Other Worlds: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Underground Films of the 1950s
By Noah IsenbergNovember 22, 2013
WHEN THE ÉMIGRÉ FILMMAKER Edgar G. Ulmer passed away on the last day of September 1972 at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, the prevailing fear among family members was that his work would be forgotten forever — something he himself had articulated near the end of his life — that it would slowly, inexorably drift into oblivion. Although his departure did not go entirely unnoticed, with obituaries published in Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, the legacy of his life and career was surely in jeopardy. Because of the irreversible decline in his health, he was never able to finish the multisession interview with Peter Bogdanovich that he began in February 1970, after the initial strokes had already left him partially paralyzed (the recordings essentially trail off after the two men discussed Ruthless and Carnegie Hall, both from the late 1940s, with only passing mention of the films Ulmer made in the 1950s and ’60s). By the time the interview was published, in Jonas Mekas’s Film Culture magazine in 1974, Ulmer was already an obscure figure, someone who was recognized — if at all — only by fringe cinephiles, devotees of the Cahiers circle, of film societies and the art-house circuit, and of the film pages of the independent weeklies like the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, and the Boston Phoenix. That same year, in his composite study of Hawks, Borzage, and Ulmer, John Belton remarked without exaggeration: “Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the least known, least seen and least appreciated of American directors, remains one of the greatest filmmakers to emerge from the shadowy lower depths of Hollywood’s ‘B’ feature production industry in the Forties. One of the era’s bleakest artists and one of film noir’s blackest visionaries, Ulmer today is all but forgotten, except for a handful of admirers and a score of detractors.”
Running parallel to the films Ulmer was making in Europe in the 1950s — resulting in a string of transatlantic passages and a passport littered with entry and exit stamps — were several offbeat American productions, the kinds of movies that would later be released on DVD from companies like Something Weird Video or Sinister Cinema. They encompass three science fiction features, a last return to horror, and an especially outré nudist film. All of these pictures depict a recurrent yearning for an alternative universe. Indeed, at around this same time, in the early 1950s, Ulmer wrote a short piece called “The Director’s Responsibility,” in which he not only called the mainstream film industry “a sad and confused place,” but suggested it had “lost the markets of the world” (markets into which he had hoped to make a few minor incursions). And yet, as he also observes somewhat later in the same piece, “Hollywood is the city of 1,000 dreams in the public’s eyes.” Ever the inveterate dreamer, Ulmer never gave up on the idea of making movies in Southern California’s factories — he simply adjusted. As B-movie specialist Tom Weaver has noted, Ulmer’s US-based projects from this period were all essentially work-for-hire, odd jobs that he picked up here and there during fallow periods when his income sources were limited.
The first of these assorted projects, The Man from Planet X (1951), came to Ulmer through his agent Ilse Lahn, at the Paul Kohner Agency on Sunset Boulevard, who also served as associate producer of the film. It was made for Mid Century Films, a company run by writer-producers Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, and later released by United Artists. Like much of his work at the Poverty Row powerhouse Producers Releasing Corporation, in the early to mid-1940s, Planet X was shot in less than a week in mid-December 1950, and had almost no budget to speak of (when a car pulls into the frame, in two separate shots in the film, it has to back out as there’s simply no set beyond what’s captured in the frame); the final line on the budget was a meager $41,000. “I think Edgar could get more on the screen, with less time and money,” commented Pollexfen in retrospect, “than any other director I worked with. [He] could get more values than any of the B-budget specialists.” Ulmer shot the film on location, at the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, just north of Los Feliz, and on the Hal Roach lot in Culver City, where, as he’d done in the past, he made clever use of leftover sets — in this case, from Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948). Ulmer designed many of the additional sets himself, painting the glass backdrops and working together with art director Angelo Scibetta, who had previously had a hand in such matters on Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943)and Bluebeard (1944).
The film takes place largely within the half-lit interior of an observatory setting on what’s to be taken first for a California college campus and later for a remote island off the coast of Scotland, which Ulmer conveys by way of hand-painted backdrops, a miniature castle nestled in the highland marshes, loads of thick fog created from Nu-Gel and tetrachloride (causing everyone on the set to become ill), and a few stock shots of cliffs and crashing surf. The opening sequence has hard-boiled American reporter John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) giving a tense voice-over account, in flashback, of the sensational events that he himself has just witnessed (“the strangest story a newspaperman has ever covered”) while visiting the amiable Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) in Scotland. A former wartime meteorologist responsible for observing bomber raids, Elliot had been tracking the orbit of the unknown Planet X, when, in Lawrence’s ominous telling, science fiction and film noir became odd bedfellows.
