The Black Cat (1941) | This vintage horror whodunit is a nostalgic laugh riot

The Black Cat (1941)

There’s something wrong in the house of Winslow
Wealthy eccentric Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus) loves her cats more than anything or anyone, and when it comes to the reading of her own will, Henrietta discovers ‘she has more relatives hanging around her than a dead sheep has surrounded by vultures’, so remarks antique dealer Mr Penny (Hugh Herbert) when he accompanies estate agent Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford) to Henrietta’s crumbling mansion to take inventory of her estate.

But she’s not dead yet, fellas! Well that little matter doesn’t stop one of Henrietta’s money-hungry relatives from stabbing her to death with a hatpin… But what they don’t know is that there’s a clause in her will that prevents all of them getting anything until her beloved pets and housekeeper Abigail are dead. And that’s the killer’s cue to use secret passages and a storm as cover to do just that…

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This 1941 black and white horror whodunit was Universal’s answer to Paramount’s 1939 comic creeper The Cat and the Canary, and it was just as successful at the box office.

Providing the sinister stares are Bela Lugosi as gloomy gypsy manservant Eduardo and Gale Sondergaard as surly housekeeper Abigail (who has a puss like a lemon rinse), while Basil Rathbone takes time out from his Sherlock Holmes’ duties to play an adulterous cad ‘who should have been actor’, (according to Henrietta). Of course, Universal’s resident ghouls are just red herrings as the real killer is eventually unmasked as… Alan Ladd, Claire Dodd, John Eldredge or Gladys Cooper (you’ll have to watch for yourself to find out).

As flirty niece Elaine, Anne Gwynne makes for a sparky heroine, while burly Broderick Crawford tries to be Bob Hope but comes off more like Lon Chaney Jr. Then there’s veteran comic Hugh ‘Whoo-hoo!’ Herbert who acts like he’s in another movie altogether.

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Featuring atmospheric camerawork that landed Stanley Cortez the cinematography gig on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (check out the cat lamps that turn a fireplace into a giant feline face); a script that crackles with one-liners; and a creepy mansion that comes with it own crematorium dedicated to deceased pussies, The Black Cat is a nostalgic laugh riot.

And while it may have nothing to do with the Edgar Allan Poe story, save for some eerie cat howls, and the film’s gags run out of steam towards the end, the energy of the classy cast certainly makes up for those minor oversights.

The Black Cat is released on DVD in the UK from Final Cut Entertainment

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About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on April 24, 2016, in Comedy, Might-See, Universal Horror and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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