With a month left before submission of '40s lists, I used part of the holidays to acquaint myself with some of the work of Edgar G. Ulmer, who made almost 20 films during the forties.
Ulmer started his career in Germany at the end of the silent period, and was amongst the young filmmakers contributing to Menschen Am Sonntag
. Shortly thereafter, like so many of his colleagues, he made the journey to Hollywood, and in a career that spanned 35 years, he made almost fifty films. The vast majority of his films were produced on humble budgets for very small companies -- indeed at one point in the thirties his films were not even being financed by a traditional production company, but rather by the Yiddish community (these Yiddish films
are in fact newly restored and availalbe on DVD, and I for one would be interested to see comments from anyone, who may have picked them up).
Ulmer's reputation has become "the King of the B's," which could be a rather dubious compliment, but I think in this case it is a true accolade. The films that I have managed to see so far (Detour
, Strange Illusion
and The Strange Woman
) have certainly been cinematically inventive and exciting. In some commentaries on Film Noir, Detour
is listed as one of the
most influential films of the sub-genre, and it is certainly pitch bleak and almost euphoric in its narrative. Bluebeard
has an excellent, quietly psychopathic performance by John Carradine, and Ulmer makes the most of what is clearly a very small budget in evoking the seemier side of Paris in the 18th century. With Strange Illusion
, Ulmer is back in the present day of the '40s with a sort of modern Bluebeard story that involves a lot of psychiatrical musings and dream sequences. It is not quite as iconoclastic as Detour
, and probably the least exciting of these four films, but still an interesting little film. Hedy Lamarr and George Sanders headline The Strange Woman
, which must have been a comparatively prestigeous production for Ulmer. Cinematically, it is a gorgeous little film photographed by veteran DoP Lucien Androit. The way he molds the sparse light and deep shadows around the shape, and especially the face of Lamarr, is a study in how a film star should be presented. Lamarr's eyes smolder alternately with animal lust, calculated jealousy, hysteria and near insanity. She is a monster in the story, but a monster that is impossible not too fall in love with -- as do of course all the men in the film. The character that Lamarr plays is also one of the more emotionally complex feminine parts that I have seen in a Hollywood movie, or, maybe she just makes it so. The repressed lust and sexual manipulation that drives the film is likewise incredible -- watch the scene in which Lamarr convinces the cowardly Louise Hayward to kill for her.
These are exciting films. The latter three are available from All Day Entertainmnet in the Edgar Ulmer Archive Set
. The films are not pristine looking, but as always, what a shame not to see these films at all. Detour
is available from Alpha; I own the Image disc, which is now out of print (?), and it too suffers from age and wear. Also available on DVD are The Pirates of Capri
(Image) and Carnegie Hall
(Kino), and probably several of Ulmer's other films are out on public domain labels.