Lawrence is not the only one visiting Professor Elliot at the time his story takes place. An unsavory, shifty former student, Dr. Mears (William Schallert), is also present, as is Elliot’s doting young daughter Enid (Margaret Field, mother of Sally), when a spaceship from Planet X carrying an alien robot suddenly arrives on the scene. Invasion fantasies were, as David Skal points out, not at all uncommon in Hollywood films from the early 1950s. (Ulmer himself began his unpublished piece on “The Director’s Responsibility,” written around the same time, with the image of a “visitor from Mars.”) Yet the real threat in Ulmer’s film, hailed in the trade press as “one of the first out in the new cycle dealing with space visitors from other planets,” is not so much invasion of the kind seen in other Red Scare films of the period but rather Mears’s misguided attempt — pinning the alien to the ground and turning off his life-support valve — to exploit the creature from Planet X in the service of greed and his personal quest for power.
The alien creature, played by a small Russian-born former vaudeville actor known for his slow-motion routine, eventually turns on Dr. Mears, much like the Golem in Paul Wegener’s eponymous film of 1920, causing him to become enslaved by the same inexplicable, mesmeric ray that has nearly the entire population in a zombielike state. The “terror of a split society,” as Franco Moretti once dubbed it, and the need to heal that split, is the driving force of the remainder of the film. After the creature from Planet X turns on the villagers, there is a deepening gulf between those who are enslaved to the alien and those who, like John Lawrence and a local constable (Roy Engel), as well as the detectives from Scotland Yard who soon descend upon the town, are able to keep from being enlisted in the army of zombies. By the end of the film, Mears and the alien robot are both killed off, while the professor, Enid, and the villagers are mercifully spared.
Like other Ulmer films from the period, the mise-en-scène is rather spare, even bleak, with few technical embellishments (in an early scene at the college observatory, Lawrence is told “the world is now experiencing strange astronomical phenomena,” and thus the scene is shot entirely in the dark). Even the alien’s mask is quite primitive with “eyes of a dead cod fish,” as one of the spooked villagers comments in the film (Ulmer is said to have referred to the mask while on the set as “the douche bag from space”). Given the film’s reliance on such simple, inexpensive aesthetic touches as hiding a small light inside the alien’s helmet for some minor shadow play, what might be considered part of Ulmer’s Weimar-era bag of tricks — the painted sets, the seemingly static focus on inanimate objects, a fog-drenched atmosphere, artful lighting, and composition — it almost seems, as writer Jay Bonansinga has suggested, “as if the gods of German [silent] cinema had come down and breathed fiery life into this cartoonish UFO film.” Pollexfen himself spoke of the film, and in particular of Ulmer, in a similar vein: “His flair was mood. I think if silent films had lasted, he could have become one of the greats.” He elaborated on this fundamental point: “Ulmer was [an] extremely good director for a fast picture […] When he had to turn out the best possible film he could with his back to the wall, he was marvelous.” The film’s lead actor Robert Clarke, who would go on to star in Ulmer’s Beyond the Time Barrier years later, explains things somewhat differently, once more emphasizing the fate of the B-movie director: “He was never given the kind of opportunity he really deserved, because he could make pictures so inexpensively that’s about all he ever got to do!”
In early March 1951, independent exhibitor Sherrill Corwin, who by then had purchased the finished film of Planet X (Pollexfen and Wisberg retained 25 percent), arranged a test screening at San Francisco’s Paramount Theatre. It was an apparent success, and the film soon opened across the country. Exhibitors and merchandisers were quick to seize upon the exploitation value of the film (the tagline used on the poster art made this plain: “The Weirdest Visitor the Earth Has Ever seen!”), helping to lure audiences to the box office. Ulmer, however, would see none of the profits, none of the “excellent returns in the ballyhoo market” that Variety correctly forecasted. Finally, in the popular press, the review that the film received in The New York Times, soon after opening at the Mayfair, did not mince words:
[O]ne of the most excruciating bores ever to emerge from the pinpoint on this planet known as Hollywood. Before handing out raspberries, it might be fair to suggest that buried in this pitifully low-budget goo is the germ for a compact, spine-tingling little fantasy.
