The Black Cat (1941)
the black cat | albert s. rogell | robert lees | frederic i. rinaldo | eric taylor | robert neville | basil rathbone | hugh herbert | broderick crawford | based on | short story | edgar allan poe | adventure | comedy | crime | mystery | romance | bela lugosi | universal
Film: The Black Cat
Director: Albert S. Rogell
Writer: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Eric Taylor and Robert Neville
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert and Broderick Crawford
This was a movie that I had gotten confused with the 1934 version. It is interesting as this and the other version are two different types of movies using the same title. I do believe both are Universal films to complicate it more. Due to similar titles, I did have a bit of an issue finding this, but I just picked up the Blu-Ray set with 3 other lesser-known Universal titles. To get into this movie here, the synopsis is elderly Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus) lives in an isolated mansion with her housekeeper and beloved cats. As her health fails, her greedy relatives gather in anticipation of her death.
We start this movie off hearing a somber piano song being played by Richard Hartley (Alan Ladd). He is asked to stop by his father of Montague (Basil Rathbone). Everyone here is impatient and the reason is horrible. They are all slated to be in the will of Henrietta who as the synopsis states, is on her deathbed. Also there is Monty’s wife of Myrna (Gladys Cooper). I believe Henrietta’s niece by the name of Elaine Winslow (Anne Gwynne). There is also Margaret Gordon (Claire Dodd) and Stanley Borden (John Eldredge).
Catching wind of her potentially passing brings A. Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford) who wants to sell the house. He is bringing with him Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert) to look at the antiques to get an idea of what they could be sold for. They arrive at the gate and meet Eduardo Vidos (Bela Lugosi). He is the groundskeeper and he informs the two that he cannot admit their car through the gate. After one of her cats was hit, Henrietta refuses to let cars through. They come in through a gate instead.
Also here is Abigail Doone (Gale Sondergaard). She is the maid and is quite close to Henrietta. When the doctor emerges, everyone believes it is news that she has passed. It is quite different though. She seems to have recovered. This sassy, elderly woman decides to go through the will, announcing to everyone what they are being left. Some of them are disappointed in how small they are left compared to their relatives, aside from Elaine who is getting the house, the lands and the balance of the money. There is more to this will though. Gilmore and Mr. Penny interrupt before she reveals that no one receives anything until after all of the cats and Abigail passes away.
Things then turn sinister when Mrs. Winslow is murdered in her crematorium. She was superstition and a black cat is found in the room with her. Gilmore is convinced it is murder while everyone else disagrees. He is in love with Elaine and she is bothered that he accuses her family of the horrible deed despite her knowing how they are. Gilmore tries to prove what he is saying is true. This leads them to discover secret passageways and someone trying to get Mrs. Winslow’s will.
That is where I’m going to leave my recap of this movie. That really gets you a bit more in-depth of what we are getting here. This is your typical old dark house/murder mystery type film. What I did find to be interesting is that they legit killed Henrietta. The person that behind all of this is ruthless. Something I found interesting in my journey through cinema is the fact that I can see when the Italians started to incorporate these into giallo films; we are getting that murder mystery aspect. It is just lacking the brutality or the sleaze you would get later though.
The mystery is something that I want to delve a bit more into here. We are given this group of people and all of them have a solid motive to kill Henrietta. Everyone is jealous of Elaine since the bulk of the estate is going to her. She even has a motive when we learn that Abigail and the cats are technically pushing her out for the inheritance. Monty has money troubles and although he is getting a sizable amount, he is still looking for more. Myrna is struggling that her husband could be leaving her, despite being left one hundred grand. Margaret and Stanley are both getting a sizable amount. Richard is getting less, which gives him a reason. Heck, there is even Gilmore knows that as long as Henrietta lives, he cannot sell the house and get his commission. I thought all these red herrings worked as I didn’t figure it out until the reveal.
What didn’t really work for me was the comedy. I’m assuming this was added or at least included due to the success of Abbott and Costello films and like The Ghost Breakers. Mr. Penny is just here for that. I think he has good comedic timing and he acts like Mr. Magoo to me. I’m sure it will land with some people, but it didn’t add much for me overall. I felt this was made more of a focus where I prefer a bit darker of a tone. I do know this is also partially due to the censors of the era, I’m sure.
The last little bit would be basing this off of the Edgar Allan Poe short story. It really isn’t outside of the fact that black cats are supposed to be bad luck. This movie is claiming that if a black cat is following you, then you are the next to die. I did like when this is used to spook characters, but that is about the extent of what it is borrowing from the short story. If memory serves, that one is more about a cat tormenting the main character where we don’t get much of that. I bet it is there to get people to see the movie with name recognition.
I think then I should shift over to the acting. I thought that Rathbone brings an interesting bit of arrogance to the character of Monty. Herbert as I said adds some comedy as Mr. Penny. I like Crawford as this man who knows something is up, but he’s made out to look unreliable. He continues to push the envelope. He’s really the star here. I like the minor role for Lugosi. I think they’re playing with the fact that he’s been a villain before and it worked. Gwynne was attractive and I like that early we are introduced that she is selfish. That helps with making me not trust her despite Gilmore wanting to. Cooper is solid as this older woman with nerves that are shot as Myrna. Sondergaard was solid as this uptight maid. I like the sassiness from Loftus. I’d say the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed. I also enjoyed seeing all the cats.
Then really the last thing to go into would be the setting, cinematography and the soundtrack. If you know me, I’m a big fan of the old dark house films. We have secret passages that allow who are killer is to hide. There is a lot of room here and makes it difficult to figure out who is behind things. The cinematography gives it character which works. I thought the musical selections fit. The sound design did as well with making it feel like it is storming out. I could also tell the cat yowling was done by a human, but it was fine.
So then in conclusion here, this movie is a solid lesser-known Universal film. It isn’t necessarily doing anything new. We have a really good setting in this old dark mansion and I like that this one is a bit more horrific than some I’ve seen in the past. The acting is solid to bring these characters to life. I would say the music and the sound design are also fine to build the overall atmosphere. I don’t necessarily think the comedy works all that well and it really isn’t following that much of the Poe short story. This is still worth a viewing if you want to see an early film that would lead into the giallo sub-genre. Overall, I would say this is an above average movie, just lacking going much higher than that.
My Rating: 7 out of 10