Albert S. Rogell, 1941
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Alan Ladd, Hugh Herbert, Bela Lugosi
Much maligned in comparison with Edgar G. Ulmer’s Karloff-Lugosi vehicle The Black Cat (1934), easily one of the best horror films of the ‘30s, the 1941 Black Cat is more of a spooky murder mystery than a horror film. As with the 1934 film, both versions only borrowed the title and the inclusion of a few felines from Edgar Allen Poe. Otherwise neither version has anything to do with Poe’s story.
A crazy, rich, old cat lady, Henrietta Winslow, is surrounded by her family members while on her death bed. All of them are anxious to learn the contents of her will. When her health suddenly takes a turn for the better, someone does away with her. Unfortunately her will stipulates that while her housekeepers lives and remains to take care of the cats, none of the money will go to her greedy family. This results in more murders, a number of secrets, a twist ending, and, as you can imagine, a pretty convoluted plot.
Basil Rathbone, Alan Ladd, and Bela Lugosi should be the star power in this film, but really only have supporting roles here and are all criminally underused. This is yet another example of Lugosi being relegated to side roles by Universal later in his career. Rathbone is charming when he is on screen and there’s a nice joke about how his character thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. This is a reference to Rathbone’s signature role, which he began playing around this time. He would go on to play Sherlock Holmes in 14 films for Universal. Amusingly, he was also in Tales of Terror, a Roger Corman-directed Poe anthology film with yet another Black Cat segment. Gladys Cooper (Rebecca) plays his wife.
Broderick Crawford, the real estate agent, and Hugh Herbert, the antique dealer, are the biggest stars of the film, though unfortunately much of their screen time is wasted on some ineffective comedy that seems to be an attempt to copy Bob Hope’s The Cat Creeps. Lugosi’s female counterpoint is Gale Sondergaard (The Cat and the Canary, The Invisible Man’s Revenge) as the surly housekeeper. The screenwriters, Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo, would go on to write the much funnier Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and Hold That Ghost. It’s a shame the comedy falls flat most of the time in The Black Cat.
As I said, this is more of a murder mystery than a horror film, much in the same vein as The Cat and the Canary, The Bat, and The Old Dark House, with similar moments of comedy. There are some genuinely spooky moments, wonderful set pieces, and some very atmospheric cinematography courtesy of Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter), replete with cats, secret passageways, stormy nights, and the shadowy mansion. Despite Cortez's typically wonderful work, overall this is a pretty dull affair and will only interest fans of classic mystery films or Lugosi completists. You can find it as part of the Universal Horror: Classic Archive set along with Man Made Monster, Horror Island, Night Monster, and Captive Wild Woman.