Instead of experiencing a boost, work of this kind, even if it anticipated, on a much smaller scale, such cult classics as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), continued to push Ulmer further to the periphery, away from the mainstream and away from the spotlight. This may explain in part why Ulmer, along with several other European-born émigré filmmakers of his generation, including André de Toth, Robert Siodmak, and Jacques Tourneur, would later be thought of chiefly as purveyors of “expressive esoterica” (“unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both,” as Andrew Sarris fashioned the category in his influential American Cinema). The movies Ulmer made in the United States during the 1950s, especially the more outlandish productions, continued to take him in this direction.
Sandwiched between his science fiction films made in California and, somewhat later, in Texas were two other cheapies, a fly-by-night horror film and a Z-budget nudie. Like Planet X, neither of these films ran much more than 70 minutes and neither was apt to enhance the director’s reputation. On Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, his horror quickie of 1957, released by Allied Artists that summer as the lower half of a double bill with Bert Gordon’s The Cyclops, Ulmer worked again with producer Pollexfen and agent-producer Lahn. They shot on location in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles (“the Beverly Hills of seventy years ago,” as lead actress Gloria Talbott recalls) in an old mansion; made in less than a week, it was, in Talbott’s words, “one of those ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ shoots.” Pollexfen supplied the script, a confection of horror motifs built much more around atmosphere than narrative, and veteran horror and sci-fi actor John Agar played opposite Talbott in the lead.
Following a voiceover prelude, cuing the viewer to the long, terror-filled history of Dr. Jekyll, a car drives up to a mysterious estate somewhere in England, filmed in miniature and enshrouded in billowy fog, indicating the arrival of Janet Smith (Talbott) and her fiancé George Hastings (Agar) at the home of Dr. Lomas (Arthur Shields), a scientist who moonlights as a werewolf. Janet and George function in the film more or less as do the naïve American couple Peter and Joan Alison in Ulmer’s earlier entry to the genre, The Black Cat (1934), uncovering and eventually escaping the depths of horror. Something of a Poelzig-like figure from that earlier film, Dr. Lomas serves as Janet’s legal guardian, and yet has obvious designs on her — not, perhaps, to embalm her body behind glass, as in Black Cat, but to help guide her toward the demonic world of the werewolf. As he soon explains to Janet that she carries with her the legacy of her late father Dr. Henry Jekyll (“May his tortured soul rest in peace”), we see her, in a pair of hallucinatory nightmare sequences, transforming herself into a ghoulish doppelgänger (played by an actual body double for Talbott) — talons, fangs, and all — and leaving victims in her wake. Undeterred by Janet’s condition, George sets out to solve the mystery, much like Peter Alison, with the same doe-eyed expressions of a Boy Scout, eventually saving Janet and killing off the werewolf-possessed Dr. Lomas.
As in Planet X, Ulmer’s principal strength in Dr. Jekyll is in mood and atmosphere. It may not have the dynamism of Bluebeard or the full-blown campiness of The Black Cat, but it does show a flair for illusion, for getting the most out of smoke pots and miniatures, and for working with actors. (As Sarris wrote, perhaps half in jest, “anyone who loves cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll.”) Talbott especially, who would soon after star in a seeming mash-up of Planet X and Dr. Jekyll, I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) shows notable strength in playing the tormented heir to her father’s condition, and she later credited Ulmer for her portrayal. “He just was easy to work with,” she told Tom Weaver. “He was not Douglas Sirk, who thinks he can get a performance out of somebody by scaring them to death. He was affable and fun — a pixie, sort of.” Unlike some of the more trying of Ulmer’s later films, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll seems to have allowed him a little levity. One scene in particular, an otherwise fleeting and inconsequential interlude near the close, granted him the occasion to toy with the viewers’ voyeuristic impulses. Ulmer has cinematographer John F. Warren place the camera outside the window of an unsuspecting woman (Marjorie Stapp), a Barbara Payton–style platinum blonde dressed in nothing but a black bustier, putting on her stockings and sheer negligee while a jazz record plays on a phonograph and the werewolf lingers lasciviously outside her window. He ogles her in an obvious state of intoxicated delight, as she takes a call from an operator warning her that the werewolf is on the loose. The werewolf finally enters the room, his menacing shadow cast on the wall behind her, and kills her amid shrieks while the jazz record and the operator’s panicked voice trail off. A mere flash in the film, a chance to emphasize vulnerability and complicity — perhaps causing the Legion of Decency to give the film a B rating — the scene forms an unexpected link to the next feature Ulmer would make, in September 1958, under the pseudonym Ove H. Sehested.
