Making art in the most unlikely circumstances
Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972) was one of many beneficiaries of the wave of auteurism that galvanized critics in France in the 1950s and their American counterparts in the 1960s. Ulmer was one of a slew of directors whose work became the subject of cinema club retrospectives, articles in obscure journals, and feverish advocacy and argument by auteurists whose passion was trawling the backwaters of classic Hollywood’s commercial cinema. Some of these directors –Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, for example – were truly rescued by this phenomenon, and their names gained a general cultural currency. Not quite so with Ulmer, who presented a more problematic case than Ray with his sexual politics and Fuller with his brutal action approach.
Ulmer worked in the most disreputable realms of the already dubious area of Hollywood low-budget filmmaking. With a couple of exceptions, his best work was done (in the 1940s) at PRC, Producers Releasing Corporation, for mini-mogul Leon Fromkess. As evidence of Ulmer’s standing at this ultra-cheapie studio, he was paid $250 per week when loaned out to United Artists to make The Strange Woman (1946). Fromkess got $2500 or so from UA, according to Ulmer’s widow Shirley. It’s not likely that Ulmer’s salary was ever much more than that for his contract work at PRC. And since he could make a movie in a week or less (Moon over Harlem took four days and cost $8,000 – though it was made for a different company), Ulmer could not have gotten rich during this process.
It was difficult for many critics to follow Andrew Sarris’s lead in recommending Ulmer for further research. Not everyone could reconcile cut-rate production values and often lousy actors and collaborators with Ulmer’s actual achievement in complex, disturbing works likeRuthless, The Strange Woman, Strange Illusion, The Black Cat, and, supremely, Detour. And for every masterpiece like Detour, there were plenty of turkeys waiting in the wings to shatter the myth of Ulmer as Auteur – semi-anonymous potboilers like Isle of Forgotten Sins or Jive Junction or St. Benny the Dip. Thus in spite of lavish praise by French critic Luc Moullet (he found in Ulmer’s films “the great solitude of man without God”) or American critic John Belton’s (he called Ulmer “one of his era’s bleakest artists and one of film noir’s blackest visionaries”), Ulmer has remained little known, remembered mainly by cinema specialists as a later, grimmer Murnau whose great gifts as a pictorialist and visionary make his films worthwhile.
All-Day Entertainment, in cooperation with The Edgar G. Ulmer Foundation, has released two DVDs containing three of his movies, giving an opportunity to revisit this unusual filmmaker. The first is an odd pairing of one of his forays into a bigger budget and more respectable actors, the Hedy Lamarr vehicle The Strange Woman, with surely his cheapest film ever, the rare Moon Over Harlem (1939). The second DVD is an extra-laden presentation of Bluebeard, often cited as one of Ulmer’s best.
In 1934, the director made The Black Cat for Universal, but this was his last film for a major studio due to studio politics and his stealing Shirley Castle from her then-husband, Max Alexander, nephew of the powerful Carl Laemmle. From there Ulmer moved into his “ethnic” period, making Yiddish and Ukrainian films for those specialized markets, and one all-black-cast film, Moon Over Harlem (1939). Moon Over Harlem is the earliest of the three films discussed here, and it’s curiously flat, without the visual panache that characterized most of his work. The film is most interesting as an historical artifact and an example of a black-cast film that seems to respect the actors, though not financially. Ulmer remembered: “The singers … were paid 25 cents a day … It was one of the most pitiful things I ever did … It was done on nothing … But we made quite a good picture.”
Viewers may question his assessment. The story is painfully simple, opening with the marriage of secretly criminal “Dollar Bill” (Percy “Bud” Harris) to recently widowed Minnie (Cora Green). Dollar Bill is involved with racketeering and extortion, and he’s a womanizer, even coming on to Minnie’s daughter Sue (Ozinetta Wilcox), whose boyfriend Bob (Carl Gough) is a community activist trying to clean up Harlem. The plot moves predictably to a violent conclusion, with a dash of hope and several music numbers thrown in. Legendary jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet made his only film appearance here, but aficionados will be disappointed – he’s only briefly on screen.
