The career of director Edgar G. Ulmer, one of diehard film buffs’ major cult favorites, is an object lesson in the triumph of talent, courage, ingenuity and passion over time and money. Ulmer rarely had more than a minuscule budget and six days to shoot an entire feature; this is one to two days shorter than TV directors today are given to film a one-hour (actually more like 48-minute) series episode. The discipline and resourcefulness required to be able to turn out any sort of full-length product in that short a time is impressive by itself, forget about also revealing a strong personality and an often vivid style as Ulmer did repeatedly in numerous Poverty Row classics like the nightmarish Detour (1946), or the uncompromising Ruthless (1948), or the remarkably atmospheric period horror tale of 19th century Paris, 1944’s BLUEBEARD (available on DVD). The star is the legendary patriarch of one of our most enduring acting families, John Carradine, in a role he always ranked high among his best.
When I first saw Bluebeard over forty years ago, I wrote for my movie-card file: “Strikingly directed and designed, evocatively scored and written story of a crazed artist who is compelled to murder his models after he has finished painting them, with a fine performance by John Carradine. The stylized sets, ironically lilting, romantic music and, above all, Ulmer’s forceful, subtly heightened, semi-abstract direction all combine to make an unusually engrossing, poetic, modest little film, with a unique charm and sadness.”
Having began in show business as a set designer for Max Reinhardt and first worked on pictures in production design, Ulmer created Paris on the back lot, with little means and much imagination. This was especially personal to Ulmer, who once told me, “All my love for Paris came out in that picture.” You know a film has strong visual powers when years have passed since you saw it, yet images and impressions cling to your memory. Bluebeard has that sort of magic, all the more astonishing when you consider the profoundly limiting conditions under which the film was achieved.
Edgar George Ulmer (1904-l972), born in Moravia in the Czech Republic, but working with Reinhardt in Vienna while still in his early teens, first came to the U.S. in 1923 with Reinhardt’s famous Broadway production of The Miracle. His greatest movie experience was working with the transcendent German master F.W. Murnau on three of cinema’s most important and influential films, The Last Laugh (1925), Sunrise (1927), and Tabu (1931). After co-directing with Robert Siodmak a famous short silent documentary, People on Sunday (1928)– with Fred Zinnemann as assistant director, and Billy Wilder as writer–Ulmer fairly quickly worked himself into the feature director’s chair and his third movie, The Black Cat (1934), was a successful Universal horror film with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (the two biggest horror stars of the thirties). But at this high point, Ulmer made a choice of the heart that would permanently affect his directing career. He fell in love with the wife of one of Universal’s reigning monarchs, and she with him; Shirley Castle left Edgar’s boss and Ulmer was quietly blacklisted in Hollywood.
From then on, it was a topsy-turvy existence, directing some of the wildest and weirdest assignments in picture history: for a Ukrainian committee, for a Yiddish organization, for companies in Mexico, Italy, Spain; from such infamous exploitation pictures as Girls in Chains (1943) to a Z-budget nudie, The Naked Venus (1958). The astonishing thing is that so many of Ulmer’s movies have a clearly identifiable signature; and several, like The Naked Dawn (1955) or his last, The Cavern (1965), are B-budget classics. That so much good work could be accomplished with so little encouragement and so few means makes our current situation-—much money, little talent—all the more distressing, and Ulmer’s achievement all the more impressive.