill Man-a lonely prisoner of scientific hubris and egocentric men.
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The creature trapped in a bamboo cage… floats, quietly thinking deep thoughts–while the three look on pondering what to do with him..

‘The Outsider Narrative” can be seen so clearly in Jack Arnold’s horror/sci-fi hybrid Creature From The Black Lagoon. Film monsters like The Gill Man form vivid memories for us, as they become icons laying the groundwork for the classic experience of good horror, sci-fi and fantasy with memorable story telling and anti-heroes that we ‘outliers’ grew to identify with and feel a fondness for.

As David Skal points out in The Monster Show, he poses that films like Creature From the Black Lagoon …are the “most vivid formative memories of a large section of the {American} population…{…} and that for so many of these narratives they seem to function as “mass cultural rituals.”

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Creature From The Black Lagoon is quite a perfect film, as it works on so many different levels of examining human nature and nature as human.

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When belligerent scientists and their relentless pursuit of expanding control over the natural world invade a unique creature’s habitat, forcing their domination of him- naturally he’s compelled to fight back.

In the midst of this evolves a sort of a skewed Romeo and Juliet. The Gill Man never intends to threaten Julie Adam’s character Kay Lawrence, he seemingly wants to make her his love object and maybe just maybe (idealizing of course while I imbue the ‘creature’ with a higher consciousness) the Gill Man seeks to free Kay from the dangerous men she is surrounded by. An amphibious knight in scaly armor, a rugged green scaly Adonis with limpid eyes and full lips.

The arrival of the expedition creates chaos and swampy mayhem due to the intrusion of the two opportunistic men who tote phallic harpoons around and fight with each other over questions of ethics, how to conduct scientific research and naturally who will conquer Kay– acting like spoiled children-the both. Only the Gill Man sees her beauty from a place of primal hunger and desires her above all else, perhaps with a innate sense of possessing her, but without all the cocky male posturing.

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THE LOVABLE HUGGABLE GILL MAN!! 
“I promise to keep my claws trimmed and never come to bed with cold clammy feet!”

“Yes, yes,” said the Beast, “my heart is good, but still I am a monster.” –Among mankind,” says Beauty, “there are many that deserve that name more than you, and I prefer you, just as you are, to those, who, under a human form, hide a treacherous, corrupt, and ungrateful heart.”
Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont

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“What freedom men and women could have, were they not constantly tricked and trapped and enslaved and tortured by their sexuality! The only drawback in that freedom is that without it one would not be a human. One would be a monster.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“When is a monster not a monster? Oh, when you love it.”
Caitlyn Siehl, Literary Sexts: A Collection of Short & Sexy Love Poems

In trying to capture the amphibian man he is driven out of his home in the mysterious upper Amazon by these otherizing anthropologists. And so the Gill Man–being shot at by spears and besieged by sweaty men in bourgeois khakis and unfashionable swim trunks blech! –must defend his realm.

He who is just lazing around, dreaming through the sun’s rays which sparkle upon the surface of the water amongst the little fishes and coral… bothering no one. Suddenly surrounded by intruders with weapons and nets, poison and cages.

But wait, one of them is leggy and soft and looks divine in her one piece bathing suit designed by Rosemary Odell... (Brute Force 1947, It Came from Outer Space 1953, This Island Earth 1955, To Kill a Mockingbird 1962) and what a pair of eyes!

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The Gill Man goes on a mission to get the girl and so endures his attackers because he has fallen for the simple beauty of Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams.)

Though his world has become disordered, the presence of the beautiful Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) it has awakened his sexual desire.

The film stars Richard Carlson as David Reed and Richard Denning as Mark Williams. The two men who invade The Gill Man’s quiet life and argue about what should be done with the subject of their research findings, to exploit, or study, or bring back to the states to gain notoriety and get paid lots of clams!, without an ethical thought in their curly scientific brains, forcing themselves on the creature and making him an object of entrapment & exhibition.

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“I think I love you so what am I so afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for I think I love you isn’t that what life is made of? Though it worries me to say that I’ve never felt this way”— Insert music from The Partridge Family –
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“There’s just something about an Aqua Velva Gill Man!”

The Gill Man watches from below the surface, as Kay Lawrence casually smokes a cigarette, taking long sensual puffs and throwing the butts upon the lagoon like trinkets for him to worship. He feels compelled to reach out for her but decides to be a voyeur for a bit longer.

Later the Gill Man sees Kay on the beach, the camera catches a notable deep sigh when he lays those deep green eyes on her. He moves closer. She lets out the obligatory monster movie scream queen shriek, that siren squeal, you know the kind, with the carefully place hands cupping the face in shock.

One of the men from the expedition takes a machete and tries to attack the creature, and he gets killed for his efforts. Dave and Mark hear Kay scream and approach just in time for the knock out powder they’ve placed in the lagoon to finally take effect and subdue the creature who is now out cold. He falls flat on his green gilled face down in the sand.

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Kay passes out. the Gill Man places her down gently on the sand...
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Mark (Richard Denning) can’t wait to beat the fish guts out of the creature!

