Fate Stuck Out Its Foot
The Struggles of Edgar G. Ulmer

by Jim Knipfel

There’s a remarkable scene near the end of Detour, in which Al Roberts (played by Tom Neal) is trying to prevent a manipulative two-bit floozie named Vera (Ann Savage) from calling the cops to turn him in for a murder he didn’t commit. They’re in a cheap apartment in L.A.; she’s drunk and out of control. She takes the phone into the bedroom and locks the door behind her, falls on the bed and, while still yelling threats, absent-mindedly wraps the phone cord around her neck. Al, on the other side of the door, grabs hold of the cord and starts pulling on it, hoping to rip it out of the phone. Instead, he unwittingly strangles Vera.

It’s at once a horrifying and funny scene--a mixture of slapstick and pathos. While I had forgotten many of the twists and turns of Edgar G. Ulmer’s noir classic in the years since I had last seen it, that sequence has stuck with me.

The same is true for many of his films–there will be a scene, or a set, or a mood that hangs around long after the last reel has played out–the interior of Boris Karloff’s mansion in The Black Cat or the attempted-suicide scene in Damaged Lives (which Woody Allen later lifted for Interiors). It’s a shame Ulmer’s name, as influential as he was, is not better known. Maybe he was just tripped up by fate, like so many of his characters.

These days, being an independent filmmaker is a badge of honor amongst the younger generation–at least until they win a prize at Sundance and cut a deal with a major studio. Back in Ulmer’s day, things were a little different. Fifty years ago, what we would call “indie filmmakers” could’ve been anyone from Ed Wood to Orson Welles. They did what they had to do to. It wasn’t a matter of pride, it was a matter of survival.

But let’s back up a bit.

Ulmer was born and raised in Germany, where he was an art director and apprentice for Max Reinhardt, and good friends with F.W. Murnau (perhaps best known for directing the original Nosferatu). In 1923 he moved to the States, where he and Murnau worked together. In fact it was together with Murnau that Ulmer came up with the notion of “production designer.” More than a simple set decorator or art director, the production designer envisioned and designed the sets themselves. In Ulmer’s hands, that led to the creation of sets built in perspective, with tilted floors and the like–the entire look of what later came to be known as German Expressionism. Such designs, he said, gave the director a “completely controlled style.” Sets were designed “through the viewfinder.”

The only drawback, he explained, was that sets were designed for a single shot only. “If there were ten shots of [a room],” he once said, “you built ten sets of that one room.”

Ulmer also claims to have invented the first dolly shot, after he and Murnau saw a woman pushing a baby carriage down the street. Ulmer wondered aloud why they couldn’t, in essence, put a camera in the carriage. So they did.

In the mid-20s, he was named Assistant Chief Art Director at Universal. In 1929--around the time of Murnau’s death--he worked as co-director on a German film entitled People on Sunday (which was written by Billy Wilder). His first big directing assignment in America came three years later on a film called Mr. Broadway. The only thing that film proved was that being a director for a big studio didn’t mean much of anything--a director was just somebody who did what the studio told him to do.

His next two (and final) films for Universal each took some unheard-of chances for mainstream studio pictures, and each caused a bit of a stir. Damaged Lives (1933) examined the effects of syphilis–physically, emotionally and socially–on a young couple. Because of it’s bluntness, the film was held up by the censors for some time. When it was finally released (to great acclaim), it was shown with a short educational film about V.D.

Then, in 1934, he made The Black Cat, which paired Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff onscreen for the first time, in what was--again for the time--a remarkably and delightfully cruel picture about genocide, torture and devil worship. The plot, however, wasn’t what made it so remarkable. To be honest, I’ve always found it a little confusing. No, what raised The Black Cat to the ranks of other Universal horror classics like Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein was the set design and the lighting. Ulmer wanted to give the film a German Expressionist feel, to make an American Caligari, and the results are surreal and terrifying in a way The Mummy could never hope to be. The film was a reasonably big hit.

Then something strange happened. Like Al in Detour, he made that one innocent mistake, and Universal didn’t offer him any more projects. Rumors as to what happened fall into two basic camps. Some claim that Ulmer demanded too much artistic control. Others claim he was blackballed after he ran off with a studio executives wife.

Ulmer’s daughter, Ariané Ulmer Cipés, who runs the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corp., and acted in several of her father’s films, confirms both stories. “The executive was Max Alexander,” she told me from her home in California. “He was the favorite cousin of Papa Lemley, and he was also the best friend of Carl Lemley, Jr. My mother, at 18, married Max Alexander.”

About a year after she was married, she got a job as the apprentice script supervisor on The Black Cat.

“She heard his voice, the fable goes, and from that point on she was attracted to him. The marriage was already headed for the rocks. My father--he was already divorced--had the audacity to run away with Mother. In those days, it was a scandal. You just didn’t do those sorts of things.”