What makes the film interesting, and sets it apart from much of the Mantan Moreland eye-rolling school of classic Hollywood black cinema, is its generally respectful attitude toward the characters. The film takes seriously Bob’s crusading efforts to reclaim the black community from the bloodsuckers – white and black – who plague it. There are lingering ensemble shots that dwell simply on the faces of the actors, conferring a nobility on them that sets the film apart. (Shirley Ulmer recalled that the actors “treated him royally” – perhaps because he did the same with them.) Still, the musical numbers are far from memorable, and the film is ponderous even at a mere 68 minutes, and may be soporific to all but diehard Ulmer fans or scholars of black cinema.
Moving chronologically takes us to the next DVD. Bluebeard (1944) was shot at PRC, which Ulmer had joined two years earlier, in his customary six days’ schedule. The result is more compelling than any six-day movie has a right to be. Bluebeard opens with the director’s trademark combination of miniatures and mattes, gorgeously evoking an atmosphere-drenched Seine River in Paris, where the body of a beautiful girl floats to the surface. Authorities are stymied by the “Bluebeard” in their midst who strikes at random and vanishes quickly. With the first appearance of John Carradine as romantic, handsome puppeteer Gaston Morel, it’s clear that here is the Bluebeard. He charms the hoi polloi with puppet operas, but it’s soon evident that he’s dangerously unhinged. As the story unravels, we learn that Morel is a painter whose search for an ideal of beauty – his failure to find it, that is – causes him to go into a trancelike state and strangle those who fail to measure up. Bluebeard details his cat-and-mouse game with authorities and an unscrupulous art dealer, his courtship with a sophisticated dressmaker, Lucille (Jean Parker), and his end in the same place as his victims.
Bluebeard is distinguished first by Carradine’s superb performance, easily one of the best in his career, as Gaston Morel. Carradine’s career is made up almost entirely of character parts, at which he excelled; given the chance to carry a film, he does it beautifully here. His rich voice, with its authoritative, rolling tones, is a crucial part of the illusion. Ulmer embellishes the role, pulls us into Morel’s psyche, with some of the best photography in any of his films (by master cinematographer Eugen Shufftan). During flashback scenes, the director re-creates the intensity of Morel’s character and the terror of his victims with long sequences of kiltered angles and forced perspectives. He avoids dwelling on the details of murder, preferring shock-cuts to a close-up of Morel’s wild eyes followed by the slumping of a body. In one shot he uses an exceptionally rare and thrilling technique, a kiltered pan across a room that’s both seductive and unsettling to the viewer.
One of the pleasures of the film is the puppet opera. Ulmer was a music fanatic, and it shows in his faithful re-creation of bits of Faust complete with mandolin-strumming Mephistopheles and a too-real-for-comfort hellfire, which sprung onto the stage, threatening the puppeteers and burning the eyebrows off the puppets. This we learn from fabulous color footage shot on the set of Bluebeard by puppeteer Bob Baker and included with the DVD as a 12-minute featurette. Other tasty extras: an archive of stills and posters and an 8-page booklet that reproduces much of the pressbook.
Going back to the first disc brings us to The Strange Woman. This film, shot two years after Bluebeard, was a rarity for Ulmer. His childhood friend Hedy Lamarr insisted that Ulmer direct her in her first outing away from MGM. This brought him decent actors, a strong script based on a bestseller, a fine cameraman (Lucien Andriot), and a reasonable budget and shooting schedule. The result is one of his most engaging works, a wonderfully rich, well-acted melodrama that recalls Leave Her to Heaven as one of the best examples of the popular 1940s genre devoted to female psychopathology.
