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Monday, April 01, 2024

Poe, Are You Avenged?


Among the One-Hundred: The Black Cat and Other Poetics

Ask anyone to recall who was the first nineteenth-century author to come to their attention and I bet most would answer Edgar Allan Poe. That certainly was the case for me. “Poe” as product promised the best, whether it be The Haunted Palace or The Masque of the Red Death at the theatre, or The Black Cat and The Raven on television at home. The fact few were strict adaptations would not matter, each having pledged to “capture the spirit of Poe,” all benefiting from pedigree the long-deceased author suggested. I seldom heard of Poe at school and have no memory of being taught him. Readings indicate the academic community ignored Poe and perhaps still do. He has apparently had more civilian admirers than professorial ones. Given choice as to one's own written legacy, wouldn’t most want the same? Seems Poe touches deepest those who seek literature not for its being endorsed by appointed authorities, but by making meaning for millions who have identified not just with Poe stories and poems, but with Poe himself. Doctor Who did a fantasy episode where Van Gogh somehow transports to the present day and is assured that he was and remains the greatest artist who ever lived. What if Edgar Allan Poe came back? Think how fans would seek him out to rain plaudits. We wish that could happen for the way this poor man suffered over a too-brief forty years (1809-1849). Not sure anyone could have helped even if they had been there and willing, as Poe was often as not his own worst enemy, and possibly that is what lures us most to him, Poe very much an “anti-author” opposing standards rigidly applied. To an era that preferred gentility, he brought kerosene. Even if Poe showed up a hundred years later, I’m not sure he would have got invites, let alone tenure, at institutions of learning.

I was drawn to Poe because he could raise the dead, gothic horror more my meat than dinosaurs or outer space. The author is, was, always, noted for scares even though most of his work went other directions. How he died (well, how did he die?) was mystery never to be solved. Darker-pitch admirers spent lives to unraveling the why, maybe the who, responsible. Mystery of Poe passing is so baffling as to suggest true deviltry at work, as in did Poe swap his soul for literary genius? Getting/watching the new Blu-ray of All That Money Can Buy started me speculating, not for a first time, if men, women too, sold themselves to Satan once upon past centuries, the more a possibility as I noted Mr. Scratch making his unholy bargain with Jabez Stone circa 1840’s, peak period of Poe, and culminating near time he exited … or was taken. Poe came across as tormented enough to barter anything for peace, or trading for capacity to pen spookier than then-spookiest stories. Suppose the devil took him for sake of a more apropoe
 curtain? Time and setting of then seems more likely for devils to be afoot and among us, but would that be less a case now? How many of us would yield without even being aware of it? Maybe reading and watching too much Edgar Allan Poe would get the job done, or binging on The Walking Dead, few realizing what damnation lays in literary, televised, or Internet wait. If any successor scribe made similar bargain, it probably was H.P. Lovecraft, his stuff sickly enough to make Poe a Dr. Suess by comparison.

Poe deliberately kept himself at distance, at least from those he didn’t much like. Don’t we all? He described one more/less enemy as “the most malignant and pertinacious of all fiends,” a libel I’d not pen on any donkey met so far in life, and how did Poe imagine his co-respondent (a hoped-for girlfriend) would know what “pertinacious” meant without at least a Google search? (for the record: “holding firmly to an opinion or course of action”). Proof again that to be educated in those days was to be really educated. Poe was handsome, at least in youth, could be charming, except to those he riled. One described his “gray, watery, and always dull eyes,” a mouth “not very well chiseled, nor very sweet,” a tongue “too large for his mouth,” with hands “singularly small, resembling bird claws,” reviews of Poe the person thus mixed, as was criticism he wrote of books, many acerbic enough to earn a host of detractors. Did the devil whisper in his ear to alienate so many as possible within forty short years? And yet lots called him “Eddy” and looked back on Poe as a right guy unfairly maligned. Movies from a silent start portrayed him as sympathetic, if tragic and doom-laden. Fox offered feature treatment that was The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, not an inapt title because he was loved, and by disparate women, including a child wife said to look like Linda Darnell (no, they didn’t say that in 1845, this merely to assert that Darnell was well cast, did her part nicely, and yes, I am a fan). Poe himself was John Shepperd, aka Shepperd Strudwick, whose only starring role this may have been. The 1944 release ran but 67 minutes, and was produced by Bryan Foy, known mostly for B’s. For quick pace over short stay Poe had, it isn’t bad. There too is a Fox-On-Demand DVD.