After remarrying, with no more work coming from Universal, Ulmer spent a few years making films for the army, the auto industry, and the National Tuberculosis Association.

More interestingly, though, around this same time he also made a series of Yiddish and Ukrainian films–what were known as “ethnic films”–including the musical, The Singing Blacksmith. Though mostly ignored by the general movie-going public (the subtitles weren’t very good, I guess), they were big hits within the Jewish community. One film in particular–Green Fields–played for 20 solid weeks in Manhattan in 1937, even after being panned in the Times.

In a strange way, being dumped by Universal was the best thing that could’ve happened to Ulmer. Making the cheapies and the industrial films kept him in practice and exercised his ingenuity, and in 1942 he hooked up with PRC studios.

PRC wasn’t a great outfit–they were, after all, considered one of the “Poverty Row” studios, producing only B pictures. They certainly didn’t have much money to throw around. But they did give Ulmer near-complete artistic freedom--under the condition that he make his films in six days and bring them in under $20,000. He would no longer be able to build ten sets for ten shots of a single room. No, quite the opposite. In Girls in Chains--a women-in-prison film from 1943--for instance, there’s a scene where a young fellow goes to visit his girlfriend in prison. By simply slapping together a half-wall with a bit of wire mesh on top, and blocking out everything in the scene except the two people talking through the screen, he didn’t have to build a set. The film was finished in five days.

Then in 1945 there was Detour, the story of a man who makes one bad decision on a rainy night. Once that decision is made, fate slowly squashes him like a bug. It became Ulmer’s most famous film.

I’d heard the story that, in Ulmer’s original plan, Detour ended with the protagonist getting away with it. Not only getting away with that first simple mistake, but getting away with killing Vera as well. He’s not unscathed at the end, but he is a free man. As the story has it, the censors had something to say about that--so Ulmer had to film one more quick shot of a police cruiser pulling up alongside poor Al Roberts, as his voice-over intones those famous lines, “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

Ms. Cipes says that’s another myth, and that the ending was as Ulmer has planned.

“He meant it to be ambiguous. It could happen any time...This is a guilty man walking around who’s predestined. Some people take it literally that two seconds after he walks out of the diner he gets it. That’s not what he meant at all.”

It was at PRC that Ulmer filmed his other greatest films–all on a shoestring budget, all under tight time constraints: Ruthless (with Sidney Greenstreet), Bluebeard (with John Carradine), The Strange Woman (with Hedy Lamarr). He made some crap, too, sure--The Amazing Transparent Man was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But under those working conditions, the way Ulmer put it, every Friday night, he had to have a film to start shooting Monday morning.

Although he made pictures in almost every conceivable genre, most come off with a very distinctive Ulmer feel about them. When the French discovered him in the 50’s, they described his films as portraits of “the loneliness of man without God.” Well, maybe they had only seen the noir features, and none of the Yiddish films. Others described him as one of the bleakest of American directors. There again, they forgot about some of his goofier science fiction films (though I guess most of those are pretty bleak, too).

There was something more to an Ulmer picture--mood was part of it, but it went beyond that, just like Orson Welles is more than deep focus, and Hitchcock is more than suspense. It was something physical--the radical play of light and shadow, the sets that shouldn’t make sense but do, the characters who make unwise and unhealthy decisions about their lives.

In 1946, PRC went under, and Ulmer was on his own again. He tried to start up his own production company, but it didn’t last. Then he went on to make films for a series of other small studios. His last film, The Cavern–a claustrophobic World War II drama starring Larry Hagman and the great John Saxon--was made in 1965. Then in 1968, Ulmer fell ill and died in Los Angeles in 1972, having made, he claimed, over 120 motion pictures. A pretty incredible number--and, no, not all of them were masterpieces. Not even most. But a few of them were.

Since then, his daughter has set about to gathering the extant films together in order to keep her father’s memory--and his influence--alive.

“Ulmer’s prints are disappearing from the face of the earth,” she says, “because 90 percent of what he did was non-major. So I started talking to people, and going to the archives. My goal is to preserve the prints, and to get a new generation introduced to the material. The Cinemateque in Paris has just preserved five films. The National Center for Jewish films up at Brandeis has just presented the premiere of The Singing Blacksmith in 35mm. Universal has just pulled a 35mm print of The Black Cat for its own retrospective. There is a print of an old Ukrainian film that Dad made the same time as his Yiddish films that has been discovered in Israel, and we’re now negotiating to get our hands on that. I would say at this point that I was looking for 66 films, and I now know how to find 40. So there’s still some stuff out there.”

There’s much more to Edgar Ulmer. He’s an American classic, a real character, like Joseph H. Lewis or Sam Fuller, whose life sounds a lot like one of his films. Sometimes it wasn’t too pretty, but it always had style.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.

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