September 17, 2013
EDGAR ULMER’s (1904–72) career is defined by the exceptionally low budgets he used to make his films. With Orson Welles you may feel a pang that he wasn’t properly financed (despite his genius at self-sabotage) and you certainly wish that Michael Powell’s career hadn’t come to an abrupt end after Peeping Tom. But with Ulmer film historians are more than content with his proscribed career. Because he’s more valuable that way; we learn something more. When you peel the money away from film leaving only shadow and light, the gliding camera and the actors’ performance the surprising thing still adhering to the celluloid in tight silver grain is cruelty: the cruelty of Karloff’s smile, the cruelty in Lugosi’s eyes as he brings the flaying knife forward, the cruelty in Ann Savage’s sneer, the cruel savagery of Tom Neal yanking a phone cord tight around her neck, the cruel logic of John Carradine’s strangler in Bluebeard or the cruel rapacity of Hedy Lamarr’s sociopath in The Strange Woman. Ulmer’s career-destroying mistake was to run off with Carl Laemmle’s daughter-in-law, which did not endear him to the head of Universal Studios. Blacklisted, Ulmer first worked in “ethnic” films (Ukrainian, Yiddish) and then Poverty Row where he brought his considerable visual gifts to melodrama and horror. With only $20,000 he shot one of the inner-circle canon film noirs in Detour. You cannot say the actors chewed the scenery because there was no scenery to chew, but he brought something out of them that burned hot on film. It is that willingness to wound that plays on the barest of sets, that compels a drama and you understand why revenge was its own genre in Elizabethan theater, the wicked core of noir and the narrative engine of Spaghetti Westerns. God may forgive, but film doesn’t.
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Hardboiled (1894-1903) and Partisan (1904-13) Generations.