It occurs to me that both in my tv and book reviews, I used the term "Le Carré-style" pretty often, so, for those of you vaguely or not at all familiar with the gentleman (and his books) in question: the New York Times, apropos the publication of his latest novel, put up very good interview plus portrait
. Choice quotes: “I know about interrogation,” he said, alluding to his days as a British spy in the 1950s. “I’ve done interrogations, and I can tell you this: By extracting information under torture, you make a fool of yourself. You obtain information that isn’t true.
And: “If I’m angry at America, I’m angry as a disenchanted romantic,” he said.
Which I think is a pretty common European phenomenon. When artaxastra
asked me about the enthusiastic Obama reception in Berlin, I replied that it struck as less being about Obama himself - who at this point has no acts affecting the rest of the world either to praise or resent - than a desperate wish to fall in love with America again. Over here, we grow up with American movies, American tv and American music. Of course we romantisize the country. Or demonize it, as the case may be, absolutely, but I think most of us start out with the romantisizing and falling in love part, and in addition to horror evoked by the policies of the Bush administration summed up with the name "Abu Ghraib", there is your everyday divorced couple type of bile and bitterness.
On to something from the past, decades ago, and as it happens the result of Europeans being in the US. On the road last week I aquired a reasonably cheap collection of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films on dvd. I have a huge soft spot for the old Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s; so much so that, for example, I never watched any of the Mummy
remakes because I'm that attached to the Boris Karloff original. One of my favourite films from that era is The Black Cat
, the first one the two horror icons of the day, Lugosi and Karloff, did together. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Poe short story it takes its name from. (To justify the title, there are a very few pointless scenes of one of the characters showing a cat phobia.) Which is true for all the films using Poe titles Universal made. The story director Edgar Ulmer and his fellow scriptwriter came up with is what we'd call today the good crack, and firmly set in the then present day. I strongly suspect Stephen Sondheim of being a fan, because the plot resembles Sweeney Todd
in not a few points: Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) having been imprisoned for fifteen years and having lost his wife and daughter to the man responsible, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), for one, Poelzig having married the lookalike daughter after having ravaged the wife in another, and then there's the way in which Werdegast takes revenge. On the other hand, the film, quite un-Sweeney-Todd-
like, sets the precedents the Rocky Horror Picture Show later would parody: clueless American couple stumbles into villain's lair (tm). Ulmer, who was Austrian, has some fun with that, but he also pokes fun at the European side of things, via the Ungarian policemen who instead of picking up on the distress and emergency situation of the Americans just pimp their respective hometowns as the only destinations worth visiting.
It's also very much a film using the first World War as an (unseen) background, with both Werdegast and Poelzig, whose backstory occured then, traumatized by it; in an early sequence, the driver picking up our hapless American couple, Werdegast and his servant mentions the battle that occured on the ground they're driving over, the senseless butchery, and the divide between the Europeans and the two Americans to whom this is just a story (whereas the rest of the people in the car lived through it) is very clear, by visual expressions alone. And then, mixed up in this type of psychological realism, you have Universal horror at its most outrageous: satanism (Poelzig reading a book on how to conduct a black mass in bed at night before switching off the light is so tongue in cheek that it has to be deliberate), expressionistic architecture, torture, and sexuality they'd never have gotten away with in the A-movies of the day, but in B-movies, censorship didn't strike as hard. This ranks from the harmless (yet then daring) like our couple kissing while lying on a bed together to the twisted (Poelzig's thing for keeping the corpse of Karen the mother around while having sex with Karen the daughter) to the insinuated (Werdegast and Poelzig's mutually obsessive relationship allows for Poelzig dropping in in what he believes to be Werdegast's bedroom in the middle of the night, whispering "we have unsettled business, Vitus", and when Werdegast finally takes his revenge on Poelzig, he strips him first. Boris Karloff clearly relishes the chance to be as un-Frankenstein's creature-as it gets as a diabolical and very verbal genius and milks such potential clunkers as lines like "do you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead" for all they're worth, making them sound genuinenly ominous instead, and Bela Lugosi, at the height of his powers, manages never to go over the top and make Werdegast the tragic and ambiguous heart of the story. Allow me a couple of detours here:
Sidenote one: some of you might know Lugosi not from his own films, but from Martin Landau's Oscar-rewarded portrayal of his last years in Ed Wood
. If you're curious, I'd recommend The Black Cat
rather than Dracula
as an introduction and an illustration of what he was like in his prime, simply because Dracula
is a very static movie, with Todd Browning basically filming a stage play, whereas Edgar Ulmer was a truly cinematic director and thus his films still hold up. Also, as I said, Lugosi delivers a rarely restrained performance here, most notable in situations where you'd expect it least (and where in other films he might have chewed the scenery till there was nothing left), such as the moment when Poelzig shows Werdegast the corpse of his late wife; Lugosi's delivery of Werdegast's reaction, the sudden childlike "but why? Why is she like this?" makes the shock and grief real in the midst of this completely insane scenario (i.e. being presented with a lovingly styled corpse, with a Bride-of-Frankenstein hair style, in a glass box, and Karloff basically whispering in his hear).
Sidenote two: one has to feel pity for David Manners, who kept being cast as the nominal hero and young male lead in a couple of Universal films either with Karloff or Lugosi or both. It's always the same role, whether he's playing it in The Mummy
(with Karloff) or Dracula
(with Lugosi), and he always gets completely overlooked in favour of the two scenery chewers. Rewatching, I realized he wasn't as bad as I recalled (his expression when watching Werdegast watching his sleeping wife, for example, is way more subtle than you'd expect instead of hamming the outraged husband bit up), and he does a reasonably good job playing the young straight man against the middleaged menace of the dynamic duo, but he still completely fades into the wallpaper in terms of audience attention.
Sidenote three: anecdote from the shooting of the film: Lugosi wasn't the only Hungarian actor around on this; several of the extras were Hungarians, too, and so they chatted in Hungarian between takes, which was when Ulmer, who was Austrian, irritated chided them: "We're in America now, people, talk German!" Incidentally, in the scene were the policemen arrive, we hear Werdegast talk a few lines in Hungarian to them, and the difference between this and Lugosi's mode of speaking in English is striking, down to a different body language.
Back to the review. As I said, don't look for Poe here. Don't look for that much logic, either (so Poelzig the genius architect who also dabbles in Satan worship build his house over the remains of the WWI fortress he betrayed because he's just crazy that way, including the leaving of WWI explosives in the basement); but do look for atmosphere and a mixture of horror tropes and contemporary issues that shouldn't work at all but does, and enjoy two icons showing just why they were icons. And while you're at it, enjoy the sly black humour. Then get out the next movie in the collection!