Low and Behold

Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer," Andrew Sarris chuckled in The American Cinema, as though the idea of this unique director— a bargain- basement maestro who epitomized the category Sarris termed "expressive esoterica"— was even more remarkable than the director himself. But Edgar George Ulmer (1900­1972), a filmmaker who set up aesthetic shop in the recesses of Poverty Row, requires no indulgence. The man was a hero.

Reading the extensive interview that Peter Bogdanovich conducted with the ailing Ulmer in 1970, it's natural to wonder whether the filmmaker's bizarre trajectory from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari through the Universal horror factory and the Ukrainian independent cinema to the Hollywood B-movie mill and eternal idiocies of Beyond the Time Barrier was Bogdanovich's invention. Here was a filmmaker whose major commercial success, Damaged Lives (1933), was a banned educational film on venereal disease that wound up grossing $1.4 million and whose greatest artistic achievement, Detour (1946), was produced on a rented soundstage in under a week. Could such a vita be real?

Raised in imperial Vienna, where he studied architecture, Ulmer broke into movies as a teenager in post-World War I Berlin and, shuttling for the next decade between Germany and the U.S., built sets for F. W. Murnau while directing westerns for Carl Laemmle. A new sort of avant-gardist, Ulmer followed up a classic independent documentary in Berlin with the supremely perverse The Black Cat. Universal's top grossing release for 1934 was "From Caligari to Hitler" in one lurid package, marooning a naive pair of American honeymooners in Europe's heart of darkness as unwitting pawns in the death struggle between a hysterical Hungarian psychiatrist (Bela Lugosi) and a proto-Nazi, Satan-worshipping Austrian architect (Boris Karloff) who has built his steel-and-glass deco castle on the site of World War I's bloodiest battlefield.

John Van Dreelen and Arianné Ulmer in the impressively crazy Beyond the Time Barrier
Film Forum / Photofest
John Van Dreelen and Arianné Ulmer in the impressively crazy Beyond the Time Barrier

Wildly expressionist, bathed in Liszt and Chopin, trafficking in incest, necrophilia, human sacrifice, and sadism, The Black Cat somehow transcended the Production Code (not to mention the narrative incoherence resulting from extensive reshooting). The movie also established the Ulmer style— long, somewhat stolidly choreographed takes punctuated by close-ups (all shot on the last day of production)— which was designed to get the most out of the fewest number of camera setups. This pragmatism was put to the test when, in a career move without Hollywood precedent, Ulmer relocated to New York to make "ethnic" movies on budgets that sometimes failed to break five figures.

Ulmer's inventiveness was legendary— constructing a plywood shtetl in rural New Jersey as the backdrop for both his Ukrainian and Yiddish talkies, shooting Moon Over Harlem entirely with short ends. When he returned to Hollywood during World War II to direct six-day wonders for the B-movie studio PRC, Ulmer demonstrated a formidable capacity for making something from nothing. He created PRC's relatively lavish Isle of Forgotten Sins (1944) using leftover South Seas miniatures from John Ford's The Hurricane. Even more minimal, Club Havana (1945) was shot entirely in the nightclub that might be generically termed The Ulmerocco.

Through the end of his career, Ulmer never lacked for adaptive strategies. He used the saga of a concert-hall cleaning woman as the premise for Carnegie Hall (1947), otherwise a succession of musical performances shot on location. The Amazing Transparent Man and Beyond the Time Barrier, the impressively crazy movies that he made for American-International in 1960, were shot simultaneously in Dallas, using a "futuristic" art exhibit at the Texas State Fairgrounds for postapocalyptic locations. Ulmer might have been the model for Ed Wood but, unlike Wood (or the even more experimental Oscar Micheaux), his ultrapragmatic craft is anything but desultory. Ulmerian mise-en-scène is synonymous with problem solving— and vice versa.

Having served his apprenticeship at Ufa, the world's largest movie studio and citadel of German expressionism, Ulmer embued his PRC productions with a surplus of craft. Far from artless, Ulmer was, if anything, too arty. He cluttered his foregrounds with shrewdly placed bric-a-brac, contrived to dapple the most barren set with shadows, varied angles and forced perspectives, and created "atmosphere" with a vengeance— no director ever made more adroit use of smoke pots and fog machines. Moreover, Ulmer had kultur. Green Fields (1937) adapts a Yiddish stage classic; Strange Illusion (1945) transposes Hamlet to contemporary Southern California; Ruthless (1948), written under a pseudonym by blacklisted Alvah Bessie, remakes Citizen Kane for the equivalent of Orson Welles's dinner allowance.

With the decline of the studio system, Ulmer switched to cheap sci-fi. Watching The Man From Planet X (1950), one need only squint a little (and screen out the corny dialogue) to see this juvenile quickie as an Ufa fantasia filled with expressionist tropes— the spaceship that blinks like a jack-o'-lantern, the alien with the face of a Pacific Indian mask, the lonely castle on the blasted moor. As a filmmaker, Ulmer is actually quite rigorous in proposing his threadbare productions and ridiculous scenarios as a sign system. Not for nothing did the critic Myron Meisel, who used to bestow an annual Ulmer award, call his pioneering Ulmer paean, "The Primacy of the Visual."

Indeed, given the music with which Ulmer characteristically drenched his movies, one wonders if he didn't conceive them as silent. The simpleminded but forceful reform-school drama Girls in Chains (1943)— which, thanks largely to its title (typically conceived before the script was written), was among PRC's biggest hits— ends with a wordless chase over the rooftops worthy of Feuillade. Beyond the Time Barrier, which among other things envisions a civilization of mutant deaf-mutes, suggests an impoverished remake of the 1924 Soviet constructivist space opera Aelita.

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