The film opens in Bangor, Maine, in 1824. The city, like its protagonist Jenny (Lamarr), has a split personality: respectable (it’s a growing industrial town with a rather pretentious gentry class) and squalid (it’s full of “grog shops and low houses” – translation: bars and whores). Jenny’s an indecently beautiful, ambitious girl who tames (briefly) her apparently overwhelming lust for power and sex to marry a rich middle-aged merchant whose son is obsessed with her. She uses her almost hypnotic charms to dispatch both men – one in a brutal drowning scene, another in a shadowy suicide – and then go after the handsome guy (George Sanders) engaged to her best friend. In spite of this over-the-top portrait, the film carefully shows another side of Jenny as a caring woman whose identification with the “trash” of Bangor – including her “low house” pal Lena – makes her their champion. Ulmer successfully portrays her as more than a mindless sexual temptress. She’s an interloper among the rich, an irresistible vixen whose “psychopathology” masks her attempts to subvert Bangor’s rigid class system.
Lamarr must have been pleased with Ulmer’s treatment. It’s an ideal star showcase, with frequent close-ups of both Lamarr and her heaving bosom. In a dinner scene that’s surely historically inaccurate, she sits with both shoulders totally exposed before her aging hubby Isaiah Porter (Gene Lockhart) and his drooling son Efraim (the wonderful Louis Hayward). In another scene, she tempts poor Isaiah by showing him the marks her father has inflicted on her back (much to the housekeeper’s horror). She seems to be speaking for Ulmer when she says with both envy and disgust, “Men have the power in this world.” Much of the film is taken up with her attempts to steal this power and use it for both personal and reformist purposes.
Visually, The Strange Woman is one of the director’s most accomplished. Lucien Andriot’s photography, no doubt closely supervised by Ulmer, superbly delineates the velvety blacks and pristine whites of the shadow world of Devil’s Half Acre, the squalid waterfront that constantly thwarts Bangor’s attempts at bringing order from chaos in a developing land. Jenny’s duplicity is rendered powerfully through Ulmer’s subtle lighting schemes, often drenching her in shadows and isolating her in the frame. The film contains several masterful set-pieces, most notably the drowning of Isaiah by his son in a nightmarishly noirish sequence, and the pursuit and near-murder of Jenny’s “low” friend Lena by a mob of trashy timbermen.
Jenny is immediately recognizable as an Ulmer character. Like so many of them she appears and acts somehow possessed, carried away by impulses she can never quite comprehend. Critic John Belton said the world of Ulmer’s films “has no fixity and is incomprehensible” to the characters who inhabit it; this recalls the puppets of Bluebeard and the title character himself, Bela Lugosi’s tormented doctor in The Black Cat, poor Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in Detour, and certainly Jenny in The Strange Woman. Ulmer’s world here consists of violence and betrayal, self-doubt and self-destruction, all qualities that make up part, but not by any means the whole, of the amazing Jenny.
Extras on this disc include an archive of stills and artwork and an exclusive interview with Shirley Ulmer.
These DVDs aren’t perfect, and may disturb sticklers who only look for technical perfection in this format and don’t care about content, or who expect movies half a century old to look and sound like those of today. Finding usable prints for transfer must have been quite daunting; all three films had circulated mostly in lousy dupe 16mm and VHS versions for years, and 35mm elements were elusive. In the case of Moon over Harlem, there were no 35mm elements – it was, according to Shirley Ulmer, the only film he shot in 16mm. The DVD transfer has occasional splices, and long stretches (during the first half) of background noise that obscure some of the dialogue. On the up side, this is unquestionably the clearest print I’ve seen, so much better that I was able to discern plot points that were unfathomable in previous blurry versions.
Bluebeard was “digitally remastered from a restored 35mm preservation positive supplied by the Cinematheque Francaise.” This one gets high marks for the solid transfer and clear audio. The Strange Woman was also remastered from a restored 35mm print provided by the Cinematheque Francaise. This one too has a sharper look than previously seen, with mostly solid tonal values and occasional splices but one notable flaw in a brief (perhaps 15 seconds) section of missing audio (due to stretching) in chapter 17. These problems notwithstanding, these first two discs in what looks to be a fascinating series merit a high recommendation as superior examples of Ulmer’s ability to make art in the most unlikely circumstances.