Shot over a couple of weeks on location in Los Angeles County, and partly set in Paris (by way of stock footage of the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, the Moulin Rouge, and Orly Airport, as well as a few apartment interiors and painted backdrops), The Naked Venus was prompted by Ulmer’s desire to work with French producer Gaston Hakim. He hoped that by agreeing to direct a nudie, co-scripted and produced by Hakim, he might later be given more prestigious projects to complete on the other side of the Atlantic. Although those projects never materialized, The Naked Venus, released the third week of April 1959 by Gaston Hakim International Pictures, was not merely a curio on the director’s résumé (in fact, it was often kept from his past service records). Rather, it was a throwback to Weimar-era free body culture, an update to the beach scenes in Menschen am Sonntag (1930), Ulmer’s directorial debut in Weimar Germany with Robert Siodmak, sans swimsuits, couched in the post-McCarthy climate and puritanical social mores of the United States.
The story, co-written by Hakim and an unknown writer named Gabriel Gort (quite possibly a front for Ulmer), chronicles the unhappy return of American Bob Dixon (Don Roberts), a decorated war veteran and aspiring painter living in Paris with his French wife Yvonne (Patricia Conelle) and their small daughter Sherie (Sherie Elms), to his childhood home. At the urging of his domineering mother, Bob and his family leave Paris, where they once enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle among expats, artists, jazz fans, and other eccentrics, and come to California to the conservative domicile of Mrs. Dixon (Wynn Gregory). A woman of considerable wealth and respectability, Bob’s mother uses all the means at her disposal to drive a wedge between her son and Yvonne. She impugns Yvonne’s character, as an artist’s model and practicing nudist, hiring a private detective to document her morally dubious behavior; she accelerates divorce proceedings, manipulating evidence against Yvonne in an attempt to gain custody of her granddaughter; and she keeps her son in her clutches, nearly destroying all remnants of his past life in the process.
With an eye toward the same kind of prurient voyeurism addressed in Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, The Naked Venus opens with a prologue showing two men with cameras and binoculars draped around their necks and tripods in their hands, winding their way down a mountainous path to an alpine lake. What could at first easily be mistaken for a naturalist expedition soon reveals itself as something altogether different. As the men look through their binoculars, and soon through the lens of a Bolex 16 camera, we see the object of their study is not birds, bears, or mountain lions but rather two nude women swimming and frolicking about — the one woman, who we later learn is Yvonne, stretches out, performing Mary Wigman–style dance movements in the sun, nothing but classical music playing in the background, and looking vaguely like a nude athlete from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938). Only after watching the entire movie do we realize that the man looking into the viewfinder and grinning with intense self-satisfaction (he lets out: “Oh, Mrs. Dixon is gonna like this!”) is the private investigator (Allan Singer) hired by Mrs. Dixon to besmirch the reputation of Yvonne and help build a case for divorce.
Although the film is classified as a “nudie,” very little of it depicts actual nudity — apart from a few scattered scenes at the lake and within the Royal Palms Nudist Park, where Yvonne seeks refuge when she and her daughter flee the home of Mrs. Dixon. Even then, the nudism, nothing that would warrant above a PG rating today, is more in keeping with the Freikörperkultur (free body culture), the German naturist movement that Ulmer knew well from Europe — and to which he and Shirley are said to have shown great sympathy in their private lives (“the practice of nudism is anyone’s private business,” asserts Dr. Hewitt in the film) — than with the grindhouse pictures of the 1950s and ’60s. Its main emphasis lies instead in the courtroom drama that occurs a little less than halfway through, when we witness the divorce proceedings. Yvonne receives legal representation by a young, independent-minded female litigator named Lynn Wingate, played with remarkable dexterity by Arianne Arden (née Ulmer, the director’s daughter). The daughter of a powerful judge, Wingate seizes the opportunity to demonstrate her rhetorical skills, exposing the moral hypocrisy in the tactics used by Mrs. Dixon and her private investigator. She eventually calls as her star witness Dr. Hewitt (Harry Lovejoy), director of the contemporary art museum in Paris where Bob’s paintings, among them the so-called “Naked Venus,” hang. “Ignorance and prejudice have always been civilization’s archenemies,” Dr. Hewitt tells the court.
