The auteur theory had no greater old-school test case than Moravian émigré and skid-row scrambler Edgar G. Ulmer—a Cahiers du Cinéma critic once declared that Ulmer’s career theme was “the great loneliness of man without God,” while to the untrained (or non-obsessive) eye any case made for him as a stylist and artist has to first confront most of his films’ ramshackle cheapness. All the same, the chilly tarnish of Ulmer’s cinema povera can seem more authentic and revelatory than films 10 times as expensive and polished. After he was dumped by Universal (reputedly for running away with executive Max Alexander’s wife during the shooting of The Black Cat, which is a veritable splooge of post- expressionist design), Ulmer became a work-anywhere traveler, doing auto industry promotional shorts between lowball genre
assignments. He may be best regarded, in this age of anti-hierarchical analysis, as an authentic outsider whose specialty became humble B movies for immigrant and minority specialty houses; his made-in-America oeuvre features films in Ukrainian, Spanish, Hungarian, and Yiddish.
Any survey of Ulmer haplessly opens countless mid-century, low-culture closets, and this three-disc set is a historical trove. First, five features (all in English): the relatively accomplished Bluebeard (1944), starring John Carradine; the freaky 1945 Freudian noir/Hamlet redux Strange Illusion; the relatively well-heeled Hedy Lamarr–George Sanders melodrama The Strange Woman (1946); the somnambulistic weirdo Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957); and rarest of all, Ulmer’s 1939 all-black, noir-musical “race film” Moon Over Harlem, a hand-to-mouth explosion of stereotypes and cultural recognition independently made for ghetto movie houses. But there’s also Ulmer’s never-aired color TV pilot version, shot on spec in Mexico, of Swiss Family Robinson (1958), the 1940 educational short Goodbye, Mr. Germ, numerous featurettes, trailers, commentaries, stills, and an interview with his widow, who has apparently been sitting on a lot of this material, waiting for someone to ask.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 25, 2005