I have survived seeing The Black Cat for a first time by sixty years. Here is how long some of principal players lived past their own participation: Jacqueline Wells (Julie Bishop) --- 67 years, David Manners --- 64 years, and Lucille Lund --- 68 years. They lived to 87, 98, and 89, respectively. These people, for all of wisdom accumulated over combined lifetimes, must have been hard pressed to imagine what The Black Cat would come to mean to a fan base largely unborn during brief time they spent on a project likely unimportant to them in 1934. To be sought out by an admirer so many decades hence surely left each nonplussed, for weren’t there pursuits more constructive than long-ago venture now obscure? One could ask a bricklayer to reflect upon steps installed a half-century ago and get similar reaction. Might this sum up David Manners when tracked down in final inning that was nursing home pancakes and vain hope he’ll enjoy them unmolested? Lucille Lund worked also in westerns that stood tall with former boys now old men, some among these wondering too about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat one more quiver in her ten dollars per autograph bow, but imagine standing before this crowned head of cinema, never mind her part in The Black Cat being small and getting paid but pittance for performing it. Could Ms. Lund have forecast such annuity? As 2006 told, I wrote Jacqueline Wells a fan letter and she replied twelve years later. I realize now what a short time that seemed at such venerable age as hers. Ms. Wells aka Julie Bishop writing four pages to an utter stranger who revered her for The Black Cat and other things (many other things … see IMDB credits) meant little more to Jacqueline/Julie than tip for a waiter, bootblack, or fan long ago when she was active, but for me, this was a gift to keep giving with each re-watch of The Black Cat.

A complaint about Poe, at least among academics, was that his poetry did not fit convention, as in being easily taught.  Movie critics were as hard on The Black Cat. As so often a case, they laid sarcasm to what was not fully understood, let alone appreciated. Reviews from 1934 suggest The Black Cat was too good for at least its reviewing audience. Even among Universal horrors, this was an outlier. Experts say it was snuck through production while Carl Laemmle Sr. was visiting Europe, this under category of believing a thing because I want to believe it. Director Edgar Ulmer was a sort of Poe for life traveled over plenty rocks in the road. The Black Cat suffers, as do all Hollywood films, for being merchandise first, and art a distant second. Why isn’t literature in such category? They were printed and sold too, with expectation of earning revenue. Poe would exclaim to friends about a new story or poem that would finally put him over, prosperity right around a corner. That never happened in part because no sooner would writers write than others would steal. Poe ruminated over copyrights with Charles Dickens when a couple of times they met. Author ownership was also a burning topic of The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe. Was Fox editorializing on their own behalf as well as departed Poe's? The Black Cat is modern-set, though you’d hardly know it by a yarn so unearthly. Was credited story and screenplay man Peter Ruric channeling Poe when he dreamed up The Black Cat? --- because he surely “captured the spirit” as so many others would attempt/claim to do. Ruric is another of mystery figures who kept to his quill and shunned public notice, him writing hardboiled for “Black Mask” and whatever else covered rent. Edgar Ulmer kept too his own counsel. You could call The Black Cat plenty mysterioso just for these plus that most up front of enigmas, Bela Lugosi. I knew there was something wildly singular about The Black Cat from first encounter in 1964.

Poe as mad himself stoked fire come 1935 with The Raven’s Lugosi a crazed surgeon obsessed by works of he who a century past was adjudged by enemies to be nuts, or absinthe-sodden. Who but Bela to exemplify demented Poe? “Dr. Richard Vollin” is a genius at brain work, but doctor, heal thyself, as he’s over the full moon for Irene Ware after her dance in tribute to Poe, this to make anyone already insane the more so. Such was Lugosi’s dish, Karloff along as more/less brute assist. Did BK notice back seat he sat? The whole of Universal being a “toilet,” as he confided to co-player Ian Wolfe, may have resolved Karloff to let it go so long as checks cleared. “It’s more than a hobby” murmurs Vollin re torture instruments he basement-keeps, but honestly, what growing boy wouldn’t like an operating pit/pendulum to deal with insolent playmates? Vollin is to his credit a fun host, supplying an impressive tabletop horse race game to amuse guests. Did he rent that for the evening, or was it offshoot of his Poe collection? Ego-driven Vollin declares “I am a law unto myself,” which I guess all of us would like to be, him wading again into the OR despite having been years at research and away from scalpels. “A doctor is fascinated by death and pain,” he declares, and based on my own of-late medical experiences, I suspect he was onto something. Swapping flatteries with “Jean Thatcher” (Ware), Vollin jumps the gun by frankly declaring himself “a God with the taint of human emotion.” Lugosi never had such baroque dialogue. In fact, they are more like speeches one best hears in stupefied awe. Ever wrapped a debate with “I tear torture out of myself by torturing you”? Lovers Lester Matthews and Jean/Irene are locked in a room which in its entirety lowers to basement level, after which walls close in to crush trapped quarry, except here the crushee turns out to be … but why spoil it. Invest your own 61 minutes and know peerless, if not strictly Poe, joy that is The Raven.

