Saturday, October 20, 1973: The Black Cat (1934) / Dead Man’s Eyes (1943)

Synopsis: Mystery writer Peter Allison (David Manners) and his newly-minted wife Joan (Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in eastern Europe. On a train trip east, they are unexpectedly asked to share their compartment with a stranger, Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Bela Lugosi). Werdegast tells them that he had been in a Russian prison camp until recently, but now he is on his way to visit an old friend. The man seems haunted by Joan’s beauty, telling her that she reminds him of his own late wife.

At their destination, Werdegast and the Allisons agree to share a taxi. The driver entertains the newlyweds by telling them that the area they are driving past was the site of an old fortress, where 10,000 men died in a fierce battle with the Russians during the Great War. To the couple this is mildly interesting history, but Werdegast stares out the window darkly, and it is clear that for him this story is all too personal.

Suddenly part of the rain-washed road gives way and the taxi plunges down an embankment. The driver is killed in the crash, and Joan is knocked unconscious. Werdegast, his manservant and Peter take her to the modernist house built on the ruins of the old fortress.

This is the house built by Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), one of the world’s greatest architects and the man whom Werdegast has traveled so far to visit. Poelzig had once commanded the fortress the house was built upon, and it quickly becomes clear that Werdegast’s visit is not entirely a social call. During the war, Poelzig had allowed his men to be taken captive by the Russians in exchange for his own safe passage. And Poelzig had taken Werdegast’s wife Karin with him. He had told her that Werdegast had been killed so that he could marry her and raise Werdegast’s daughter as his own.

Werdegast treats Joan’s injuries, telling Peter that she will be all right after a good night’s sleep. He gives her a sedative. Peter and Werdegast are talking to Poelzig when Werdegast sees a black cat. Werdegast becomes hysterical and kills it. Poelzig explains to Peter that Werdegast has always suffered from a debilitating fear of cats.

Joan comes downstairs. She seems different than before — more somber and sharp-eyed. When Peter takes her back upstairs she kisses him hungrily. Wedegast explains that the narcotic he has given Joan is known to cause incidents of expanded perception, even second sight.

Later that night, Poelzig tells Werdegast he will take him to Karin. The two go into the lower levels of the house, which are built upon the old fortress ruins. Poelzig leads him to a glass case, where Karin is kept. Poelzig tells him that she died of pneumonia shortly after the war. But he has kept her body perfectly preserved so that he may always look upon her beauty. The child, he tells Werdegast, died about the same time.

Enraged, Werdegast draws a pistol, but Poelzig mocks him for his “childish” and “melodramatic” impulses. Realizing that this isn’t yet the proper time to exact revenge, Werdegast stands down.

Returning to his bedroom, Poelzig tells the woman lying next to him that he wants her to remain hidden from the visitors in the house. It is only then that we see the woman looks exactly like Karin — she is, in fact, Werdegast’s long-lost daughter….

Comments:  This grim tale of torment and revenge is deeply weird, as you might expect from reading the synopsis, but not so unconventional as to throw out all the requirements of Hollywood entertainment.  Karloff and Lugosi are clearly committed to each other’s destruction, and we know their story isn’t going to end happily.  So we are given a pair of American lovebirds as ostensible protagonists, with the knowledge that no matter what happens to anyone else, these two will be okay. In many ways Poelzig and Werdegast are stand-ins for the exhausted European nations that fought the Great War: they are, as Poelzig says, “the living dead”, their bodies refusing to quit long after the horrors of war have broken their souls. For all the death and destruction they have witnessed, they know there won’t really be peace until they have destroyed one another completely. David Manners’ Peter Allison introduces himself as “America’s greatest writer of unimportant books” and this is a telling admission.  He is very much a European’s idea of an American, circa 1935:  callow, good-natured, and ultimately frivolous.  Allison hails from a country that escaped the Great War unscathed, and he and his wife, in their ignorance, treat the battlefields they pass as interesting scenery.  They are completely unable to sense the roiling emotions all around them.   Nor do they suspect that some of the war’s casualties are still alive, and still plotting one another’s destruction.

The madness of Werdegast and Poelzig is masked for a time by their unfailing good manners; but Poelzig gives himself away almost before we meet him.  The truth is, no sane man would build his house upon the ruins of such a dark chapter in history – his own personal history as well as that of his country.  That the fortress was also the place where he betrayed the thousands of men under his command only makes his madness more vivid.  Monomania is a convenient tip-off to insanity, and you don’t get more monomaniacal than building a luxury home on a blood-drenched battlefield and keeping your friend’s dead wife in a glass trophy case.

For his part, Werdegast is so hollowed out he lives for nothing but revenge.  His two crippling bouts of ailurophobia show the extent to which his psyche has been corroded.  The man who emerged from the Russian prison camp isn’t the same man who went in; and we can’t blame him for rejecting the notion that living well is the best revenge.  Nope, Dr. Werdegast wants Poelzig’s scalp and is willing to pay for it with his life. But in spite of fifteen years of plotting, the best plan he can come up with is knocking on Poelzig’s door and demanding answers.

In fact, for all their sinister mugging, neither Weredegast nor Poelzig seem to have much idea what they’re planning to do next.  Poelzig’s designs on Joan as a human sacrifice aren’t very well thought-out, and Weredegast’s decision to flay Poelzig alive seems rather spur-of-the-moment as well.   Sacrificing people to the Devil and skinning your enemies alive are important tasks, after all;  not the sort of things that should be undertaken willy-nilly.

Dead Man’s Eyes

Synopsis: Artist David Stuart (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is working on the painting that he believes will be his masterpiece, the one that will establish him as a serious player in the art world. It’s a portrait of an exotic model named Tanya Czoraki (Acquanetta) dressed in what what we must accept, for the purposes of this film, as traditional Gypsy garb.

