Last week I watched Murder Is My Beat (1955) and this week I watched The Naked Venus (1959), and I just ordered St. Benny the Dip (1951) on Amazon, so there’s no denying it: I’ve made one of my periodic tumbles into an Edgar G. Ulmer rabbit hole.
A quick Cliff’s Notes: Edgar G. Ulmer, luckless German emigre who struggled to impose a personal vision on low-budget exploitation films made on the fringes of Hollywood. His stylistic hallmarks: German Expressionist-influenced lighting, classical music, fluid camerawork, 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, if at all, for the Karloff/Lugosi horror film The Black Cat (1934), the film noir Detour (1945), and a handful of disreputable horror movies.
Like so many great American artists, Edgar G. Ulmer was first canonized by the French. Francois Truffaut called Ulmer is favourite American director, and cited The Naked Dawn as his inspiration for Jules and Jim. In Cahiers du Cinema, Luc Moullet called him “les plus maudit des cinéastes.” In 1968, Andrew Sarris (who brought the auteur theory to America) wrote the most influential words ever written about Ulmer in his book The American Cinema:
“The French call him un cineaste maudit, and directors certainly don’t come any more maudit. But yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which be signature of a genuine artist. Strictly speaking, most of Ulmer’s films are of interest only to unthinking audiences or specialists in mis-en-scene. Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer’s camera never falters even when his characters disintegrate. As the executor of the Murnau estate, he is faithful to the trust, and when his material is less impossible, his reflexes are still sharp for the meaningful challenges of The Black Cat, Ruthless, Murder Is My Beat, Detour, and The Naked Dawn. That a personal style could emerge from the lowest depths of Poverty Row is a tribute to a director without alibis.”
In Germany, he apprenticed under F.W. Murnau as an uncredited art director and production designer on The Last Laugh (and later, Murnau’s Hollywood production, Sunrise), and did set design for Max Reinhardt’s legendary theatre company. He codirected People on Sunday, a remarkable Weimar-era city symphony with a once-in-lifetime creative team (including codirector Robert Siodmak, writer Billy Wilder, and cinematographer Fred Zinneman). He claims to have designed sets for Metropolis, The Golem, The King of Kings, M, and other canonical titles, but no proof of this has emerged. He claims to have directed two-reel westerns in Hollywood throughout the ‘20s, but none have turned up.
In Hollywood, he directed only one major studio production: the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi horror film The Black Cat (1934). It was a success, but Ulmer ran off with the wife of the nephew of the studio head*, and found himself blackballed from the industry. He spent the next decade finding work wherever he could, mostly “ethnic” productions (the all-black-cast Moon Over Harlem; the Yiddish musical The Singing Blacksmith; the Ukranian-language opera Cossacks in Exile). In the ‘40s, he was hired by PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), one of the lowest studios on the Hollywood totem pole. He became the king of the lot, and within PRC’s impoverished confines, had the freedom to bring German Expressionist flair to films like Bluebeard, Strange Illusion, and the incomparable Detour. He made two handsome, higher-budgeted independent productions—the Hedy Lamarr vehicle The Strange Woman (1946) and the Citizen Kane-lite Ruthless (1948)—and hoped he could parlay them to better things. By the ‘50s, he was shuttling back and forth between Europe and Hollywood, directing some of the most marginal films of his career.
Ulmer died in 1972, living long enough to see his critical reputation rise, but unable to capitalize on it. He perpetuated his more dubious claims in a landmark interview conducted by Peter Bogdanovich in 1970, in which his wounded ego and stubborn pride are strongly evident. When asked about his 1933 venereal disease quickie Damaged Lives, Ulmer calls it, “an excellent film, really very good.” When asked why he stayed so long at PRC, Ulmer replies, “I didn’t want to be ground up in the Hollywood hash machine.” He admits, “I really am looking for absolution for all the things I had to do for money’s sake.”
