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Webs of Destiny and Bits of String: Edgar G. Ulmer  

Luc Moullet


If we trust Ulmer’s own words, his career path is somewhat perplexing.


He contests his official date of birth of 1900, placing it in 1904. But he also points out his contribution to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), which would mean he began his career in the industry – set decorator and assistant director – at fifteen. He would then have gone to the United States to direct, at nineteen, twenty-four Western shorts. And this would not have prevented him from working, between sixteen and twenty, in Germany with Max Reinhardt and F.W. Murnau.


And what to make of his collaboration with the latter on seven films, from The Last Laugh (1924) to Tabu (1931), while practically nothing – neither in the credits nor in the production stills – bears witness to his presence?


And besides: how, in the same year of 1929, at a time when travel was still very slow, was he able to work both in Tahiti on Tabu and co-direct People on Sunday in Berlin? A great deal casts doubt upon his actual participation in this film, which officially belongs to Robert Siodmak. And yet, in 1961, Ulmer told me that he wanted to remake what he had attempted with People on Sunday, a totally free ‘young person’ film, by commissioning short scripts from Bertrand Tavernier, me and a few others. A still-born project: Ulmer already had enough trouble directing the only film he was allowed to do, Seven Against Death, three years later.


And how could he have worked (as he claims) with D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang and Frank Borzage? That would have been the most beautiful résumé in the history of cinema.


In the field of fabrication, Ulmer neatly beats his main competitor, Howard Hawks.


He pretended to have directed one hundred and twenty-eight features, while it is hard to identify forty of them.


This has all contributed to making Ulmer seem full of it. Certain people will even go so far as to attribute the success of The Strange Woman (1946) to Douglas Sirk, even though it is signed by Ulmer.


Full of it because of his own words, he is equally so in terms of his reputation as a filmmaker. He has been overestimated by certain critics.


This broadening of his exaggerations is in no way justified, as we shall see; Ulmer’s exaggerated claims reveal, above all, a great power of imagination – which, after all, is not so bad for a filmmaker.


In a thirty-year career, no film shot for a major company – just four films distributed by minor majors, Universal and United Artists. Ulmer’s first label is that of a specialist with no-budget films – a paradox for a filmmaker who mostly worked in Hollywood. One-week shoots, or fourteen usable minutes per day (Isle of Forgotten Sins, 1943), for less than twenty thousand dollars. Compare that with the three million spent on Vidor’s An American Romance (1944) in the same period. Sometimes, according to Ulmer, eighty shots a day (personally, I have to be happy with thirteen shots, nineteen at most). Ulmer recalled that, between four and five in the afternoon, it was the ‘PRC Hour’, from the name of his producer-distributor, the Producers Releasing Corporation. He shot the main scenes on a single-coloured backdrop, jumping from one sequence to another without stopping the camera. Just a hand in front of the lens to facilitate the editor’s job, allowing him to string together more than forty shots in an hour. Here, too, I believe Ulmer exaggerated a bit.


It must be recognised that nothing particularly great came from this pace. I have tried to see everything by Ulmer. But I had to give up: too many bungled, boring films. Poor old Ulmer could not always make something out of so very little. And no one else could have done any better.


In 1955, at Cahiers du cinéma, we acted a little hastily in classing Ulmer among cinema’s auteurs. A real auteur is someone whose every film is good and hides striking similarities – with, all the same, the right to fail now and again (Alfred Hitchcock, Lubitsch, Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, etc.).


Now, in Ulmer, two out of three films are disappointing, so we have to be precise. Let us say that he was the auteur of certain films, like Boris Barnet, Borzage, John Ford or John Huston. With the difference that, when Huston messes up, with all the cash he has, he is the main person responsible (The Roots of Heaven [1958], The Barbarian and the Geisha [1958], Annie [1982], Phobia [1980], Sinful Davey [1969], etc.) – whereas, when Ulmer flops, it is not his fault.


If we grant that People on Sunday is a rather successful collective film, but not a specifically Ulmerian one, we shall then notice that Ulmer’s true debut is The Black Cat (1934) – a mystery and horror film that, paradoxically, draws all its force from its softness and brightness. This is an orientation that can barely be found in the rest of the films, very off-kilter due to the variety of offers that were made to Ulmer.


