Friday, November 30, 2007

The Black Cat (1941)

Many horror film fans are dismissive of “The Black Cat” (1941) and it’s easy to see why. It’s not a horror film, but more of a mystery/comedy thriller with an emphasis on comedy. The fact that the comedy is provided by Hugh Herbert grates on a lot of people. Bela Lugosi is wasted in a red herring role as a gardener, and star Basil Rathbone isn’t given much to do. Plus it shares the same title with a 1934 horror epic starring Lugosi and Boris Karloff, which is one of the highest regarded and best loved films in the Universal horror canon.

But I enjoyed “The Black Cat” for several reasons. For one, I’m a sucker for old dark house mysteries where a group of characters gathers at a mansion for a reading of the will. So the fact that it’s a mystery movie rather than a horror film doesn’t bother me. There’s still enough rainstorms, secret passages to explore (by candlelight, naturally) and corpses falling out of closet doors to keep one entertained.

What I liked most about the film is the cinematography. Man, this is one beautiful looking film, and no wonder. The film was photographed by Stanley Cortez, who also shot “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) and “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), which boasts some of the most beautifully atmospheric black and white photography of all time.

“The Black Cat” may be a “B” mystery drama, but it’s a beautiful film to look at. A scene where a character catches fire and runs screaming through the corridors makes a fine impression, as do scenes of the murderer toting a body through the shadow-drenched hallways.

I like a lot of the cast members. True, Rathbone seems unengaged throughout and Lugosi is wasted, but there are other compensations. I’ve always liked Broderick Crawford, Gale Sondergaard is on hand as, what else, a housekeeper. There’s also Gladys Cooper (one year before her immortal mother from Hell role in “Now, Voyager”), Alan Ladd (one year before he hit big time stardom in “This Gun for Hire”), Anne Gwynne (one of the prettiest and most appealing of 1940s Universal starlets) and Claire Dodd (one of the prettiest and most personable of 1930s actresses.) That’s a very likeable cast. And then there’s Hugh Herbert.
Now, I like Hugh Herbert a lot, so seeing him is always a treat for me. (This is not a commonly held opinion by most people.) For definitive Herbert performances check out his work – comedic gems of the highest order – in the Busby Berkeley musicals “Dames” (1934) (as eccentric millionaire Ezra Ounce, driving family members crazy with his desire for his “medicine” Dr. Silver’s Golden Elixir) and in “Gold Diggers of 1935” (an eccentric millionaire again, this time T. Mosley Thorpe III, an avid collector of snuff boxes). If you don’t like Herbert in these films, you won’t like him in anything. He drives a lot of people nuts. Me, I find him very funny.

“The Black Cat” only runs 71 minutes. It’s no great shakes, but a more than agreeable viewing experience, especially with that cast and that gorgeous black and white photography on display.

Rating for “The Black Cat”: Two and a half stars.

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