Had Ulmer stayed in Universal’s good graces, it is possible he would have become a successful journeyman director, but it’s also possible that he would be forgotten (everybody loves Detour; nobody but extreme cultists watches The Strange Woman). His career is meaningful because he is an extreme auteurist test case: the artist who did the most with the least. Still, even for Ulmer superfans like myself, investigating his filmography can feel like panning for gold. His excellent western The Naked Dawn (1955) is emotionally resonant and smartly directed, but it’s difficult to connect the film’s visual style (rich colour; long, long takes) to Ulmer’s other work. His presence is identifiable in the art-deco sets of his Canadian quota-quickie From Nine to Nine (1935); in the moody, fog-soaked dream sequences of The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957); in some elegant camera moves in Damaged Lives; and in several artfully-shot nudist-camp scenes in The Naked Venus (1959). Writing about Damaged Lives and Ulmer’s promotional films for the National Tuberculosis Association, biographer** Noah Isenberg writes:
“These seemingly random, unconventional productions, all of them work for hire, somehow manage, despite their paltry budgets, ham-handed scripts, and other limitations, to offer a few unexpected stylish moments that can arguably be credited to a director’s vision. Indeed, these may not be the kind of films that invite the heroic championing of an auteur—the total achievement is, admittedly, rather modest—but they are part of a career that often defied industry-imposed standards and norms. Ulmer’s Damaged Lives is no cinematic triumph, and to speak of any production values per se is to overstate the case. As one reviewer in Motion Picture Daily wrote, ‘The fiction story, however ineptly told from the standpoint of production value, is nonetheless not tawdry, cheap or vulgar.’ In fact, Damaged Lives contains a few noteworthy moments, scenes that reflect, on a more basic scale, the director’s refined approach to his craft.”
I feel a level of affection for Ulmer that I reserve for few filmmakers, but even I sometimes feel like such moments are like feasting on breadcrumbs. It’s tempting to try to locate Ulmer’s presence by imposing autobiographical readings on his work. Is his final film, The Cavern (1964)—about a group of WWII soldiers from various nationalities trapped in an underground cavern—a metaphor for his own feelings of being buried by the Hollywood system? Did the story of The Man from Planet X (1951)—a mysterious alien lands in the Scottish highlands and is met with suspicion and hostility—resonate for Ulmer as an immigrant? Did he identify with the star of Detour—an artist (in this case, a pianist) who seemed destined for greatness until fate stuck out its rotten foot?
I’m actually inclined to believe that last one. Detour is a bleak story of rotten luck, told with intensity and with a certain amount of gallows humour. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a small-time New York club pianist who hitchhikes his way to Los Angeles to reunite with his singer girlfriend. An unfortunate series of circumstances leads to a driver dead at the side of the highway, and blackmail by ice-cold drifter (the unforgettable Ann Savage). There is no lost Shangri-La—New York is anonymous place of crummy nightclubs and foggy streets—and all we see of California are cheap motels and used car dealerships. The girlfriend’s song, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me,” hangs on the soundtrack as a mocking refrain. The moral: “Yes—fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”
According to Ulmer, Detour was shot in six days for $20,000 (although scholars have revealed it was closer to 14 days and $100,000). Whatever the price, it’s one of those movies where all the right elements are perfectly in place: put Ulmer’s exquisite noir lighting on Tom Neal’s perfectly schmucky face, on those cheap PRC sets and with Martin Goldsmith’s sharp, twangy dialogue… well, the result is ecstasy. As for Ann Savage’s ferocious performance, it’s best summed up in Tom Neal’s voiceover: “I got the impression of a kind of beauty. Not the beauty of a movie actress, or the beauty you dream about with your wife, but a natural beauty, a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real.”
There was no place for a face like Savage’s in Hollwood, and she fell into obscurity until re-emerging in 2008 as Guy Maddin’s mother in My Winnipeg. Tom Neal’s career ended in a Detour-like twist when he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for accidentally shooting his wife (he served six years in prison).