Here was a conceit worth exploring: Edgar Allan Poe as a real-life solver of mysteries and to the rescue of maidenhood in distress. Thing is, all this might have happened. Again, we could hope for it to have happened. The Man With a Cloak was Metro dematasse to follow 1951  "A" helpings, careful application of $881K in negative costs to tell B/W story (or fact?) of Poe sensing sinister doings in a New York brownstone and his effort to see that habitants don’t poison elder Louis Calhern and dispossess visiting Leslie Caron. So why shouldn’t Poe do-good when not writing or being haunted by dipso desires and constant quest for elusive work? We like best authors who are proactive, at least those portrayed in movies. Joseph Cotten as Poe was a good pick, the star sort of revisiting his Gaslight character but also being sensitive Joe as in Portrait of Jennie, over-indulging Joe of The Third Man. Remarkable how deep was kit that finer actors drew from during the Classic Era. I believed in Cotten as “Dupin” and was pleased by last shot revealing him as Poe. Bios in fact reveal complexities enough to figure the author for infinite roles he could have played in a short life, The Man With a Cloak taking place in 1848, one year before Poe passing. Why not let him unmask perfidy and discover a lost will to put everyone’s life right? Poe pretty much invented the modern detective story, so let him be a real-life sleuth. Kindly tavern owner Jim Backus serves the stranger cuffo drinks throughout 80 minutes runtime for knowing latter's heart is in a right place, as do we … so who says Edgar Allan Poe was anything other than a stand-up hero? I like The Man With a Cloak and am sorry not enough of a 1952 public did, Cloak earning but $780K worldwide to ultimately lose $441K, this after MGM floated it, at least for Gotham engagement, as an art film. Few were fooled however, as you don’t feature Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten, and Leslie Caron in an art movie. Leo was finding out that even best-intentioned humble ones had little chance against a daily changing, if not deteriorating, marketplace.


Blogger DBenson said...

Many years ago attended a lecture by Michael Harrison, a British scholar known for "In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes" and other Sherlockania. His subject was Poe, arguing that the morbid image was largely the work of a false friend turned biographer. Harrison sometimes deployed Sherlockian reasoning, contrasting the biographer's bleak account of various moments in Poe's life to positive and even affectionate allusions to same in Poe's own writings. I found myself thinking a case could be made that Poe was trying to exorcise dark memories by bleaching them into nostalgia.

Speaking of Holmes, in "A Study in Scarlet" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had his detective prissily dismiss Poe's Dupin as "a very inferior fellow". One suspects Doyle is being playful, seeing as how he has Homes imitate Dupin's trick of reading someone's thoughts and later, in "A Scandal in Bohemia", lift (and arguably improve) Dupin's strategy in "The Purloined Letter".

Further trivium: The Fleischer brothers made a two-reel special based on "The Raven". Before you get too excited, it's titled "A Cartoon Travesty of The Raven" and, after a narrator reads the opening verse of the poem, the raven bursts in as a vacuum cleaner salesman. He encounters a former companion, a felonious fox, who accompanies him to a Scottish terrier's castle. While the raven demonstrates the vacuum's improbable functions to the thrifty scottie, the fox is in another room trying to crack a series of nested safes. It's not really bad -- just a decent gag cartoon pointlessly inflated.