Men are constantly putting the moves on the sultry Tanya, but she isn’t buying. It seems that Tanya spends a lot of time in Stuart’s loft, posing for his masterpiece, and she has fallen in love with him.

Stuart himself doesn’t seem aware of this. He only has eyes for his hatchet-faced fiance Heather Hayden (Jean Parker). Heather’s a swell gal, and she wears a lot of interesting hats. As if that weren’t enough, her family loves him, particularly Heather’s father, whom Stuart has taken to calling “Dad Hayden”.

Whenever he takes a break from his painting, Stuart likes to soothe his eyes with gauze pads soaked in a boric acid solution, which he inexplicably keeps in a bottle on a high shelf right next to a nearly identical bottle containing highly corrosive acid. Because Tanya has moved the bottles around on the shelf while looking for something else, Stuart doesn’t realize that on this occasion he’s just soaked his gauze pads not with boric acid but with, well, acid.* As a result, his corneas are burned and he is now blind. The doctor tells him that a cornea transplant might succeed in restoring his sight, but then again it might not; in any event, donors are scarce and they are unlikely to ever find one.

His career in ruins, unable to complete his masterpiece, Stuart is morose and self-pitying, but he still refuses to blame poor Tanya, who feels terrible about it. Believing that Heather continues to stay with him out of pity for a blind man, Stuart nobly breaks off the engagement. When Heather presses him for a reason, he lies to her, insisting that he’s in love with Tanya.


Dad Hayden refuses to give up on Stuart, and tells him that he has willed his own corneas to Stuart upon his death.

But when Heather arrives home a few nights later she finds Dad Hayden lying dead on the floor. Standing over the body is Dave Stuart, with blood on his hands….

Comments: It’s been years since we’ve seen any of the Inner Sanctum pictures, which used to turn up frequently on Horror Incorporated. I have to admit that as much as I’ve derided these movies as cheap, unconvincing time-fillers, I am glad to see them back.

Why the sudden burst of nostalgia? Well, we’ve seen a lot worse since Dead Man’s Eyes last crossed our path. We have suffered through a lot of PRC and Monogram dreck, and indie productions that were, um, less than stellar. In retrospect, the lower rung of Universal’s talent pool doesn’t seem so bad. They are decently-paced little programmers, with passable writing and production values. All the same, let’s not get carried away; they’re not great movies by any standard.

Inner Sanctum mysteries tend to pile on the plot contrivances, and Dead Man’s Eyes is no exception. Arranging the circumstances of Stuart’s blindness in such a way as to make us wonder about Tanya’s complicity has forced screenwriter Dwight V. Babcock to reach, with trembling hands, for the very highest bottle on the storytelling shelves. But no matter how you slice it, any guy who keeps his eyewash and his corrosive acid in matching bottles right next to each other is just asking for trouble.

The script is full of clumsily rendered coincidences and red herrings, all designed to keep the viewer off balance. In spite of this, it isn’t difficult to figure out who the real murderer is and, more importantly, who the real murderers aren’t.

Lon Chaney, Jr. deserves credit for the thankless task of carrying another Inner Sanctum trifle. But the truth is that in most of these films Chaney is simply too old for the character he’s playing. Part of this is Chaney’s appearance — he simply looked a good deal older than his 38 years — but it’s also clear that David Stuart, as written, is supposed to be much younger than 38 (the camera can be cruel in this regard, though never crueler than in Earthquake (1974) in which we’re asked to believe that 50-year-old Charlton Heston is an up-and-coming architect married to the boss’s daughter, played by 51-year-old Ava Gardner).

Aside from the usual faces from the Universal acting bullpen, we must also pause to consider the presence of fashion model Acquanetta, playing the role of Tanya. I will go easy on her performance in Dead Man’s Eyes, because to pillory the poor woman, even 70+ years later, seems like kicking a puppy. After all, it isn’t Acquanetta’s fault that some deranged producer got it into his head that she could be a star; nor is it her fault that, frankly, she has no talent.

Yep, she’s bad all right — not low-budget-Universal-contract-player bad, but really bad. High school theater bad. Ed Wood Productions bad. She reads her lines as if reciting from a book of traffic ordinances. The woman is a knockout, but she doesn’t radiate any presence at all, certainly not the hungry sensuality that everyone in the movie ascribes to her. To paraphrase the immortal Libby Gelman-Waxner, Acquanetta could not convincingly scream for water if her hair was on fire.

It’s often said (by Brunas and Weaver, among others) that Acquanetta’s career came to a screeching halt when it was revealed that she was not Venezuelan, as she had long claimed, but was in fact a light-skinned black woman from New York who was able to pass for Latina. There’s no reason to doubt that this revelation would have done some damage to her career, the racial mores of the time being what they were — though I suspect a studio publicity shop could have effectively beaten such rumors back. All the same, it seems unlikely that the “Venezuelan Volcano” would have had much career longevity anyway, given that she had about as much screen presence as a bag of cement.

But she carries on gamely, as everyone in the movie does; and in its way Dead Man’s Eyes is likable enough: not ambitious or flashy, but it kills 65 minutes, and if you’ve had a few drinks you might even enjoy it.

But then, you could say that about a lot of things.

__________________________________

*Acetic acid, to be precise. A 5% solution of acetic acid is better known as vinegar, and mixed with a little olive oil it makes a delicious salad dressing. But in its undiluted form it’s highly corrosive, quite capable of burning your eyes out of your head if you treat it carelessly — as Dave Stuart clearly does.

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