A similar air of doom hangs over Ulmer’s other undisputed masterpiece, The Black Cat. The setting: Europe, 1934. The plot: two young honeymooners (played by a couple of nonentities called David Manners and Lucille Lund) share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a Great War veteran who suffered in a prison camp under the sadistic Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). “Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned,” says Lugosi with his inimitable Hungarian gravity.
Lugosi himself fled from his native Hungary in 1919 after finding himself on the wrong side of a failed revolution. Fearing the gulag, he never returned, even when his fortunes waned. Lugosi’s period of Hollywood superstardom lasted roughly from the February 21, 1931 release of Dracula to November 21 of that same year, when Frankenstein introduced Boris Karloff in a role Lugosi declined. With Karloff’s star ascendant, Lugosi suffered a string of personal and professional missteps (including the poor box office for 1932’s Murders of the Rue Morgue, and his bankruptcy the same year), and would be lowballed for the rest of his career. His salary for The Black Cat—$1,000 per week for three weeks—was less than half of what Karloff earned, and less even than the $1,250 per week offered David Manners.
The Black Cat was the first of eight movies that Karloff and Lugosi made together. Their relationship was cordial but strictly professional. Onscreen, they spend most of the film being icily polite to each other. Offscreen, their relationship was cordial but strictly professional. The bleakest episodes of Lugosi’s life and career—the humiliating “spook show” appearances; the marriage to Hope Lininger; the alcoholism and morphine addiction; the Ed Wood films—were still to come. In later years, Karloff would invariably refer to Lugosi as “Poor Bela,” and said in one interview: “He had a tragic, tragic life, that man. He really did. I’ve always felt extremely sorry for him.” Though I’ve always had a preference for the poor Hungarian, it’s hard to dispute that Karloff was the more versatile actor. As Karloff noted, “In a way, he was his own worst enemy. He was a fine actor. He was a brilliant technician—a brilliant technician in every sense of the word, but he hadn’t moved with the times.”
The Black Cat was the only time Ulmer had access to studio resources, and offers the most complete articulation of his style: Karloff’s ultra-modern mansion, the Caligari-like black mass sequence, and the wall-to-wall classical soundtrack. The stiff cordiality of Karloff and Lugosi’s interactions are some of the best examples of the aching, barely-suppressed sadness that’s present in Ulmer’s greatest movies.
What keeps me returning to Ulmer’s filmography (more than just as a game of Spot The Authorial Signature) are the brief moments that send a little shiver down my spine and make my arm-hairs stand on end. The way his camera breaks free to haunt the corridors beneath Karloff’s mansion in The Black Cat, scored to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Karloff’s ultra-cynical narration. There’s the dream sequence of Tom Neal’s girlfriend singing her signature song in Detour against a shadowy backdrop. There’s the camera gliding along the row of nudist archers in The Naked Venus, and the Freudian fantasy scenes in Strange Illusion. Even the pervasive fog of The Man from Planet X—used by Ulmer to hide his crappy studio, but creating a dreamy atmosphere—has lingered unexpectedly in my mind. Moods and moments like these are when Ulmer feels like a ghost in the machine.
I’ll give the last word to Francois Truffaut, who wrote in his review of The Naked Dawn:
“Talking about The Naked Dawn is equivalent of drawing a portrait of its author, because we see him behind every image and feel we know him intimately when the lights go back on. Wise and indulgent, playful and serene, vital and clear, in short, a good man like the ones I’ve compared him to. The Naked Dawn is one of those movies we know was made with joy; every shot shows a love of cinema, and pleasure in working in it. It is also a pleasure to see it again and talk to friends about it. A small gift from Hollywood.”
* ( “The wife of the nephew of the studio head” was, in fact, Shirley Ulmer, formerly Shirely Beatrice Kassler, who became Ulmer’s script supervisor, confidante, and all-around Alma Reville)
**(Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, Noah Isenberg, 2014)