The Cinema of Edgar G. Ulmer
(This essay was written for the liner notes of Gold Ninja Video’s now out-of-print release of Bluebeard)
A man sits alone in a cheap roadside diner. He is sweaty, unshaven, distracted. People try to engage him in conversation, and he swats them away. He is not part of the world anymore – he could have been, but fate stuck out a foot to trip him. The room goes dim, except for a single shaft of light, which illuminates his face, and we hear his inner monologue. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all, he tells us. The images and mood are pure Edgar G. Ulmer: German Expressionist shadows brought to a seedy American setting. The signifiers of high art wrapped in a trash envelope. Also, that one light wobbles a bit. It’s probably a flashlight.
Like Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the hero of Detour (1946), Edgar G. Ulmer tripped over fate’s foot. The Viennese-German émigré seemed poise to join his onetime colleagues Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak in the Hollywood firmament, but instead struggled to impose a personal vision on low-budget exploitation. His stylistic hallmarks: German Expressionist-influenced lighting, classical music, fluid camerawork, Bauhaus or art-deco sets, and, if there was no money for sets, heavy fog. His career ran the gamut from historical dramas to musicals to westerns to educational films to a nudist-camp movie, but he is best known today for Detour, the Karloff/Lugosi horror film The Black Cat (1934), and a handful of disreputable horror movies.Continue reading “Ghost in the Machine”