Sunday, March 7, 2010



RATING: *** & 1/2 out of **** (for the "Black Cat" sequence, not the entire film)

NOTE: The following review has appeared previously as part of a larger essay on the films of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre which I wrote for the book MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: VINCENT PRICE. The book is filled with entertaining and informative essays by several writers on Vincent Price’s career. It is highly recommended and you can order it by clicking here.

Please also note that while the following has been slightly revised for the purposes of this Scared Silly project, it doesn't follow the format of the previous Scared Silly reviews I have posted.

Over an impressively lengthy career, Vincent Price’s name became synonymous with horror cinema. But that was just one facet of his career. Many people have fond memories of the latter 25 years of Price’s output —where a tongue-in-cheek Price could be seen on TV shows such as “Batman,” “Get Smart”, “The Brady Bunch” and “The Muppet Show” while also cavorting on the big screen in over-the-top and somewhat campy roles such as the title character in “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”, its sequel, “Dr. Phibes Rises Again”, and scorned Shakespearean ham Ed¬ward Lionheart in the scrumptious “Theater of Blood.”

This was a period where Vincent’s horror image was constantly lampooned—often with the actor’s blessing and participation. In fact, the “king of horror rock,” Alice Cooper—who had lapsed into self-parody as well—used Price to great effect as a morbid-but-merry master of ceremonies to his “Welcome To My Nightmare” TV special in 1975 and accompanying soundtrack album. And speaking of kings, let us not forget Vincent’s “rap” in the “king of pop,” Michael Jackson’s song, “Thriller” (while performed by Price with earnest intent, how could it ever be taken seriously given its context in a song and video that are, regardless of what Mr. Jackson’s intentions may have been, inevitably light and fluffy, with any potentially terrifying moments buried under the weight of all the pomp and spectacle as well as by what many consider Michael’s odd persona). These are the types of performances which have endeared Vincent in the hearts of young and old alike as a friendly “uncle” type who has never really meant any harm and whose “threats” are not only idle, but in good fun as well.

What the general public may not be aware of, however, are Mr. Price’s previous comedy outings. Even before being teamed with Lorre, Price took aim at moviegoers’ funny bones with several notable performances. His very first film, in fact, was the romantic screwball comedy, “Service De Luxe,” wherein he has the lead role of an inventor who has vowed not to let a woman control his life, and spends the rest of the picture fending off several chanteuses while trying to get his inventions off the ground. Chief among his other pre-1960s comedic gems are “Champagne for Caesar” “Curtain Call at Cactus Creek” and “His Kind of Woman.” In “Champagne for Caesar”, Price is a scream as a the president of a soap company sponsoring a quiz show where a contestant’s winnings are creeping dangerously close to the value of the soap company itself! “Curtain Call at Cactus Creek” finds Vincent in a role he would find himself playing many times in the years to come: a ham actor! This time, it’s in the Old West as Vincent heads up a travel¬ing theatrical troupe performing the melodramatic saga, “Ruined By Drink” in all its deliriously drippy glory!

Price immediately followed this portrayal with yet another “ham” role in “His Kind of Woman”. While not a comedy in and of itself, this film contains moments of high comedy from Vincent. A noirish crime drama vehicle for Robert Mitchum—the film also flirts with romance (as Mitchum flirts with Price’s mistress, Jane Russell) and satire, as Vincent not only portrays an overzealous actor, but also gets to parody the type of swashbuckling roles he himself had played early on, as the actor attempts to become a “real” as opposed to “reel” hero! A film that is nearly un-categorical, much of its appeal lies in Price’s tour de force comedic performance, which is in sharp contrast to the film’s other elements. Another performance from this period that bears mentioning is Vincent’s comedic voice-over as The Invisible Man in the closing scene of the classic horror-comedy, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Of particular note is that his one line of dialogue resonates much more today after his many successive horror offerings than it ever could have when originally released.

As for Peter Lorre, he had a spate of turns as a supporting actor, playing quirky characters who, often more odd than comedic, occasionally served as comic relief just the same. In fact, his career was a bit more scattershot than Price’s when it comes to chronology. Where Price would often get typecast in a string of similar roles after a successful picture, Lorre, with the exception of stints teamed with Sydney Greenstreet in crime thrillers (including, of course, such classics as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” as well as the title detective in the Mr. Moto series, would jump genres more often. From his breakout role as the despicable child killer in Fritz Lang’s classic “M,” to Raskolnikov in the filmed adaptation of the literary masterpiece “Crime and Punishment,” to a variety of parts in war movies, dramas and period pieces, Lorre had the opportunity to exercise his versatility in the first couple decades of his career. He even directed a film, “The Lost One.”