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David (Carslon) has to intervene before Mark (Denning) bashes the creatures head in “Stop you’ll kill him!…”

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Once Williams (Denning) sees that the Gill Man has fallen down, he says “Got him!” then begins brutally smashing at him with his rifle, until David (Carlson) tells him to stop before he kills him. They throw a net over the unconscious creature. The scene shows the level of ferocity that man is capable of, and with this violent over-kill we on the other side of the evolutionary scale become monsters as well. It is a not so subtle contrast with the main character who is considered the ‘creature.’

Ricou Browning portrayed the creature in the under water scenes, and Ben Chapman played the creature on land. There’s wonderfully engaging cinematography by William E. Snyder. (Flying Leathernecks 1951, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 1956)

The Gill Man has dwelt in the warm existential depths of the water… the lagoon his endless cycle of existence, thriving until he is invaded by scientific hubris. While in the lagoon he is connected to the creator of his world, remaining bound to a body of water that is symbolic of the eternal maternal womb. He is then forced out of his quiet habitual life where he then becomes ‘otherized’. With an ‘Outsider’ narrative the familiar then becomes monstrous.

Our perceptions are focused on how this ‘creature’ shatters the mold of normalcy. He transforms the ordinary world into something provocative and forces the outside world to define him, once again as with Frankenstein’s monster, he is perceived as a thing… a creature.

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A film like Creature from the Black Lagoon can suggest to us the recognition of our notions of conventional sexuality and gender as well. The Gill Man is similar to a frog yet has walks upright and has the stance of a man and possesses that archetypal ogling that shows he has sexual designs on our heroine Kay.

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Kay Lawrence: “And I thought the Mississippi was something.”

While he is placed in a role that sees Kay as the ‘object’ of his affection, he’s sort of an androgynous amphibian, and yet he suggests that  “alternatives can exist which may be more desirable”-Mark Jancovich Rational Fears American Horror in the 1950s. Jancovich goes on to say that the film is “unremittingly sexual” The film has sexual symbolism throughout, as the outside world intrudes on an ambiguous sexual being living in the womb of the water, now unleashed as a sexual peril to women. The water scenes between the water ballet swimming Kay unaware that the creature is also swimming very near to her–are absolutely visual foreplay.

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Sweaty men baring their chests, wielding shot guns and Phallic harpoons as much as possible.

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Need I say more???

The most significant scene of the film is when The Gill Man swims a slight distance away from Kay, under the murky lagoon while Kay unaware, simultaneously moves through the water embracing it’s import with pleasure and liberation. She whirls above him, barely hinting at an erotic intimacy between the two.

Under the water the creature is not a threat to Kay, he’s almost shy, as he barely touches her leg, he swims away as if he’s conflicted with uncertainty about this new experience. William E Snyder is responsible for the striking underwater footage, that creates an erotic spacial world of shimmering light.

It’s almost a type of Eden, that those pesky aggressive scientific males spoil…

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We know that the creature shows a fascination toward Kay, but she sort of shares a kind of bond with him, as both are threatened by the domination of the two male scientists Mark and David. She tells the men to leave the creature alone, that it won’t bother them. Mark wants to capture the creature as proof of his discovery, rather than just study him in his own habitat. Mark also wants to possess Kay, both of them are treated as ‘objects’. There are several scenes where Kay and the creature stare at each other as if they see something in common within themselves. Harry Essex wrote the screenplay, hated the script at first so he added the Beauty and the Beast theme, to give the creature more of a sense of humanity.

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The Creature from the Black Lagoon is relentlessly sexual. Inhabited by mostly male characters, scientists who have traveled to the deep Amazon in search of undiscovered animal life. What they find instead of more fossils is the Gill Man who refuses to give up his freedom. And why shouldn’t the creature react violently to their intrusion into his quiet domain. What’s more interesting is how he quickly becomes attracted to the gorgeous Julie Adams and her gutsy character Kay, the only female on the expedition who once again looks smashing in a one piece white bathing suit and swims like she’s in the water follies. Jancovich quotes Biskind from his Seeing is Believing – claiming that the creature is “driven into a frenzy by the proximity of Julie Adams in a one piece bathing suit.” Sounds about right to me!

The Gill Man evokes our sympathy who has become an ‘object’ to be controlled, dominated and assaulted by the outside world. It’s the ‘men doing science’ who become the ‘aliens’ the bad guys, the human monsters and the creature another existential anti-hero who we identify with. It’s just a different slant on the theme of unrequited love in the the lagoon…

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Continue reading “THE BEACH PARTY BLOGATHON- CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) & Night Tide (1961) : Gills-A LOVE STORY!!!”

A Trailer a day keeps the Boogeyman away! – The Haunted Palace (1963)

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In honor of the upcoming Chaney Blogathon

I thought it appropriate to offer you this peek into Roger Corman’s slant on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”,using an Edgar Allan Poe title…Starring Vincent Price and… screenplay by Charles Beaumont!

Co-staring our very special man of the month Lon Chaney Jr. as Simon Orne.

