Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Architecture of: The Black Cat [1934]

Featuring a villain of an architect named (after the prominent actual architect Hans__), "Poelzig", (Boris Karloff), a machine-age mansion with brightly lit strip-windows standing in for the familiar medieval, crenellated-towered castle at the top of a misty, winding mountain, and starkly cold and beautiful sets that borrow from Russian Constructivism (angled walls), German Expressionism (steeply raked views to deeply shadowed cellar stairs), American Raymond Loewy-esque streamlining (curvilinear handrails, sliding pocket doors, neon adorned & accentuated speaker grilles), and French Art Decoratif, (back-lit glass block, Eileen Gray-esque tubular furniture, polished terazzo floors), the design of this movie is the up-front-and-center star of the show. 

Although one character comically characterizes the interiors by saying "I suppose we've got to have architects, too. If I wanted a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he'd be the man for it!", there's no doubt that director and set designer Edgar Ulmer loved the sources he was borrowing from. 

There is, tellingly, a running explanation in the narrative for the proof of the engineer/architect's villainy: during WWI, he was responsible for the deaths of 10,000 men and built his clinically austere abode on their graves.  Near the end, Karloff takes his place on a podium that incorporates in its canted design a simulacrum of chaos & devastation. The plot ends with the whole place exploding, in views (seen by our escaping heroes), that seem deliberately to evoke the bombed-out fields of war, that, by the 1930s would be familiar to audiences, and scary for reasons not at all supernatural.  

Still, you gotta love these sets! 

 The mansion at the top of the winding, misty road, built on the graves of sacrificed soldiers -
 The shot above bleeds into the shot below - with the winding staircase overlapping the road:

Dig the flush-mounted, continuously-lit ceiling panels -

 A sliding, pocket front door with oversized grip handle

 A speaker with non-functional fins and a neon light -

 That's some nice bowl of water to wash your hands in -
 Lever-handled door pull on flush-mounted metal panel

 Enjoy the clock -
 or is it a radio?

Our young hero uses a remote-controlled light switch -

 A digital clock ! -

The drawer is completely flush with the body of the night-table -

 To the cellar -

 A podium of planned cacophony -

 The place explodes from a safe distance ....

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