Friday, February 21, 2014

Edgar Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins by Noah Isenberg

A few years back I was fortunate enough to catch a season of  Edgar Ulmer films at the National Film Theatre. Of course, Detour has always been a favourite of mine. I think the only other Ulmer film I'd seen at the time was his creepy, failed masterpiece Black Cat, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with a screenplay by hardboiled writer Paul Cain. So I was hoping to see as many of Ulmer's other films as possible.  I'd always been fascinated by this Hollywood-outsider, at least ever since reading Peter Bogdanovich's interview with Ulmer when researching my book Heartbreask & Vine. Over those few days at the NFT I caught, amongst many others, Ulmer's two other films that can definitely be classified as noir-  Reckless and Murder Is My Beat, both low-budget and workmanlike-  the verité-styled People On Sunday, which was his first movie, made in Weimar Berlin with Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, and a sampling of films made for the Yiddish and African-American audiences.

Taken as a whole- he's credited with having directed at least fifty-three films- his work is, of course, uneven, but never less than interesting. Working fast under constant budgetary restraints, he seemed to be able to move from the ridiculous to the sublime, no matter the genre, be it noir, westerns (Thunder Over Texas, The Naked Dawn), science fiction (Planet X, The Amazing Transparent Man), pirate movies (Pirates of Capri), historical films (Hannibal) a film about nudism (Naked Venus) or classical music (Carnegie Hall). As Mid Century writer-producer Jack Pollexfen said, "I think Edgar could get more on the screen with less time and money than any other director I worked with. He could get more values than any of the other B budget specialists."

Born in Moravia, Austria-Hungry in 1904, Ulmer must have always felt like a fish out of water in Hollywood. Cultured, with considerable experience in the theatre- he'd worked with, amongst others, Max Reinhardt-  Ulmer was sort of the Zelig of 20th century cinema, having seemingly worked everywhere and  with everyone.  His 1934 Black Cat, made at Universal, should have been the start of a long and illustrious Hollywood career. Unfortunately, Ulmer happened to fall in love with the wife of the nephew of Universal boss Carl Laemmle. This led to the director's exile in New York where he survived by making those films for Yiddish speakers and African-American audiences. It was just the beginning of what would be an itinerant career. Ever hopeful of getting back on the Hollywood studio ladder, he would spend several years  in Europe, making mostly forgettable films. And when necessary,  he found work as a set designer, cameraman or director of second units.  Back in the States, he was apparently even the cameraman on Timothy Carey's cult classic of the 1960s The World's Greatest Sinner.

Not surprisingly, Ulmer's directorial skills were appreciated more in France than in the U.S.. As far back as 1961,  Cahier du Cinema ran an  eleven page interview conducted by Bertrand Taverier and Luc Moullet. Though not every New Waver was  ecstatic. Godard, for instance,  thought the adulation overdone. However, Ulmer could always talk a good game, elaborating and inventing where necessary. As Tavernier points out in the preface to Isenberg's book, directors like Ulmer "often live in a dream world where they are even inventing themselves the projects." Tavernier goes on to say that Ulmer seemed like a fictitious character, known to tell outlandish stories, many of which turned out to be true. A strange combination of unrealised talent and chutzpah, the under-achieving Ulmer combined an immigrant's urge to succeed with an appreciation of popular culture, even if that appreciation was sometimes misplaced. But without a major studio to latch onto, he drifted towards Poverty Row studios like PRC and Mid-Century Films, receiving as little as $300 for  Thunder Over Texas and Man From Planet X. After completing his final film, a WW2 drama entitled The Cavern, in 1964, he ended up working on The Doris Day TV show. Ulmer  died on September 30th, 1972.

It's all here in Isenberg's book. It's a long book to plough through, but, having said that, there's a great deal in it, including not only the customary biographical information, but numerous stories from, and about those who financed, produced, worked on and acted in Ulmer's films, including Karloff, Lugosi, Tom Neal and Barbara Payton. To his credit, Isenberg manages to disentangle fact from fiction, no mean feat in itself. Moreover, the book, for me, was worthwhile just for the pages Isenberg devoted to Detour, particularly regarding comparisons between the movie with Martin M. Goldsnsith's 1939 novel.

Most recently reprinted  by Black Curtain (before that O'Bryan House and Black Mask), it's easy to see why Ulmer wanted to adapt Goldsmith's novel. Written in a cinematic, hardboiled style with a narrative point-of-view that alternates between the protagonist, Alex Roth, and his girlfriend, the would-be actress Sue, it's as though Mike Gold, after penning Jews Without Money, had decided to turn his hand to hardboiled fiction.

Goldsmith was born in 1913 in New York. An inveterate hitch-hiker, he wrote his first novel, Double Jeopardy in Mexico and saw it published in 1938.  Before that he'd published a handful of short stories and in 1938, to pay for a trip to Hollywood, he filled his battered Buick with out-of-work actors and motored west. The journey gave him the idea for Detour. Once in Hollywood he worked as a stagehand by day and wrote Detour by night, selling the  novel to PRC with the stipulation that he write the screenplay.

While you wouldn't know it from the film, Goldsmith's novel sits comfortably in the tradition of Jewish working-class pulp fiction when it comes to style, content and language. Though the film revolves around Al Roberts, a jazz musician, in the novel protagonist Alex is a classical violinist, who, to survive, plays in a jazz band in a nightclub where he meets Sue. When the latter goes to Hollywood, Alex pawns everything he owns so  he can hitch-hike across the country to join her. After Alex's  money runs out in Dallas, he meets Haskell and then the man-hating Vera. But Goldsmith's screenplay is not nearly as lurid as his novel, which is filled with pimps, whores, drugs, and suicide. Goldsmith would go on to write several movies, itwo other novels and  the story that would become Narrow Margin. He also wrote for TV programs like The Twilight Zone and Playhouse 90. Anyone interested in Ulmer's film, or hardboiled noir fiction could do worse than seek out Goldsmith's novel.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review. Makes me want to read Isenberg's Biography and read Detour. Crystal clear introduction about Ulmer's murky career.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Heard him speak in La Jolla. Great speaker and Ulmer's daughter was there as well.