THE RAVEN (1935) August 13th 1977 23.05-00.05
THE BLACK CAT (1934) August 14th 1977 00.05-01.10
‘Come, are we men, or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me?…Are we not both the living dead? For now you come to me, playing at being the avenging angel…childishly thirsting for blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.’
Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)
‘Death is my talisman. The one indestructible force. The one certain thing in an uncertain universe. Death.’
Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi)
Perfection. It’s a slippery and difficult concept, isn’t it? Such an elusive, even absurd, idea – something that can never be anything other than an unattainable dream in this too too sullied world of ours. As Woody Allen has it, ‘if even one guy is starving somewhere it puts a crimp in my whole evening’. We know it’s impossible, we know that life is compromise, is compromised, is compromising. And yet it nags at us. We just can’t quite let go of that pale and insubstantial shadow. Perfection. We dream of it, we search vainly for it, all the time knowing that we’re tilting at windmills. But at least in our daydreams, and our most secret wishes, we tilt anyway.
Interestingly, it’s through the secret alchemy of combination that we dream most potently that such elusive, impossible perfection might be found. We dream that it can be found in that one other person. Mr Right, the soulmate, the impossible girl.
In the good old days when compilation tapes were a key component in any self-respecting sensitive young soul’s weaponry of mass seduction we all understood the magic of combination so much better. Is it possible to achieve the same effect with iTunes Playlists, do you think? I doubt it. The mechanism’s too easy; it doesn’t speak of nights spent diligently recording and sequencing to achieve the perfect result, which couldn’t then be shuffled into a new state of being with the tap of a finger on a touchscreen. There was nothing random about it, not in the long hours spent agonising over exactly which tracks most perfectly represented your heart’s truth, and even less so in the even more difficult task of establishing the perfect running order.
Combination, again, you see. The segue from shoegazing introspection, to upbeat but heartfelt, to wittily ironic, taking tone and tempo, lyric, and first and last chords into the reckoning. Every element was crucial. The inexplicably magical combination that would make the tape that little bit more than the sum of its parts, and would allow your scratchy C60 to transcend the temporal and touch the hem of the eternal. The slightest misstep and the compilation tape crashes and burns, its power mysteriously dispelled in an instant of Neil Young slipping awkwardly into Everything But the Girl. It was always impossible of course – the perfect compilation tape has never been made, any more than the perfect life has ever been lived, or any more than anyone ever slept with me because of my impeccable taste in music anyway.
Even so, the double bill of the 13th August that offered the magical combination of The Raven and The Black Cat represents this for me; a shimmering single vision of perfection. A strange kind of Platonic ideal, glimpsed not in shadows on the cave wall, but in black and white flickering ghosts on a little screen in the corner of a small living room in a Norwich suburb. At the risk of sounding even more like a candidate for Pseuds Corner than I usually do, there is something that approaches the divine for me in watching these two beautiful films together, the magic wonder of combination making my experience of this double bill about as close to spiritual experience as I’m willing to admit to. And so I’d like, if I may, to talk about these two films together rather than one at a time, because in some strange way that’s how I’ve always thought of them, not as separate entities, despite their entirely unconnected and distinct characters and plots, but somehow mystically conjoined into a single whole, like Fish‘n’Chips.
Perhaps this is even stranger since this double bill represented a departure from BBC2’s typical – and wonderfully effective – combination of an old one and a new one. The Black Cat and The Raven were made only a year or so apart, and although 30s Universals both, neither is typical of the Universal cycle in that there is no supernatural monster (despite Karloff’s bizarre appearance in The Black Cat and heavy makeup job in The Raven). Wonderful horror movies though they are, neither is a Universal Monster movie in the vein of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy or The Wolf Man or any of the proliferation of sequels to the great originals.
The Raven tells the story of Richard Vollin, a brilliant doctor, with a morbid fixation on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. His surgical genius saves the life of a beautiful young woman, played by Irene Ware, and upon her recovery, she becomes mildly infatuated with Vollin, while he develops a madly intense erotic obsession with her. Her starchily conventional father and her fiancé stand in the way of the relationship however, and denied the chance to fulfil his love, a crazed Vollin uses his Poe-inspired torture chamber to wreak revenge on those who thwarted him.