I will quickly run through the occasional qualities of his B and Z films – like Fritz Kortner’s performance in The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946) and the palette (in Cinefotocolor) of Muchachas de Bagdad (Babes in Bagdad, 1952).


I do not follow the Ulmerian dogma whereby one must differently judge those films handicapped by an extremely low budget. First, we would have to know the real budget of each film, and that is far from obvious. And second, we have to remember that Detour (1945) is far more successful and masterful than Independence Day (1996) or Titanic (1997), which cost a hundred times more. The spectator’s pleasure cannot be increased by foreknowledge of a handicap.


There are two very interesting – and completely opposed – orientations in Ulmer’s minimalist films.


The first is evident in a film like Isle of Forgotten Sins. No money, no time – of course. The final scene accumulates ‘telephoned’ shots (a third of the image is left empty for thirty seconds so that the actress can peacefully position herself next to her two colleagues). In the editing, these shots are cut into ten pieces, so that each group of actors is found ten times in a row, along the same axis and in the same position as at the beginning of the shot. The scenes are cut just before the slap or punch, doubtlessly in order to avoid the additional union fee for dangerous scenes. Sea and storm are suggested by a surging soundtrack that has no relation to the extremely impoverished image, and by a multitude of short detail shots that smooth everything out. Everyone kills each other in images where the shooter and the victim are never seen together. It is absolutely unbelievable. There is a charm here that we will find again, later, in Ed Wood. The excess of the mistakes, of the ‘bits of string’ approach, ends up creating an oneirism that is quite close to Surrealism, perhaps more voluntary than involuntary (but whether it is intentional or unintentional cannot be a criterion of quality), which has stuck in my memory for years since. It is a limit-case in cinema history.


The impact of the scene is undeniable, even if it is linked to the fact that one cannot believe it for a second. In any case, it is infinitely more joyous and worthy than the ‘well made’ work of David Lean or Claude Sautet. It is second degree.


The other, less perverse orientation, is where the limited means serve the film in the first degree. In Bluebeard (1944), the absence of money cannot be seen, because the majority of the action remains in shadow. And this shadow (generally nocturnal) allows us to imagine that there are whole parts of the set we are unable to see within the shot, these threatening, grandiose surfaces: the art of Ulmer as set decorator and (uncredited) cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan is to conjure everything from nothing. A fabulous economy of means. So as not to pay the actors, they were replaced (as often as possible) by dolls, and that expresses the idea that human beings are puppets, subjected to the will of the director or of God (cf. Strange Illusion, 1944).


Detour is the masterpiece of this type of film. More shots cut into fifteen pieces (1), two hundred and eighty-three cuts in sixty-nine minutes, or forty-seven cuts a day, doubtless derived from twenty-five filmed shots. This film, conceived to the PRC rule – according to legend: twenty thousand dollar budget, six-day shoot – has amazingly survived the oblivion for which it was designed. So we have a cult-film released in France forty-eight years after its making – that’s a record – which captivates all true filmmakers: a model of rigour, a Greek tragedy that transcends its banal material. I thought this while watching the very costly Jude (1996) by Michael Winterbottom, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece, which makes us fully feel the irremediable aspect of Destiny. But fidelity is not a matter of copying a storyline. And so I would say, ultimately, that the only successful screen adaptation of Jude the Obscure is not Winterbottom’s but Detour, even if its subject is completely different.

  1. But also the opposite: sequence-shots at the start (1’32”) and the end (1’11”) create a dialectical rhythm of fullness and delay, avoiding systematism; and what power in that interminable final shot where so many things happen and everything ties up.

In Ulmer, we truly have the impression of this fatality, this implacable destiny that dogs the protagonist – merely because of the repetition principle (no less implacable) of alternating shots that return ten or twenty times. Every second of the film tightens the knot that strangles the ‘innocent’ hero in its insurmountable net – and from which he can escape only by giving himself up to the police, with the help of a fiendishly skillful script.


We can see here the relation between the film’s conditions of shooting and its moral meaning. Poverty is very constraining, and reflects the obstacles that a human being (and a director of Z films) vainly confronts in real life. Similarly, lack of money incites Ulmer to make a film on a single set, which gives an impression of claustrophobia (The Cavern [1964], The Naked Dawn [1955], The Man from Planet X [1951], Club Havana [1945]). All human existence unfolds within a completely closed room.


