A Detour for Odysseus
Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker At The Margins
(University of California Press, 2014)
Edgar G. Ulmer once served as a case study for Sigmund Freud’s childhood analysis. He invented the “unchained camera,” the dolly shot, and German Expressionism. He directed Detour, a film noir B-movie almost lost but now preserved in the Library of Congress.
Well, one of those three statements can be verified. The other two can probably be chocked up to Ulmer’s penchant for spinning tall tales and exaggerating his own accomplishments. The enigma surrounding the life and career of filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer is precisely what attracted author Noah Isenberg to write Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker At The Margins. While other authors are drawn to celebrities of greater stature whose lives are well documented, Isenberg preferred the challenge of unraveling the mystery of this European transplant who clearly had talent but never found success in Hollywood.
IMDb lists nearly 100 films for Ulmer between 1920 and 1964. He is probably best remembered for the movies The Black Cat (1934 and starring horror legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) and Detour (1945). However the rest of his films languish in relative anonymity.
Ulmer passed away in 1972, long before Isenberg set out to write his biography. But it’s questionable whether the filmmaker would have shed light on his life and career or only further obscured the truth with made-up stories.
Isenberg, Director of Screen Studies at The New School, says he became interested in Ulmer because “he himself was such a famous, and indeed infamous, storyteller. Lotte Eisner once called him ‘the greatest liar in the history of cinema,’ and I was intrigued by how someone whose list of accomplishments—achieved during his thirty-five-year career as a director—was certainly impressive, but who often felt the need to embellish.”
The challenge for Isenberg was to play detective and uncover what facts he could through research and through the help of Ulmer’s daughter. Arianne Ulmer Cipes, who starred in a handful of her father’s films, runs the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation. She offered Isenberg complete cooperation providing the author with full access to her father’s photos, letters, diaries, and unpublished manuscripts. Isenberg combed through all these documents to try and find things to illuminate Ulmer’s life and career.
Isenberg decided he needed to start at the beginning and went to Austria to track down additional details about Ulmer’s early life. He could find little proof of how Ulmer spent his early childhood and school years, and could only confirm that Ulmer was born on September 17, 1904. Although Ulmer presented himself as a native of Vienna, Isenberg says “the truth of the matter is that he cane into the world not in the Habsburg capital but at his family’s summer residence in the provinces, in the Moravian town of Olmütz (Olomouc), in what is today the Czech Republic.”
Isenberg soon left Austria and moved onto Germany where his research finally started to yield some dividends. He found letters in Berlin between Ulmer and his agent Ilse Lahn that began to paint a picture of Ulmer as an artist of distinct independence and individuality. Ulmer complained to her about the work he was getting but irritated her by making deals on his own.
Isenberg reveals how Ulmer began his filmmaking career doing set and production design work in the 1920s for acclaimed directors like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch. Ulmer made his own directing debut (co-directing with Robert Siodmak) on the 1930 film People on Sunday. Isenberg suggests the frustration Ulmer must have experienced seeing the fame, funding, and attention his fellow European émigré directors would find in Hollywood. People like Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder – all of whom worked on People on Sunday in 1930—would soon outshine Ulmer. But fame and celebrity eluded Ulmer, and he ended up in Hollywood’s netherworld, the unglamorous Poverty Row. Yet those limitations and challenges seemed to inspire Ulmer.
Isenberg quotes director Peter Bogdanovich’s observation about Ulmer: “What he could do with nothing…remains an object lesson for those directors, myself included, who complain about tight budgets and schedules.”
Amazingly prolific and diverse, Ulmer consistently delivered visually dynamic films on painfully small budgets from the 1930s to 1950s. His work during this time ranged from the darkly atmospheric Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi starrer The Black Cat to the "all-colored cast” Moon Over Harlem to the definitive and supremely fatalistic noir Detour. In these films, Isenberg says Ulmer proved that what he learned from Murnau was to emphasize aesthetics over commercial considerations. Perhaps because he lacked precisely the resources that directors at the major Hollywood studios took for granted, Ulmer had to come up with clever solutions to his production problems (a fog machine to obscure the minimal sets was one), solutions that sometimes prompted him to push artistic boundaries and deliver films that still feel fresh and exciting today.
In addition to working on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system, Ulmer also made some odd novelty films like Damaged Lives, a cautionary tale about syphilis produced by the Canadian Social Hygiene Council and Columbia Pictures of Canada. He also made a series of health shorts through the New York based National Tuberculosis Association and Springer Pictures. Let My People Live (1938) was aimed at African Americans, Cloud in the Sky (1940) at Mexican Americans, and Another to Conquer (1941) at Native Americans. What made these films distinct was that Ulmer shot them on location in Alabama, Texas, and on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona. This, coupled with Ulmer’s directing style, endowed the films with an authenticity not often found in films of that time period.
Isenberg’s fascination with and appreciation of Ulmer started before he decided to write a book about the filmmaker. “I’d taught a number of his films in my various classes,” Isenberg says, “for example, his 1934 Lugosi-Karloff entry to the Universal horror cycle The Black Cat presented a kind of afterlife of Weimar Cinema [the German Expressionist movement of 1919-1933] for me, while I’d taught a couple of his Yiddish features in a class I offered at Wesleyan, and I was always rather smitten with Detour. I first started to write on Ulmer in earnest around 2002. What began as a more conventional scholarly study of Ulmer’s work quickly morphed, after publishing a BFI Film Classics monograph on Detour, into a full-scale critical biography. The stories that he told, and the trove of unpublished private papers that I was able to examine, made the book into a much more colorful, more personal, and anecdotal undertaking than I initially envisioned it.”
What also changed were Isenberg’s expectations about what his book would be. He started by wanting clear-cut answers but over time decided on the impossibility of such a goal when dealing with a man like Ulmer.
As you might expect from having the cooperation of Ulmer’s daughter, the book is filled with some great personal photos. There are also photos from his films that help to convey his style to people unfamiliar with some of his movies. It’s too bad that costs probably prevented Isenberg from including some color photos of the fabulous poster art for films such as The Black Cat and Detour.
Isenberg’s book is clearly well-researched. He relies on interviews he conducted as well as citations that help to define Ulmer and his work, like this quote about Ulmer from Austrian critic Bert Rebhandl: “an Odysseus of cinema, who wasn’t destined to return home, but who, on his long voyage through various genres and film cultures, spanned the entire spectrum: cool modernity alongside lascivious speculation, cheap trash beside classic virtuosity.”
Isenberg also has a nice way of heading chapters with quotes that set the stage for what’s to come, like this wonderfully bittersweet line from cult favorite Ed Wood: “Don’t hurry. Oblivion will be there eventually.”
Isenberg concludes, “Ulmer’s chief relevance for people today is on the one hand the richness of his varied career—spanning B-movies, ethnic features, costume dramas, sci-fi, horror, film noir, even a nudie—and on the other the inspiration that his remarkably stylish, if frequently minimalist, low-budget pictures might have for young cineastes hoping to make movies on the cheap.”
Ulmer may not have had the resources given to his fellow émigré directors but that didn’t stop him from endowing his films with a unique personal vision that may finally be finding the appreciation it deserves. Ulmer had a ferocious passion to make films his way and he paid a price for that but audiences can reap the rewards served up on screen by his films, a number of which are now guaranteed to be around for future generations.
BETH ACCOMANDO is the author of the blog Cinema Junkie