“Carrying on a family tradition of masterful motion picture horror!”

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Photo courtesy of Wrong Side of the Art Lon Chaney Jr with Vincent Price in The Haunted Palace 1963

THE HAUNTED PALACE 1963

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Haunting you all month- MonsterGirl

EDGAR G.ULMER’S: THE BLACK CAT (1934) “ARE WE BOTH NOT… THE LIVING DEAD?”

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“The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.”

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THE BLACK CAT (1934)

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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 by Edgar G. Ulmer and written for the screen by Ulmer and Peter 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.

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Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi
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Boris Karloff in Jame’s Whales Frankenstein 1931

With the success that Universal Studios garnered from Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1931 starring Hungarian born actor Bela Lugosi, and the equally sensational popularity of Mary Shelley’s adapted Frankenstein 1931 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’s The 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).

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Edgar Allan Poe

Although The Black Cat 1934 claims in it’s opening credits that the film is ‘suggested’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s story 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-Paul Sartre‘s ‘No Exit’ or a Kafka-esque fantasy of entrapment, with a mood set forth of futility and hopelessness. It also represents a cultural aesthetic that was emblematic of WW1.

Ulmers The Black Cat is melancholy poetry that articulates its substance within a half-light dream world. There are overcast clouds of menace, with modern Gothic gloom and impenetrable dark spaces. A wasteland of lost hope, it is a land of the dead.

Karloff is driven by his profane lust and twisted faith and and Bela is a ghost of man n a deadly excursion into vengeful rage.

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“Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.”-Werdegast

Poelzig and his women in death

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‘the beast’ or the wickedest man in the world Aleister Crowley

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 autobiography Laughing 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 which emerged 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.

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Roger Corman directs Peter Lorre in Tales of Terror 1962

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 classic Detour 1945, and the wonderfully lyrical science fiction fantasy The Man From Planet X 1951).

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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.

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On the set of The Black Cat
Boris and Bela in Edgar Ulmers The Black Cat
Boris and Bela on the set of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat

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.

Edgar Ulmer in the directors seat

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Edgar G. Ulmer

The Strange Woman poster

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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.

Boris and Bela on the staircase

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.

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Boris High Priest

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Poelzig down the spiral stairs

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 asGrand 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.

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Boris Karloff as the imposing Hjalmar Poelzig

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.

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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.

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Poelzig’s women in glass cases preserved. The imagery is reminiscent of Poe’s fixation with death and beauty, and the conflation of the two

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.

Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem Prague Jew
Prague Jew Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem
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Paul Wegener in the adaptation of Czech writer Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem

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.

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Vitus Werdegast– “I can still sense death in the air.”

“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.

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The Expressionist Caligarism was started 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.

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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.

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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 plays Haljmar 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.

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Boris and Bela in a high stakes chess match, a game of death

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.’

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Vitus Werdegast -“So you are going to Visegrad”
Peter Allison- “Yes to (sounds like) Gaermbish by bus.”
Vitus Werdegast– “Gaermbish is very beautiful, I too am going very near there.”
Peter Allison– “for sport?”
Vitus Werdegast (raising his eyebrows, looking down and speaking more to himself) perhaps… I go to visit an ‘old friend'” (spoken with a dark unpinning of hatred)

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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.

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Vitus Werdegast- “I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago I left a girl, so like your lovely wife… To go to war. Kaiser and country you know… (serious look, deeper inflection) She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? (Peter quietly nods ‘no’) It is a prison below Amsk. Many men have gone there… Few have returned. (taking in a deep breath) I have returned. After fifteen years… I have returned.”

Out in the rain let's share a ride

On their way

Bus Crash

In a premonitory monologue the driver had spoke of ancient malevolence in Marmorus during the years of the war. “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded… the little river below was swollen, a red raging torrent of blood”

Joan injured in crash

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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…” 

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Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig who indulged in the magical arts and believed that buildings had a soul…

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.

Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig

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.

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Murnau’s Faust (1926)

DEVILS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION IN CLASSICAL FILM

Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Dante's Inferno
Dante’s Inferno

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’s The Golem 1914 Thomas Edison’s The Magic Skin 1915, The Black Crook 1916, The Devil’s Toy 1916,The Devil’s Bondswoman 1916, Conscience 1917, Murnau’s Satanas 1919, Der Golem 1920,The Devil Worshipper 1920, Dreyer’s Leaves 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.

Dante's Inferno devil
Dante’s Inferno 1911
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Director F.W. Murnau’s expressionist extravaganza Faust 1926

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’s Carnival 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.

Devil and Daniel copy
director William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
The 7th Victim Lewton
The 7th Victim (1943) a shadow play about a devil cult by Val Lewton
Queen of Spades
Thorold Dickinson’s story about a pact with the devil  The Queen of Spades 1949

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Black Cat Lobby Card

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.

Manning, Karloff and Bela

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Poelzig enters Peters room

"Next time I go to Niagra Falls"
“Next time I go to Niagra Falls”

karloff and lugosi at the desk

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