The notion of destiny is also very well established in Ulmer’s bigger budget films. His trademark image has often hidden its reality from critics’ eyes. For Ulmer also made long and expensive films – Carnegie Hall (1947, 2 hours 14 minutes), The Strange Woman, even Ruthless (1948) – not only Z films. The same mistake has often been made with Jacques Tourneur, identified with quickies because of his small horror films, while Out of the Past (1947) and The Flame and the Arrow (1950) had pretty substantial budgets. The Strange Woman benefits from very refined casting: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward. And we find here the same moral confluence. Evil Destiny acts through the intransigent will of the negative main character, Jenny, the ‘strange woman’; as well as Vendig (Zachary Scott) in Ruthless, opposed to the weakling played, in both films, by Louis Hayward (Ulmer’s fetish actor), who is defeated or destroyed in the end.


There is a desire to always win, either by an insatiable arrivisme, without any scruples (Ruthless), or by an ontological urge for seduction and domination (The Strange Woman). The tenacity with which Ulmer sticks to his somber heroes gives his work a heavy, obsessional power that is very Germanic.


Here, manipulative characters (instead of the manipulated hero of Detour) create their own Destiny, which then turns against them – death being inevitable for the Ulmerian hero. There is also the drowning leitmotiv (Bluebeard, The Strange Woman, Ruthless), which is another of the major motifs of melodrama (Leave Her to Heaven [1945], Ruby Gentry [1952], The White Angel [1955]) and of the Master, Murnau (Sunrise [1927], Tabu).


We will have noticed, as well, a dash of misogyny in the myth of the beautiful femme fatale (Detour, The Strange Woman), close to the American thematic of the years 1945-1950 (Leave Her to Heaven, Mildred Pierce [1945], Ruby Gentry, Gun Crazy [1950]) – linked to the distrustfulness of GIs faced with wives who had a good time at home during the war; but also to the Old Testament.


The Strange Woman, Ruthless and The Naked Dawn are strongly marked by religion: the preacher’s incredible violence in the first film, direct references to scripture in the other two. Compare that to Ulmer’s four Yiddish films, in which the denominational quality is obviously very strong.


To construe, from this, Ulmer as a religious filmmaker is to maybe go a little too fast. First, is it the god of the Jews or the Puritans? It is really hard to say. There seems to be a vast and imprecise idea of religion and God, representing a need on Man’s part – and constituting a dramatic motif, and primordial morality, without which art has no meaning.


Ulmer is, like a lot of major filmmakers, a man of the 19th century, linked to its ideology, to its traditional dramatic structures – which explains a certain indifference toward him from modern critics.


With The Naked Dawn, the order changes somewhat. The film still centres on the main character (a necessary condition for the film’s success), but the work no longer draws its force from the hero’s excessive energy, as in the previous diptych. Santiago (Arthur Kennedy) in The Naked Dawnl’aurore nue, a wink to Murnau – is a being tossed between diverse forces and impulses, neither good nor bad, subjected to multiple changes of heart, between crime and sacrifice. A typically modern hero and film, with the procession of back and forth oscillations based on the subtle nuances between a woman and two men – a novelistic weightiness rare in cinema, especially American cinema. A tender lament – nostalgic and disillusioned all at once – about life, love and death. Life is made more real thanks to very long takes that allow the characters to breathe. The lack of money is sometimes bothersome here: during these very beautiful long takes, we notice, in the background the whole time, a very unrealistic, painted countryside that clashes with the spontaneity of the dialogue and the performances. But it is in this film that Ulmer makes the most out of his melomania (the music is pervasive in his films from the 1940s, as in many American films of the period) and his Germanic heritage, the kammerspiel happily taking over from the para-expressionist economy of Bluebeard and Detour.



Translated from the French by Ted Fendt and Adrian Martin. Originally published in Charles Tatum, Jr (ed.), Edgar G. Ulmer: Le bandit demasqué (Éditions Yellow Now, 2002). Reprinted with the permission of Luc Moullet.


from Issue 3: Masks


Original French text © Luc Moullet 2002. English translation © LOLA 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.