Documentary Review: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen (2004)

Release Date: September 4th, 2004 (Germany)
Directed by: Michael Palm
Written by: Michael Palm
Cast: Edgar G. Ulmer (voice, archive footage), Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, John Landis, Ann Savage, John Saxon, William Schallert, Arianne Ulmer, Tom Weaver, Wim Wenders

Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation, Mischief Films, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), 77 Minutes

Review:

While I was perusing the offerings on the Criterion Channel, I came across this documentary about filmmaker, Edgar G. Ulmer.

This guy made magic in three of my favorite genres: horror, science fiction and film-noir. I believe that this documentary may actually be included on the Criterion Collection version of Detour.

What’s neat about it is that it features interviews and conversations with a lot of well known directors and actors that worked with or were influenced by Ulmer’s work behind the camera.

This also features his daughter who gives more intimate details on Ulmer, his life, her life as his daughter, as well as talking about her time in front of the camera with her father directing.

I really liked the conversation here between Joe Dante and John Landis. I also enjoyed the parts with John Saxon, Ann Savage, Roger Corman and Wim Wenders.

This was just a solid piece of work that really went through the man’s career with insight from some of the people who were there and others who had their own unique insight.

I couldn’t find a trailer for the documentary, so I put a trailer for Detour below, as it is my favorite Edgar G. Ulmer picture.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about horror, sci-fi and noir filmmakers.

Film Review: The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)

Also known as: Search for a Shadow (script title)
Release Date: February 24th, 1960 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Jack Lewis
Music by: Darrell Calker
Cast: Marguerite Chapman, Douglas Kennedy, James Griffith, Ivan Triesault

Miller Consolidated Pictures (MCP), American International Pictures (re-release), 58 Minutes

Review:

“I must know the full potential of your invention because my aim is to make an entire army invisible. Do you understand that? An entire army.” – Major Paul Krenner

Edgar G. Ulmer isn’t a famous director but he is a fairly accomplished one in that he made a film-noir classic with Detour and also a pretty solid old school horror film called The Black Cat, which teamed up then horror superstars Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and John Carradine. He was also one of the German directors that worked on People On Sunday, as well as helming other noteworthy films: Bluebeard and The Man From Planet X.

Later in his career, he directed this film. And while many can call it a turkey, it does mash up two genres he was known for, crime pictures and sci-fi. Also, it was properly riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and has since become a bit of a cult classic because of that.

The Amazing Transparent Man is an incredibly short motion picture but it didn’t need to be longer and it plays more like an episode of a sci-fi anthology television series.

The plot is about a an invisibility machine that an Army major wants to use to create invisible soldiers in an effort to conquer the world. A prison break is orchestrated to free a notorious safe cracker who is tasked with stealing the nuclear material needed to perfect the machine. There are some noir twists, a femme fatale even and we get to see the invisible machine in all its glory, which actually works quite well considering the special effects of the time, as well as this production’s budgetary constraints.

Still, this is far from Ulmer’s best work and is a pretty hokey and slow paced film with wooden acting and not enough imagination considering the premise and how this could have gone in more interesting directions. Additionally, it looks cheap, it doesn’t have anything close to the great atmosphere of his better films and if I’m being honest, I don’t know if he even cared about this picture or if he just needed a paycheck.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: other low budget sci-fi pictures from the era, especially those that were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Film Review: The Strange Woman (1946)

Release Date: October 25th, 1946
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Hunt Stromberg, Edgar G. Ulmer, Herb Meadow
Based on: The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Alan Napier

Hunt Stromberg Productions, Mars Film Corporation, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“[Giving a sermon, quoting from Proverbs 5:3] The lips of a strange woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil… But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword!” – Lincoln Pittridge

I’ve really come to enjoy Edgar G. Ulmer as a director. As I’ve been watching a lot of film-noir, in recent months, I was thoroughly impressed with his film Detour and also really enjoyed his earlier pictures The Black Cat and People On Sunday, which was a collaboration with other German and Austrian born noir directors, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder. Also being a fan of Hedy Lamarr, as an actress and a person, I had to give this film a shot.

It also stars George Sanders and Alan Napier has a small role in it too.

While this does fall into the realm of film-noir, it is very much a character study that showcases the bizarre behavior and traits of Hedy Lamarr’s Jenny Hager, a conflicted and complex woman who at first seems mean, selfish and irrational but you see her portrayed in such an honest and intimate light that you get the feeling that she isn’t always in control of her actions, as if some uncontrollable force is driving her. Nowadays, we call this stuff “mental illness”.

The film and the character of Jenny work so well because of how damn good Hedy Lamarr was in this role. She humanized a person that could have easily just been a monster or a one-dimensional femme fatale. Despite her wickedness, you feel something for her and like George Sanders’ John Evered, you want to help her. It’s easy to see why the men in the film get so wrapped up in her despite her natural beauty. I really need to work my way through Lamarr’s work again but this is my favorite performance she ever gave us.

Ulmer had a talent for taking something as common as a noir picture and giving it a little something extra. Detour was a harsh and high octane noir that is unique and exceptional. This film sort of does the same thing but it is less “in your face” about it. It’s got this underlying darkness that you don’t quite understand until the narrative evolves into something more personal and complex. But where Detour is like a wrestler in a no holds barred cage match to the death, The Strange Woman is more like a pretty girl that gives you a kiss but you don’t know you’ve been poisoned by her until its too late. Both are rough and brutal but in very different ways. Regardless, the end result is still pretty effective and final.

The Strange Woman isn’t the best film-noir and I do like Ulmer’s Detour more but it is still an intimate experience and a wild ride through a crazy woman’s mind. It’s well shot, stupendously acted and offers up something more than a typical noir picture.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other Hedy Lamarr film-noirs, most notably Dishonored Lady.

