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.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fridays at Enrico's by Don Carpenter

Even though Don Carpenter died before finishing Fridays at Enrico's, one would never have guessed this was not a finished product. In  fact, I'd hate to think how good this novel would have been had he actually been able to complete it. Because Fridays at Enrico's represents Carpenter at his best, by which I mean it is every bit as good, if not better than, Hard Rain Falling or short stories collections like The Murder of the Frogs.

A sprawling novel, centred on four writers, Fridays... moves from Portland to San Francisco, Mill Valley, Sausalito and Hollywood. Taking place over some fifteen to twenty years, it's about how these four writers relate both to one another and to the world. Of course, I agree with the general notion that one should approach any novel about novelists with no small amount of trepidation. On the other hand, I can't think of any other book about writers that's as engrossing and deeply felt, with the possible exception of Roberto Bolano's Distant Star, however dissimilar that book might be.  But like Bolano's poets in Pinochet's Chile,  Carpenter's prose counterparts  encounter all the  exigencies embedded in that long march from late-Eisenhower to early-Nixon. And the author accomplishes this without any unnecessary extrapolation, unstinting as he is when it comes not only to the economics of writing, but the megalomania, obsessions, paranoia and vulnerability of those taking that journey.

The four writers  include Dick who early on sells  a story to Playboy, only to find his career hoisted on that particular literary petard;  the Korean war vet Charlie who, while San Francisco State, is feted for his promising work in progress- a gigantic war novel that hangs albatross-like from his portable typewriter; his middle-class girlfriend Jaime, herself a talented writer who eventually succeeds, only to find the rewards for such success double-edged; Stan, a professional thief and jailbird who becomes a Malcolm Braly-like Gold Medal author and eventually, along Charlie, a run-of-the-mill Hollywood screenwriter. By now, if one has had the good fortune of giving  Carpenter a fraction of the attention he deserves, it should be clear that, along with the likes of Gavin Lambert and Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories, Carpenter was one of the most incisive writers about Hollywood,  producing Tinseltown stories and novels (The Turnaround, The Two Comedians, etc.), and where he toiled for some time, churning out screenplays for Payday,  The Forty-Eight Hour Mile, episodes of High Chaparral and The Outsider, as well as  unrealised projects, like Charles Bukowski's Post Office.

Of course, getting so deeply  into the minds of these four writers isn't necessarily pretty. After all, his characters are only human. Here, for instance, is  Stan describing on paper the sexual thrill he gets from breaking into houses:

"There was something incredibly intimate about being in somebody's house, as if he and the people of the house were very close. And yet he would do these things. Things have nothing to do with making a living. Things he didn't to think about. Most of the time he was neat and careful, just going to the places where he knew people kept their valuables. But then, their jewellery or cash in his pockets, an even stranger feeling would overtake him. He might find himself pissing on the bed or into bureau drawers full of women's underthings. What the hell was that all about? Often he would take a crap on the dining room table, or somewhere else just as bad. Or sit down and have a meal out of the refrigerator, with this intense sexual feeling passing through him, making him brave beyond sanity. When, in fact, he was a complete coward."

That voyeurism relates to the feeling Dick gets from watching Stan and Dick's girlfriend, Linda together:

"Silently he tracked Stan and Linda through the trees, his heart still, his mind alert. Then he watched  them in the clearing, just out of earshot. He didn't want to move any closer, and various birds were making a lot of noise, so he could only watch. When they started kissing and rolling around on the ground, Dick got so excited he almost cried out, and urgently wanted to jack off. He was in an anguish of jealousy and so turned on he wanted to shriek... [He] watched Linda and Stan like a voyeur through a window. To his relief and disappointment they didn't strip and make love right before his eyes."

Nor was Carpenter ever one to accept cultural stereotypes, whether that of the  hard-bitten man or nurturing woman. The latter, for instance, are more likely to strike out on their own while the former are left to look after the children. And although Charlie has spent years working on that war novel, Jaime, seeking something beyond motherhood, in a matter of months writes a best-selling memoir about growing up in the City, which prompts  Charlie to retreat into himself. Though he's not the only character  in Carpenter's novel who's needy, insecure, insulated, and desperate for affirmation. Nor is he alone in his desire to break out of a kind of self-imposed Laingian knot:  "He didn't want to bullshit, and as for the truth, he didn't claim to know the truth. Unless, of course, the truth was bullshit. Tricky."

As for the locales, clearly Carpenter knew them only too well. After all, back in the day, he had hung out with  Brautigan, Evan Connell, Curt Gentry and Anne Lamott, and doubtlessly spent many a Friday night imbibing at Enrico's and similar places. But even though this is no memoir- or at least I don't think it is- it cuts very close to the bone. Because Carpenter likes to get inside his characters, which means they are always capable of surprising the reader. No mean feat in itself. I remember  writing some time back something to the effect that Carpenter never quite equalled his first novel, Hard Rain Falling. In fact, I now think he equalled that book on various occasions, but none more so than with this novel.  I know it's something of a cliche, but Fridays at Enrico's is one of those books you wish would go on forever, its characters so memorable that you can't help but think about them and what they might be doing long after finishing the novel.