Ironically enough, three of his 1940s efforts foreshadowed his later horror spoofs with Price, namely “You’ll Find Out,” “The Boogie Man Will Get You” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” He co-starred with Boris Karloff in the first two and with Raymond Massey (who was playing a character said to resemble Karloff) in the third. In his final years, the comic aspects of his characters really came into fruition, first in adventures such as “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” “Around the World in 80 Days “(1956) and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961), then in his films with Price, and finally in his last two films, “Muscle Beach Party” (1964) and Jerry Lewis’ “The Patsy” (1964), wherein he played a director of comedy films!

When American International Pictures and director Roger Corman launched their series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Price in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1960), they hit paydirt. The film was an enormous critical hit and performed well at the box office, insuring that movie audiences hadn’t seen the last of these newfangled, usually far-from-faithful interpretations of stories from the mind of Baltimore’s brooding bard. Following “Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), Corman enlisted Price to appear in not one but three Poe stories. Dubbing the anthology “Tales of Terror,” it began and ended on suitably creepy notes for a horror film: Price is eerily effective both as a beleaguered widower haunted by his un-dead wife in the opening tale, “Morella,” and in the closer, “The Case of M. Valdemar,” as a terminally ill man who is put into a trance by a doctor who just can’t wait for him to die so he can get his surgical mitts around Price’s wife!

It is the middle segment, however, that makes this no ordinary sandwich. “The Black Cat” will always be remembered as the beginning of a wonderful teaming: Vincent Price and Peter Lorre — together! Sure, they were previously both in “The Story of Mankind” (1957), but in separate stories. Here now was a story they could share, and sink their teeth into with all the comic flair they could muster. It was a task they relished! And while it is the shortest of the projects they appeared in together, it is perhaps the richest in terms of their humorous performances.

The segment, actually inspired by Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” as well as (or maybe more than) “The Black Cat,” opens on the sight of a drunken Lorre staggering down the street. Right off the bat, we know we’re in for comic delights as Lorre punctuates his inebriated state not only with body language, but facial tics and muttering asides as well. His quips are especially curt — delivered in a slur, but not incoherent, and quite clever and acerbic: “Why don’t you watch where I’m going?!” he intones, as he stumbles into someone. The ever-expressive Lorre eyes are also in service, ever opening, closing, bulging. There has been much conjecture over the years as to how much of this performance—as well as Lorre’s work in “The Raven,” “The Comedy of Terrors,” and his other films from this period featured Lorre actually acting or being genuinely inebriated!

Following Lorre as he floats along the street is the title character, a black cat. The trail leads back to his flat, where his ever-patient wife is waiting. Inside the apartment, Lorre’s lovable drunk shows a nastier side, as the unemployed slacker demands money from his wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson) so he can go back out and drink some more. She claims they have no money to spare, but he’s convinced she’s got it stashed away.

“What about your sewing money?” Lorre asks.

“We need it for food,” she replies.

“Food? That’s exactly what I need it for - I drink my food!”

Exchanges such as this illustrate Lorre’s ability to be extremely funny while simultaneously having more than a hint of pathos about him. To be sure, this was a time in Lorre’s personal life when things were not going well — including substance, alcohol and diet abuse, so both his physical health and mental demeanor were affected. Don’t get me wrong—Lorre’s dialogue, whether scripted or ad-libbed, is delivered hysterically. However, you just can’t help but feel that he’s a pathetic character. It is this element that made Lorre so perfect for the type of lovable yet troubled sods that populated Richard Matheson’s comedic screenplays. In a way, these characters are a more lighthearted mirror image of the ones Vincent Price played in Matheson’s “serious” Poe films (which were the embodiment of the noble, perhaps romantic yet ultimately tortured soul with a skeleton or two in his closet and a dark spot in his heart). These conflicting emotions are also at the heart of Poe himself, so the spirit of Poe is there, if not always the content.

Of course, sewing money in hand, Lorre proceeds to drink it all away, culminating in getting (bodily) thrown out of a local watering hole. A parade of passers-by are accosted by Lorre, He doesn’t even hide his intentions: “Could you spare a coin for a moral cripple?” is a typical inquiry. “Get away from me, you drunken fool!” is the typical response. Each rejection is punctuated by a juicy raspberry from the portly souse!

This scene also contains a classic gem of a line that is both riotous and poignant, as Lorre angrily exclaims, “If I had a pistol...,” then, quietly “...I’d probably sell it and buy more wine.”

