EDGAR G. ULMER – THE KING OF B MOVIES

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A master of the noir genre, the great Edgar G. Ulmer. Yet, the director is not only remembered for this peculiarity. Often obliged to make films with very low budgets, Ulmer used to finish shooting in very few days. This, however, never affected the good quality of his films, where everything was studied down to the smallest detail.

Little, big masterpieces

A great passion for B Movies and noir films. A singular directing approach, particularly attentive to every detail. A care for set designs that is the result of meticulous studies and an important apprenticeship. One of the great directors in film history long ignored by critics but only later reappraised. In a nutshell: Edgar G. Ulmer. If today the extraordinary talent of Edgar G. Ulmer is worldwide acknowledged, the director did not always get his deserved satisfaction during his lifetime. Yet time and history have worked in his favour.

Edgar Georg Ulmer was born on September 17, 1904 in Olmütz, Moravia, during one of his parents’ holidays. Fascinated by the art world from a very young age, Edgar initially wanted to become a set designer. This passion would also strongly influence his future career as a director. After studying at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, Ulmer continued his studies at the renowned Max-Reinhardt-Seminar and it was with theatre director Max Reinhardt that he began working as a set designer. In 1923 the two left for the United States, where Edgar G. Ulmer later got a job as a set designer. Ulmer later obtained work as a draughtsman at Universal Pictures.

Yet the big turning point in his career was yet to come. And this would not happen initially in the United States. Back in Germany, in fact, Ulmer had the opportunity to collaborate with directors like Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Fritz Lang. It was mainly they who influenced his future films. It was they, together with the then nascent German Expressionism, who provided the basis for what would later become Edgar G. Ulmer’s cinema. Together with Murnau Ulmer took part in the making of the masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). On this occasion he experiments with a new way of building sets, the so-called “production set design”, which meant building a different set depending on the camera points used. This made it possible to better manage the individual perspectives and to give the right depth to the frame.

Again in Germany, Edgar G. Ulmer took part in the making of the documentary People on Sunday, directed in 1930 by him together with Robert Siodmak and written by Billy Wilder. With his career becoming more and more important, Ulmer decided, just like many of his colleagues, to move to the United States for good (since working in Germany was becoming increasingly complicated for artists and writers). Once in Hollywood, Edgar started working for Metro Goldwin Mayer and finally began to shoot his first films. In these years, then, one of the most important chapters in world film history was about to begin.

In 1934, Ulmer made The Black Cat, freely adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. On this occasion, the director’s predilection for the noir genre became more evident than ever. The film – which tells the story of a mad architect who usually embalms the corpses of the women he kills – features two great horror film stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. A new adventure for the director who had perhaps discovered a great new talent.

From then on, he enjoyed many satisfactions, and among his most noteworthy feature films are Bluebeard (1944), which tells the story of a painter who strangles his models after having painted them, and the excellent Detour (1945), a thrilling road movie and a sophisticated noir, in which the story of a motorist who hides the corpse of a man who accidentally dies and, terrified, assumes his identity, is staged in a long flashback.

A master of the noir genre, the great Edgar G. Ulmer. Yet, the director is not only remembered for this peculiarity. Often obliged to make films with very low budgets, Ulmer used to finish shooting in very few days. This, however, never affected the good quality of his films, where everything was studied down to the smallest detail. His stories, his characters were able to involve the viewer from the very first minutes, thanks to a meticulous care for the images accompanied by a deep and never predictable psychological investigation. It did not do him justice, therefore, that he was initially considered a B Movie director. Thanks to him, numerous B Movies are today considered to be real milestones in film history. But who really noticed his talent at the time?

Edgar G. Ulmer was long considered as a director of ‘minor’ films, but also as the so-called ‘director of minorities’. Yes, because, in fact, the filmmaker was often interested in small communities, their traditions and customs. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the Yiddish feature Green Fields (1937) and the Ukrainian Natalka Potavka (1937). Ulmer was like that: he loved to devote himself to small realities, to realities considered almost ‘marginal’. And thanks to him, these realities took on a completely innovative and personal form – now futurist, now expressionist, but also perfectly in line with the canons of Hollywood cinema of the time.

After the 1950s, however, things changed. After having directed two more successful films – namely the science-fiction film The Man from Planet X (1951), made in just six days, and the western The Naked Dawn (1955), which later inspired François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) – Edgar G. Ulmer mainly directed minor films: by this time, the film world had changed and his very personal style was no longer appreciated as before. So the director tried his luck even in Italy, where he made Journey Beneath the Desert (1961) and his last feature film The Cavern (1964).

From then on, his health began to worsen and after a heart attack in 1965, Ulmer died of a stroke in Woodlands Hills, California, on September 30, 1972. Only after his death his undoubted mastery was acknowledged by all. Already in the 1950s and 1960s, however, the film critics and directors of the Nouvelle Vague had taken notice of him and had often examined his work in depth on the Cahiers du Cinéma. Two years after his death, in 1974, director Peter Bogdanovich published a book-interview focused (also) on him: Who the devil made it. Conversations with legendary film directors . By this time, the name of Edgar G. Ulmer had acquired a certain relevance. By now, this extraordinary Austrian filmmaker, set designer and screenwriter was considered one of the great masters of film history.

Info: the page of Edgar G. Ulmer on iMDb