The Black Cat centres on a young honeymoon couple who become embroiled in the conflict between Vitus Werdegast, a prisoner of war recently returned to seek revenge on Hjalmar Poelzig, the man who betrayed him to the enemy, stole his wife and daughter and also happens to be the leader of a satanic cult.
There is nothing to connect them really, except for the almost entirely spurious connection to Poe in their titles, a certain shared morbidity, and, crucially, their casting. Both films were designed as vehicles for Universal to pair Karloff with Lugosi, thus enabling lots of promotional ballyhoo along the lines of ‘The screen’s twin titans of terror – together!’, or ‘Karloff the uncanny and Bela ‘Dracula’ Lugosi – twice the chills!’
And for once, the ballyhoo was expressing an extraordinary truth. The combination is magical. The films shown together as a double bill combine into something greater than the two component parts, and so too do Boris and Bela themselves.
Both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had perfectly acceptable solo careers in the silent cinema, and when they were pressured into forming a double act, it was Stan alone who took artistic control of their films, while Ollie simply turned up, did the job, and went home. For all that, however, it is the indefinable joy of the two of them together, in combination, which lifts the experience of watching their films beyond the everyday and into a realm very close to perfection. Just as is the case with Morecambe and Wise, the only comedy double act worthy of mentioning in the same paragraph as Stan and Ollie. And just as it is with Boris and Bela. Something inexplicable happens to me when they are joined on screen.
I don’t believe in God, but He’s there, if He’s anywhere, in those moments of ineffable wonder when something adds up to more than the sum of its parts, opens a door, however briefly, on the transcendent, and points us, however uncertainly, towards a world which is better and cleaner and purer than the one we’re stuck with most of the time.
Setting aside the chance to see the face of God though (because that might conceivably be just me), what TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven does undeniably offer is the chance to see the first pairings of the two great horror stars of the golden age, and the only collaborations which were on equal terms at a time when each was at the height of their powers.
There were many later outings for the deadly duo, admittedly. The Invisible Ray in 1936 is a terrific film, but it’s a Karloff vehicle with Lugosi – very effectively, and sympathetically – heading up the supporting cast. The same was planned for Son of Frankenstein, but in the end it’s Lugosi’s film, with Karloff’s Monster playing second fiddle – although, Karloff being Karloff, he plays second fiddle like Stephane Grappelli.
Considerably less distinguished than either is 1940’s Black Friday, planned as another more or less equal match before being scuppered when Karloff got the collywobbles, rejected the dual role written for him and was given Lugosi’s mad scientist part instead, with the relatively unknown Stanley Ridges being drafted in to play the Jekyll and Hyde lead and Lugosi bumped into a meaningless supporting turn.
A much, much better film – and the couple’s final pairing – was Val Lewton’s 1945 The Body Snatcher, directed by Robert Wise. By this time, however, Karloff was unquestionably the star, and Lugosi, on whom age, alcohol, and a temporary separation from his wife Lillian were taking a visible and heavy toll, is given not much more than a cameo – although you wouldn’t have known it from the RKO promotional campaign. The front office knew Lugosi could still be a draw, particularly alongside his old rival.
By contrast there is a delightful fairness about the two films in this double bill. The gleeful perversity Karloff brings to the characterisation of Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat is so brilliant and bizarre that most observers would agree with me that he takes the film on points, although the justified riposte is that the tormented yet heroic role of Werdegast allows Lugosi to show some of the range he was rarely given the chance to display. The Raven provides the perfect counterbalance, however, showing a dominant Lugosi at his bravura best, which is perhaps another reason I can only think of the films together. Lugosi’s brooding Vollin is a tour de force from the outset, and he barnstorms his way through the increasing hysteria of the later scenes with a maniacal delight that Karloff’s more subdued Bateman offsets very effectively.
Even in my own private preferences I find it impossible to separate the two films. I love The Black Cat for its wonderfully expressionist set design, effortlessly demonstrating the peculiarly Gothic heart beating beneath its ultra-modernist Bauhaus; I love The Raven for its brooding, morbid Romanticism. I love The Raven for the intensity and commitment that it lends – through the screenplay and Lugosi’s performance – to the portrait of the ‘tortured genius’; I love The Black Cat for the sly perversity Ulmer’s inspired direction and Karloff’s knowing performance sneaks spectacularly past the censors. I love The Black Cat for the bleak pessimism of its moral vision, revealing profoundly that both the virtuous Lugosi and the corrupt Karloff are equally trapped and doomed, both, as Poelzig puts it, ‘the living dead’; I love The Raven for the dualism of its moral structure, as Lugosi’s initially sympathetic Vollin slides into damnation and Karloff’s truly monstrous Bateman finds redemption at the last. I love them both for their wonderfully atmospheric lighting, literate screenplays and for the uniformly excellent performances.