Tales of Terror Black Cat sequence

Fate plays a major role in any Poe story, even one that is as loosely “based” upon the source material as this one is. In this case, fate comes in the form of a “Wine Merchant’s Convention” which Lorre stumbles across. A demonstration in “expert wine tasting” by Price is about to commence. Lorre is aghast at the notion that anyone could have a more intimate knowledge of the spirits of the grape than him, and challenges Vincent to a wine tasting duel!

Once again, the high comic genius of Lorre resonates: “Afraid to try me, coward?,” challenges Lorre. Then, almost as a delicious afterthought, his face contorts with an air of privileged femininity, and he slowly pronounces, “...poseur!,” with all the pompousness of a French art critic!

Vincent is taken aback and brilliantly conveys his character’s astonishment in a role that is classic Price. He once again lampoons the “aristocratic” sort he’d often played in dramas, with such an air of hoity-toity exaggeration, that it is clear that this material is being played as Particularly amusing are Price’s grandiose mouth “exercises” as he prepares to taste the wine. The actual tasting of the wine is just as flamboyant. Price and Lorre, in fact, use a comedic style that had more or less fallen out of favor with adult moviegoers of the time. The broad nature of their characters was always more prevalent in the theater and on radio, anyway, but if you examine them closely, you’ll find that they are precursors to the frantic sketch comedy characters that arose in such ground-breaking 1970s TV programs as “Saturday Night Live,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Second City Television.”

To everyone’s surprise, Lorre actually manages to match Price vintage for vintage in identifying the wines — even as he’s way past the point of intoxication! His heights of delirium invoke memories of such classic Laurel and Hardy films as “Blotto” (1930), “Fra Diavolo” (“The Devil’s Brother”) (1933), “Them Thar Hills" (1934) and “The Bohemian Girl” (1936). The main difference, however, is that Stan and Ollie almost never intended to get plastered!

Three sheets to the wind, Lorre is in no shape to walk home, so Price graciously accompanies his opponent, who at this point is so far gone he’s referring to his new-found acquaintance as an old and dear friend! Once at Lorre’s place, there is an immediate attraction between Vincent and Lorre’s wife. This attraction is heightened as Vincent also gets on famously with the cat, admitting, “I have several of my own at home.”

In a matter of moments, Lorre inevitably passes out, and as Vinnie and wifey struggle to carry him to bed, a bond forms between them. A bond which (the audience left to fill in the blanks) goes beyond polite conversation. Joyce Jameson as Lorre’s wife proves to be a real pro in Vincent and Peter’s company, exuding innocence on the outside but burning need within — and played for laughs just the same. Lorre himself fills in the blanks on his wife’s affair when, returning early from another night of revelry, he spots Price leaving the premises. Waiting until after Vincent has gone, he walks in and confronts his wife, who admits the affair and announces her intentions to become Vincent’s wife. Lorre has something else in mind, however...

Once again, Price and Lorre share the screen and fill it with rich, comic delights as Vincent answers Peter’s “dinner invitation.” They immediately begin imbibing the bubbly, with Price particularly giddy over the offerings. Another scene filled with hysterical Lorre asides, such as when he proposes a toast to Vincent’s “long life,” then immediately follows it under his breath with, “right now I have a better chance than you have!” As funny as it sounds, he’s not kidding: After gulping enough “whammy juice” to down a pony, Price falls to the floor. It is a moment of pure slapstick, as Vincent’s eyes roll and his face collapses in on itself. The choice of the screenwriter and the actors to play this with such lunacy only enforces the fine line between drama and comedy. Dialogue and body language require precision, and only the most skillful writers with the best actors at their disposal can accurately distinguish between the two. This doesn’t always happen, of course, which explains why so many so-called dramas are often unintentionally funny.

As he proceeds to seal Price and Jameson behind the wall, brick by brick, Lorre’s deadpan barbs continue. He answers Price’s incredulous pleas with yet another classic line: “Haven’t I convinced you of my sincerity yet? I’m genuinely dedicated to your destruction!” Equally funny is the follow-up sequence where Lorre imagines Price and Jameson ripping his head off and tossing it like a football, as he screams, “Keep that cat away from my head!” Of course, this is a still a horror story, albeit a comedic horror story, so while the comedy is very black the tale still ends on a jarring note as the Black Cat exposes Lorre’s crime to the authorities.

As it turns out, the Black Cat sequence proved to be the most popular of the three “Tales of Terror." With that knowledge in hand, Corman and Matheson dove head-first into comedy for the next Poe film, “The Raven,” and created a four-star horror-comedy classic in the process.


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