Film Review: People On Sunday (1930)

Also known as: Menschen am Sonntag (Germany)
Release Date: February 4th, 1930 (Germany)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak
Music by: Otto Stenzeel, Elena Kaets-Chernin (2000 version)
Cast:  Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer

Filmstudio, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek/Berlin, 73 Minutes

Review:

I was delving into the deep recesses of film-noir throughout the entire month of November, as I was celebrating Noirvember and dedicated to covering just the noir style for a month here at Cinespiria.

While delving deep, I came across this picture, which isn’t noir but was created by four people who would become prominent contributors to the film-noir movement after they left Germany in the 1930s.

Those four men are:

Robert Siodmak – the director of The KillersCriss CrossThe Phantom Lady and others.

Curt Siodmak – Robert’s brother and a screenwriter who worked in film-noir and often times with his brother.

Edgar G. Ulmer – the director of DetourThe Strange WomanMurder Is My Beat and others.

Billy Wilder – one of the most accomplished directors in history, who gave us the film-noirs Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, as well as other classics such as, The ApartmentSome Like It HotSabrina and so many others.

The film is notable for its historical importance, as it displays everyday life for Berliners just before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany. Their rise to power is also why the men behind this film escaped to Hollywood.

People On Sunday starts by telling you that none of the people depicted in the film are professional actors and that they are indeed real people whose jobs in the film are their jobs in real life. The film also states that these people have already returned to their day jobs by the time of this film’s release. The movie was filmed on Sundays in Berlin, when the people in the film had time to do it around the hustle and bustle of their lives.

Critics that were around Berlin back in 1930, have said that the film feels like a true and authentic experience of what life was like at that time in Berlin. The film initially gives you hope that these people will always be able to enjoy their lazy carefree Sundays but in modern times, we know that there is no happy ending with the evil powers that will soon overtake much of Europe.

People On Sunday is a fairly short and sweet film but it is impossible to watch it and not think of what is on the horizon for the people in the movie, all of whom are real and not fictional characters. It has a similar effect on me as Fritz Lang’s M, a German film from 1931, that also showcases urban life just before Hitler changed the world forever.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: The Black Cat (1934)

Also known as: The Vanishing Body
Release Date: May 7th, 1934
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Peter Ruric, Edgar G. Ulmer
Based on: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Heinz Eric Roemheld
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 65 Minutes

Review:

“You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.” – Hjalmar Poelzig

The Black Cat is a film that fits under the Universal Monsters banner, even if it was a one-off and not apart of their bigger series like Dracula and Frankenstein. But it does feature the stars of both those franchises: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The film was also directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a guy who wouldn’t reach superstardom in Hollywood but would direct some pretty notable pictures and make a few worthwhile film-noirs.

The best part about this film is it puts Lugosi and Karloff together and not as creatures or men in heavy makeup or prosthetics. They actually get to play off of each other as humans, Karloff being the mad man and Lugosi being a heroic doctor that still exudes his Count Dracula vibe.

The name of the film comes from an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Within the film, it is a reference to Lugosi’s character and his abnormal fear of cats.

Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a difficult name to pronounce. He is an Austrian architect. Once our heroes, a newlywed couple and Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast meet on a train, they are stuck together for the rest of the film, most of which takes place at Poelzig’s lavish and futuristic looking home. In fact, the interiors resemble a film-noir set from the late 1940s. The cinematography is also similar and maybe this is what led to Ulmer directing film-noir a decade later.

The Black Cat isn’t a great film but it is a better than decent 1930s horror flick that stars the two biggest horror icons of the time. It is a pretty significant picture for films of the genre and the era.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Detour (1945)

Release Date: November 15th, 1945 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Martin Goldsmith
Based on: Detour: An Extraordinary Tale by Martin Goldsmith
Music by: Leo Erdody
Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage

Producers Releasing Corporation, 68 Minutes

Review:

“Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.” – Al Roberts

Historically speaking, this is mostly an unknown film. To fans of film-noir, however, it holds a special place among the great noir pictures of the 1940s.

On its surface, it is a b-movie. It wasn’t made by a major studio and was one of countless noir style pictures that were being churned out like ice cream cones at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

However, with so many of these movies being made, one of these b-pictures had to stand out. Granted, it isn’t the only b-movie noir to make some sort of impact but it is one of the most beloved by noir experts.

I never saw this picture. Reading about it in several places made me want to check it out and I’m glad that I did. Detour is an exceptional movie and a lot better than it should have been but the studios on “Poverty Row” had to fight hard to compete with the big studio system in Hollywood.

The script was really good but it was also adapted by the guy who wrote the novel that the film was based on. It’s an interesting story, well executed and a lot of the credit also has to go to the performances of Tom Neal and Ann Savage. They weren’t Oscar caliber performances but the two leads had a chemistry and Savage was dedicated in her commitment to the role of the unlikable and brutal Vera.

The film also makes the most out of very little and shows that ingenuity and heart can go a long way. I’m not sure if Edgar G. Ulmer, the director, intended to make something this good with the limitations of the production but he succeeded. He had experience in producing quality pictures though, as he did a pretty good job eleven years earlier at Universal with The Black Cat, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and an uncredited John Carradine.

This is a relatively short movie but it tells its story and is quickly paced. The only real negative, is that you don’t seem to have enough invested in Tom Neal’s Al Roberts to care too much about his fate, even though he is an innocent guy that just stumbled into a bad situation.

Detour is still impressive. For fans of film-noir, it should be seen, as it is quite possibly the best of the b-movie noirs of the era and it stands above a lot of the films the major studios were putting out.

Rating: 8.5/10