5:11 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Thanks for taking the time to write another first-rate essay to go with my morning coffee. I think the first nineteenth century author I became aware of was whomever wrote the first Classics Illustrated comic book that I read. I think it may have been 'Ivanhoe'. I think the first American CI comic I read was 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'. Not sure if that came before I saw the Victor Jory 'Tom Sawyer' on TV. I know I read both multiple times and still have them down in the basement.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention The Mystery of Marie Roget, a short story Poe wrote to offer his solution to a real life who-done-it. The'42 Universal movie, THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET was one of those hidden nuggets in the original SHOCK TV package, not an unpleasant way to kill an hour.

10:48 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET was a Greenbriar topic on 10/30/2014:

1:35 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Thanks, John, for that link from (Whoa!!!) almost a decade ago. Fun stuff, and your summation of MARIE ROGET just as apt now as it was then - I revisited it just a little while ago.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

'Murders In The Rue Morgue' from 1932 is another fine film which trades on Poe's reputation; that one too has previously been discussed on GPS.

10:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer again looks back upon THE BLACK CAT (Part One):

I remember a quiet summer evening in the early seventies, sitting in the student center of that small college in North Carolina, where you had switchboard duty. As you’d anticipated, there was little activity at that time of night, nothing to interfere with our plans. In a hall near the switchboard, you set up your 16 mm projector and a portable screen to show your latest acquisition, a print of Edgar J. Ulmer’s “The Black Cat.” I was entranced by it from the beginning, with its story of a young couple going on a journey which moment by moment became darker and more malign. Between reel changes, we talked about the film with increasing excitement. Afterwards, I assured you that it was one of the most remarkable films I’d ever seen and surely one of the great ones.

Of course, I hadn’t seen very many films to that point in my life, so my words were more than a little extravagant. I feel little need to apologize for them, however. “The Black Cat” has many of the qualities I associate with great films, from the screenplay, with its allusions to the eternal struggle between good and evil, the striking set design, the dark, chiaroscuro images which are complemented by marvelous musical transcriptions from pieces by Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, and, not least, the intensely charismatic performances of Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The theme and its execution are superb, giving the film an almost hypnotic quality and drawing us into a place vaster than our commonplace world, yet so close to it, as though we might enter through a chance occurrence, the opening of an ornate door, a moment’s inattention, some words spoken, or perhaps in our dreams.

There is a scene closing the first third of the picture which is revelatory of the theme and superb in execution. The young couple and a stranger they met on the train, a Dr. Vitus Werdegast, are guests in the house of the Engineer Poelzig. It seems that Werdegast and Poelzig had been comrades in arms during the Great War, but Poelzig had betrayed Marmorus, an Austro-Hungarian fortress, to the Russians. Werdegast had been taken prisoner along with hundreds of others. Most of them died in the brutal conditions but he survived, no doubt out of a will steeled by his desire for revenge. After his release, he hunted Poelzig, finding that his adversary had gone to America to make his fortune, not incidentally having also seduced Werdegast’s wife and taken her with him. When Poelzig returned to Austria, it was to use his new wealth to create an extraordinary house atop Marmorus itself—as Werdegast put it, “a masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction.”

6:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Dan Mercer on THE BLACK CAT:

The young couple has retired and Poelzig is leading Werdegast below, to the chart rooms and the magazines that still undermine the new house. He wants to talk and to show him strange new things about which he is unaware. The camera has assumed his point of view, circling down the iron spiral staircase and past the large glass screens on which the artillery was tracked, while a musical theme from Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major provides a melancholy, contemplative accompaniment. Karloff’s voice is heard, its tone wry and insinuating:

Come, Vitus. Are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel - childishly thirsty for my 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. But under any circumstances, we shall have to wait until these people have gone, until we are alone.

It is marvelous and, for me, one of the highlights in the history of cinema. Indeed, they will play a game of death, but not after “these people” have gone. The innocence of the young couple, especially that of the woman, will be the focal point of the game and its prize.

I’ve seen “The Black Cat” often during the ensuing years, though not so often that it has ever paled on me. I appreciate that it is not without flaws, some occasioned by the cutting and other decisions induced by a studio anxious about the more drastic cutting a censorship board might impose. This has only meant that it was made by men in a world of men. That it continues to fascinate, with each viewing revealing more than had been apparent before or striking deep resonances still welcome for their familiarity, suggests that all art draws upon a deeper reality than we know.

There is also a sense that that evening was not so long ago, so fresh does it remain in memory, as though I might yet walk out into the quiet darkness afterwards, with a morning yet to come with its promise of wonderful things.

6:40 PM  

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