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Filmmaker at the Margins

Biography of indie director Edgar G. Ulmer

Sep. 17, 2014
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Full disclosure: I’m co-authoring, with David Luhrssen, a book of our own about the subject of Noah Isenberg’s cogent, comprehensive biography Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (University of California Press). This fact could have predisposed me to find fault where there’s little; instead, my initial reaction upon reading Isenberg’s book was: “Dave, we’re gonna need to find ourselves another auteur.”

He talked me down. After all, Ulmer (1904-1972), alternately tagged “the Capra of Poverty Row” and (by film scholar Luc Moullet) “le plus maudit (“the most accursed”) of filmmakers—merits more than one volume, particularly given that Isenberg focuses more on the Eastern European emigrant’s fascinating, frustration-laden life and his bizarrely (if admirably) eclectic career than on exhaustive analyses of Ulmer’s films and the historical contexts from which they emerged. (Luhrssen and I plan to invert that ratio.)

Isenberg’s interpretation is spot on—and here’s where I take exception with Michael Joshua Rowin’s review in Film Comment. For when the latter accuses the former of falling into the trap of seeking “buried auteurist treasure” by overvaluing “the dregs” of Ulmer’s filmography, Rowin is not only—to my reading—incorrect; he’s also totally missing the point: that Ulmer consistently achieved a great deal, artistically speaking, via the most meager of means. Or, to paraphrase the aphorism: One man’s “dregs” are another man’s treasure.

No, Isenberg isn’t “reaching” when he notes the Brechtian roots of characters in 1960’s The Amazing Transparent Man breaking the fourth wall. Moreover, Isenberg is correct in suggesting that (in Rowin’s words) Ulmer’s “nudie-pic The Naked Venus anticipated the puritanical furor over NEA funding in the Eighties.” Anticipated it, yes; predicted it, no. There’s a key difference, and the verb choice actually matters; to some of us, the unconscious elements of an artist’s creation are as valid as the intended ones—or are, arguably, even more valid, as they demonstrate the totality of the creator’s immersion in his or her work.

And Ulmer, as Isenberg makes clear, was nothing if not immersed in and utterly dedicated to his work, from his early “ethnic” films set in Eastern Europe (though shot on the cheap—semi-convincingly—in rural New Jersey) and Harlem, through his noir phase (which included 1945’s low-budget tour-de-force Detour), into his ’50s horror and sci-fi Z-programmers, all the way to the late-’60s “Doris Day Show” TV episodes that comprised his swan song.

Film scholar Andrew Sarris contended, “Anyone who loves cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957).” Indeed, while those of us who adore Ulmer’s oeuvre recognize The Black Cat (1934; the first-ever pairing of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and the best) and Detour as the unabashed masterpieces they’re generally considered to be, we also see Bluebeard (1944, featuring—arguably—John Carradine’s best-ever film performance), Strange Illusion (1945), The Strange Woman (1946, with a dizzying star turn by Hedy Lamarr) and Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) as works of brilliance-on-a-budget. Yes, we actually are moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll—and so, to his credit, is Isenberg.

In a recent telephone interview, Ulmer’s daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, described to me the process of working with Isenberg as “like going into psychoanalysis for 15 years: It was cathartic. I wanted someone who either was European or else had a European perspective; Noah provided the latter. He and I fit together hand-in-glove. We tangled beautifully; we’re now family.” The result: a remarkably candid, wide-ranging, factual biography of a man who, in Isenberg’s own estimation, “repeatedly exaggerated his accomplishments and affiliations.”

The notion of biographer-as-detective is by no means novel, but seldom has it held so true nor proven so effective as here—thanks, in no small part, to the Isenberg/Cipes collaboration. Aided by Ulmer fille, Isenberg has uncovered “buried treasure” indeed, without apology or qualification. Fortunate is the reader who recognizes it as such.

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