The film may be best understood as Ulmer’s take on the so-called Auflärungsfilme, or enlightenment films, of the 1920s aimed at reforming the public’s views of taboo topics. In that vein the courtroom drama serves as a subtle commentary on the McCarthy-era witch hunts, the House Un-American Activities Committee interrogations, and the discrimination against those thought to be political subversives. It was not at all uncommon at the time to lump nudism together with other un-American activities. “Non-nudists seem convinced that nudists are ‘freaks,’” noted one contemporary testimonial. “They believe that nudists go to nudist camps merely to satisfy their warped sexual, animalistic urges […] They usually consider nudists to be acute exhibitionists. Some consider them to be a ‘Communistic tactic.’” Finally, the film’s sharp critique of puritanical morality, especially as it impinges on artistic expression, further anticipates the incendiary debate, some three decades later, concerning Robert Mapplethorpe’s nude photography and the support it received from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Faced with another girdle-tight schedule of little more than 14 days, in April 1959, Ulmer shot two independent sci-fi flicks back-to-back in Dallas, Texas. The first of these, Beyond the Time Barrier, was made with a budget of $125,000 and photographed on an abandoned hangar from the 1936 Centennial Fairgrounds and at Carswell Air Force base in Fort Worth. The production manager Lester Guthrie, whose father W.L. “Pop” Guthrie served as the location coordinator, knew Ulmer from Planet X, on which the younger Guthrie had been assistant director. Sometime in the fall of 1958, after reading the apocalyptic script by Arthur C. Pierce, a former naval photographer, Guthrie approached Robert Clarke, who played John Lawrence in Planet X and who had purchased the rights to Pierce’s script. “If you want to get the most out of this picture,” Guthrie told Clarke, “I would highly recommend Ulmer.” Ostensibly drawn to the visual possibilities of the script, Ulmer quickly threw himself into the project, working together with the experienced German-born art director Ernst Fegté, who helped transform the drab interiors of the Centennial Building into a dynamic and visually striking space — a world in which Russian constructivism and German expressionism merge.
Ulmer chose to shoot in a semi-documentary style reminiscent of the Turbocharger shorts he directed on a freelance assignment for the air force during the war. The basic storyline is cast against a tense political backdrop in which the arms race and the threat of nuclear disaster loom large. US Air Force major William Allison (Clarke) embarks on a mission to explore the limits of speed travel in space, and in the process, breaking the time barrier, he is catapulted forward from the year 1960 to the year 2024. Allison lands his aircraft at a long-abandoned air base (in reality, Carswell Field in Fort Worth) that now serves as a deserted no-man’s land shared by an angry, oppressed group of mutants (an unruly group of male extras dressed in tattered clothes and ill-fitting swim caps) and The Supreme (Vladimir Sokoloff) and his loyalists. Cosmic plague has devastated the planet, and the future appears nothing but grim. Allison becomes a prisoner of The Supreme, but manages to form an alliance with three other fellow time-travelers, similarly stranded in the citadel: Dr. Bourman (John Van Dreelen), General Karl Kruse (Stephen Bekassy), known with wicked irony as “Karl Kraus,” the sharp-tongued critic from the Vienna of Ulmer’s childhood, and Captain Markova (named after the British ballerina Alicia Markova, in whose New York apartment the Ulmers had once lived), played by Ulmer’s daughter Arianné (credited as Arianne Arden). The scheme that finally gets hatched, and is aided by the Supreme’s granddaughter, the deaf Princess Trirene (Darlene Tompkins), is to send Allison back to the year 1960 with the hope that he might prevent “cosmic plague” from ever occurring (in the story, the plague arrived in 1971, and so Allison, in traveling back to 1960, offers the only hope of reversing history).
