Edgar G[eorg] Ulmer was born in 1900, 1902, or 1904 in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic, then part of the Hapsburg Empire) and died in LA (Woodland Hills). He claimed to have worked with the Berlin stage impresario Max Reinhardt and was an assistant to the great German film-maker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau both in Germany (The Last Laugh) and out (Sunrise and maybe Tabu). He also claimed to have worked on “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and with Ernst Lubitsch and William Wyler, and to have invented the camera dolly (using a baby carriage). And he claimed he did not want to be chewed up in the Hollywood “sausage” machine.
After “poaching” a wife from the family that ran Universal Studios, Ulmer was hired only by the schlock-makers of “poverty row,” PRC in particular. With a lot of fog to obscure the lack of sets, Ulmer did quite a lot with a little (little money, little time, C-list actors or offlisted ones) and has been called “king of the B pictures.”
There is an obvious continuation of German Expressionist compositions (not to mention neuroses!) in Ulmer’s movies, and he is one of the Hollywood directors noticed during the 1950s by the auteur-theorists/auteur-crowners of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd (Jacques Rivette in Ulmer’s instance). From the half dozen pictures directed by Ulmer I’ve seen, the case for his being an auteur in the full thematic sense is lacking, but I can see a case that he managed to do some things with few resources (like producer Val Lewton).
The curiously titled 2004 documentary, “Edgar G Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen” claims he directed 60 movies. IMDB lists 48. Of these, the standout is “Detour” (1945), one of the most doom-laden of all noirs with future offscreen wife-murderer Tom Neal and a hitch-hiker from hell (or for Neal, to hell) played by Ann Savage.
A delight of the documentary is that Savage appears in it. She comes across as a genial old woman, explaining how her hair and makeup were coarsened on Ulmer’s instructions, but not saying anything about the roles, her costar, and their performances. Having found her and gotten her onto a sound stage in a convertible with rear projection, the film-maker Michael Palm squandered the find.
There is more from the also genial-seeming William Schallert about the making of “The Man from Planet X.” Schallert is on a set showing a bit of his interaction with the title character of that 1950 scifi movie. John Saxon and Peter Marshall talk about working with a stressed-out Ulmer on what would be his last movie, “The Cavern” (1964). They are also in the same convertible as Savage’s appearances, with different back projection.
I think that directors Joe Dante and John Landis were photographed in a car in Hollywood and Wim Wenders (who speaks in English in early bits then in German later on) is in a car in Berlin, though these might also be back-projection.
Back-projection was nearly the only “special effect” available to Ulmer, and he used it a lot. Dante and Landis marvel at his managing to shoot his movies 2:1 (that is, two feet of film shot for each foot of final movie). They also laud “The Black Cat” for its perversity. Given the lack of narrative gift of Wim Wenders, his inclusion is peculiar. (He says that he discovered Ulmer movies at the Pacific Film Archives, the same place I did — maybe even the same screenings, though I only remember seeing Wenders there when he was presenting his road movie “Kings of the Road.”) I don’t think Wenders contributes anything memorable about Ulmer’s German roots or Hollywood scrambling.
Indeed, what Ulmer’s aspirations were and how much he thought he accomplished in the movies he made is not appreciably clearer after watching the documentary than it was before. And the man behind the movies is a cipher. What his voice (recorded by Peter Bogdanovich) says is quite unreliable. (Bogdanovich claims Ulmer made some good movies, but does not make any claims that what Ulmer told him was true.)
The disc includes the 1943 “Isle of Forgotten Sins” (also known as “Monsoon,” running 77 minutes). Its cast includes some faces familiar to mavens of Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s:
Gale Sondergaard (who won the first supporting actress Oscar for “Anthony Adverse” (1936), is probably most remembered for her malign turn as widow of the man Bette Davis shot in Wyler’s “The Letter” (1940), and also costarred with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” (1934); she was blacklisted starting in 1948);
John Carradine (father of Keith, who played in many John Ford movies, probably most recognizably in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), he would also take the title role of Ulmer’s “Bluebeard” in 1944);
and Sidney Toler (who played Charlie Chan in 23 movies);
plus Rick Vallin who was in many tv westerns of the 1950s.
Sondergaard plays Marge Willison the madame of a bordello (insofar as the production code would permit prostitution to be shown — the “Isle of Forgotten Sins” appears as a night club, but “bar girls” go upstairs with patrons. Her man Mike Clancy (John Carradine) is a pearl driver in an antagonistic/brawling buddy relationship with Jack Burke (Frank Fenton).
Mike recognizes the captain, Capt. Carruthers (Toler), of a ship that sank with a three million dollar (1932 dollars) treasure and convinces Jack to aid him in retrieving the treasure. Marge and five or six of her “bar girls” flee with them. (There are six girls, but I think one is already on the other island with the mate/coconspirator with Carruthers, Johnny Pacific (Eric/Rick Vallin), the closest thing to a conventionally handsome romantic leading man in the movie — who is a pianist (foreshadowing Tom Neal’s character in “Detour”).
The best parts of the boring, largely predictable movie are seeing the scuba equipment of the era, and the model work for the typhoon (with model trees that John Ford has used in “Hurricane”; that and Murnau’s “Tabu” visibly influenced Ulmer’s tropical tragedy–the comedy of big lunks coming to blows frequently also seems like Ford comedy). The buddies make me roll my eyes and after early prominence, Sondergaard turns into a bystander.
I think that the documentary fails to shed much light on why Ulmer remained mired on Hollywood’s “poverty row.” (He was loaned out — and paid only a third of the salary — for the 1946 19th-century melodrama “The Strange Woman” starring Hedy Lamarr and George Sanders, and showed that she could act.) It is fairly entertaining but way too insufficiently probing of the obfuscations about his life story Ulmer fed Bogdanovich and others. I’d give the documentary maybe three and a quarter stars, but until the final monsoon’s arrival would have given “Isle” less than two. For anyone who has never seen an Ulmer movie and watches the documentary, “Isle” is likely to dispel any romanticization of “the king of B movies” making good movies. (IMO he did: “Detour” and “The Black Cat,” though the latter had stars: putting Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together; and “Girls in Chains” (also from 1943, also now available on DVD) is at least a hoot.)