All wrapped up together, it makes the experience of watching them both – as I always have to – a blissful and a beautiful thing, and for all their darkness and morbidity the films make me profoundly happy.
I’m led to the question of where and when I’ve been happiest, apart from when watching TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven on the 13th of August 1977. If you ask people that question, more often than not they will tend to tell you a particular period of their lives. I was happiest at school, or in my university years, or when I was working at such and such, or when me and so and so were together. I think they’re missing the point. By definition, perfect happiness is a matter of isolated moments, of single instants. It simply cannot be sustained across any length of time, no matter how positive your general circumstances might be. The ordinary and the mundane have to intrude, as certain as breathing. It’s not happiness you’re talking about – it’s contentment maybe, or wellbeing, but that’s just not the same thing.
So for me I was happiest one day sitting alone on the upper deck of a bus between the Irish coastal towns of Portrush and Portstewart, a copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce in my hands, while the sun danced and sparkled on the waves, and again as the sun danced on the water across the Dorsodouro, it seeming a matter of the most perfect joy that the light should arrange itself just so, and once more that moment in 96 as Gascgoine flipped that ball up and over Colin Hendrie’s head and volleyed a sublime finish in the Wembley sunshine, and again as I bellowed the words ‘Now I’m your old man, and you are my missus’ from behind my Dylancirca66 Rae-Bans and hit the chords at the end of Greetings to the New Brunette on my Burns Steer, bathed in sunlight on my wedding day.
And what is it that these fleeting moments have in common? Freedom. Complete personal determination. A sense that, at that exact moment, my life was fully and entirely my own, owing nothing to anybody. I could step off that Portstewart bus and go – anywhere. Nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do – the choice was my own. The dancing Venetian sunlight carried me momentarily to a place beyond circumstance, beyond mortality, beyond the passage of time. And Paul Gascgoine, just briefly, lifted me outside the cares of the world, outside my job or my not entirely happy relationship of the time, and I stood uplifted in the middle of a screaming pub, drenched in the beer of a hundred similarly and suddenly uplifted pint-clasping hands, and for a few seconds was allowed a glimpse into a better and a truer world. I was, in those moments, my own sovereign self, and life was one limitless opportunity.
But have you spotted the odd one out? A wedding is about any number of things, and mine was an expression of perfect joy, but whatever else it may be, a wedding is not a declaration of freedom or of owing nothing to anybody. Those perfect, absolutely unsullied moments belong to an altogether different phase of life, before every moment, whatever kind of gift it may be, comes bundled up in responsibility and worry and commitment.
There’s a moment in Anne Tyler’s beautiful bittersweet novel The Accidental Tourist which sums it up so much more eloquently than I could ever manage that I’d like to cop out and offer you her words rather than my own. Following the death of his child, the end of his marriage and his own desperate attempt to find safety in emotional isolation, Tyler’s hero, Macon Leary, rescues a small boy he has become somehow responsible for from a group of bullies and begins to find himself, almost against his will, reconnecting with life and the world.
But when they started walking again, he slipped his hand into Macon’s.
Those cool little fingers were so distinct, so particular, so full of character. Macon tightened his grip and felt a pleasant kind of sorrow sweeping through him. Oh, his life had regained all its old perils. He was forced to worry once again about nuclear war and the future of the planet. He often had the same guilty, secret thought that had come to him after Ethan was born: From this time on I can never be completely happy.
Not that he was before, of course.
Maybe that, in the end, is why perfect happiness is not what defines our lives. Not because happiness is an ideal we can never reach, but because life – compromised, compromising life – with all its fears and failures and responsibilities, is so much better than perfection. So I’ll never be completely happy again? Good. I’ll mix my freedom with love and commitment and terror and laundry and washing up, and through that combination (as surely as Boris and Bela and TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven) I’ll get as close to fulfilment as I can ever touch.
Perfection is just a shadow on the wall. I’ll take flesh and blood any day. TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven has plenty of shadows and walls, and plenty of flesh and blood.
That’ll do for me, in the end.