One by one, each of these scientists betrays the other, revealing the inexorable madness lurking beneath their scientific knowledge. Each is out for him- or herself, desirous of harnessing the power of science to go back in time, leaving the others behind. Allison functions merely as a pawn in their power struggle; he is the only one who knows how to operate the aircraft that will transport him back to 1960. In the end, when he finally does return home alone, he is debriefed, now looking six decades older than when he embarked on his mission, by officials flown in from Washington (Ulmer uses his old visual shorthand showing a couple of quick stock shots of the Pentagon). Allison begs them to end their own version of mad science — nuclear proliferation and such policies as Mutually Assured Destruction. After he explains his experiences, the head of the questioning team, in the movie’s final line, says, with the camera resting on Allison’s haggard, shell-shocked face: “Gentlemen, we’ve got a lot to think about.” This rather heavy-handed finale reflects Ulmer’s own deeper skepticism about the path modern science and the arms race were then taking. As his daughter Arianné has said:
The pessimism of these films was the result of the fear of nuclear catastrophe which we all felt at the time […] Ulmer’s fear was even greater than ours, as he had to experienced things during the First World War, which he did not wish to witness again. He was sure that World War III stood before us.
The second of these films, The Amazing Transparent Man, treats the fantasy of a top-secret experiment in rendering human life invisible. Famed safe-cracker Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy) — yes, Faust — is assisted in a prison break only to be used by evil-minded Major Paul Krenner (James Griffith) — not quite Mephisto but not a far cry from him either — a former military man who suffers from delusions of grandeur in the form of a scheme to assemble an invisible army. Faust doesn’t exactly sell his soul, but he does become a part of the ongoing experiment conducted by Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault), a man who has, as he tells us, had his “soul,” which is to say his daughter, taken from him and therefore has no choice but to perform his function in Krenner’s experiment. As long as his daughter is held hostage, he has no freedom to disengage himself from the morally dubious and highly dangerous project. Underpinning the larger drama that ensues in the act of becoming invisible — and the break-in at a local power plant made possible only because of the invisibility — is the gathering threat of nuclear disaster. Several years before the release of Ulmer’s film, an article in The New York Times spoke of “an age of A-Bombs, B-pictures, cold wars and science fiction,” almost anticipating a picture like The Amazing Transparent Man. The fear of scientific secrets landing in the wrong hands was widespread — this was, after all, the immediate wake of the highly publicized Rosenberg execution. In her essay of 1965 “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag makes the trenchant point that in American science fiction films of this period there often “lurk the deepest anxieties about [our] contemporary existence.” As she puts it further in the same essay:
I don’t mean only the very real trauma of the Bomb — that it has been used, that there are enough now to kill everyone on earth many times over, that those new bombs may very well be used. Besides these new anxieties about physical disaster, the prospect of universal mutilation and even annihilation, the science fiction films reflect powerful anxieties about the condition of the individual psyche.
Ulmer’s film ends with a tense battle between Faust and Krenner, a battle in which the mad scientist (Krenner) and his disobedient assistant are decimated, together with the laboratory, in a massive nuclear mushroom cloud. Thanks to the help of a reformed Faust, the good Dr. Ulof manages to escape with his daughter. And in the final scenes, as he watches the explosion from afar in the company of a pair of G-men, Ulof explains that the CIA is considering exploring such experiments — with the idea of creating an invisible army to fight against national threats. Ulof looks directly into the camera, with a kind of Brechtian self-awareness, and says, “It’s a serious problem. What would you do?”
Some three decades after interviewing Ulmer, when the forum had changed from printed text to movie blog, Peter Bogdanovich offered a bold reappraisal tucked into a review of the recent DVD release of Bluebeard. “The career of director Edgar G. Ulmer,” he observes, “one of the diehard film buff’s major cult favorites, is an object lesson in the triumph of talent, courage, ingenuity and passion over time and money.” He compares his observations of the film from more than 40 years ago, when he first saw it, to those after screening the DVD. His final assessment underscores Ulmer’s long-term significance:
That so much good work could be accomplished with so little encouragement and so few means makes our current situation — much money, little talent — all the more distressing, and Ulmer’s achievement all the more impressive.
Ulmer’s life and career still have much to say to a new generation of movie fans and aspiring filmmakers, working in a DIY digital era, when minimalism and independent production are experiencing yet another new wave. It’s hard not to wonder what Ulmer might have pulled off with little more than an iPhone and his boundless imagination.
This essay is excerpted from Noah Isenberg’s book Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, due out from UC Press in early January. Book events will be held at McNally Jackson in NYC on January 13, at Book Soup in LA on January 23, and at D.G. Wills in La Jolla on January 24. There will also be an Ulmer film series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on January 10-11 and January 17-18.
Noah Isenberg is professor and chair of culture and media at The New School, as well as the director of screen studies. His latest book, Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins will be published by the University of California Press in early January 2014.
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