The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 10/23/2014

If you’re going to watch the documentary Edgar G. Ulmer – The Man Off-screen (2004), which you should, you should squeeze in an Ulmer feature with the film.  Now TCM played a number of Ulmer films when they aired this recently but on demand they only had The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) and Detour (1945) to go with it.  I’ve seen Detour even fairly recently.  The Amazing Transparent Man has been available on Netflix and Hulu Plus, too.  The public domain owns most of his films.

But at least on TCM The Amazing Transparent Man is a good print turned electronic copy.  So, it was my chosen accompaniment.

Apparently, Ulmer shot The Amazing Transparent Man consecutively with Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) in Texas as a double deal.  Ulmer went from production to production through his career, taking what he could get and making each film better than its budget could hope for.

The film opens with a jail break.  Major criminal Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy) is sprung by crafty mastermind Maj. Paul Krenner (James Griffith), who has immigrant scientist Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault) under his thumb and a mad plan to create an army of invisible zombies to take over the world.  Only first he needs Joey Faust to be his first invisible goon and steal more radioactive materials to get him set in his plan.

It’s a mash-up of crime film and science fiction and clocks in at 59 minutes.  Ulmer gets some pretty cool cheap effects for a guinea pig turning invisible and Faust fluctuating back and forth between visibility.  He gets good performances from his cast and adds depth to the story about the immigrant scientist whose daughter Krenner has captive, blackmailing the doctor into crimes he would otherwise not commit.  Still, it’s not Ulmer’s magnum opus.

It is interesting to see Ulmer’s films in greater quantity and in closer proximity.  In the documentary some argued that he never really had an opportunity to develop a “style” working on the cheap, job-to-job, but there are themes and ideas that reach beyond.   It’s pretty cool stuff.

Edgar G. Ulmer – The Man Off-screen (2004)

Edgar G. Ulmer - The Man Off-screen (2004) DVD cover

director Michael Palm
viewed: 10/23/2014

I’m not sure where I first heard of Edgar G. Ulmer.  It might have been after seeing his amazing “Poverty Row” noir masterpiece Detour (1945) for the first te in the 1990’s.  It may have been somewhere before then.

When I first started queuing up movies on Netflix (around 2001), I went through all available films by directors of note that I had somehow assembled in my consciousness.  This included big names like Nicholas Ray, John Ford, or Howard Hawks but also directors like Jacques Tourneur, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G. Ulmer.  Back then what I knew about particular directors wasn’t necessarily all that much.  Though this was already the era or the internet, imdb.com could be variable and wikipedia hadn’t come to prominence yet.

It’s funny but I guess that I’ve only really started going through Ulmer’s films since 2010, when I watched Strange Illusion (1945).  But it wasn’t until I stumbled on The Man from Planet X (1951) that I actually had seen more than two of his movies (I had seen The Black Cat (1934) as a kid but didn’t recall it well)).  Still, somehow, I felt like I knew more than I did.

Michael Palm’s Edgar G. Ulmer – The Man Off-screen had been in my queue a long time too.  But TCM just played a bunch of Ulmer films alongside the documentary and made them available on demand for a week afterwards, so the opportunity arose again.

Made in 2004, Palm’s film is very good documentary. He speaks with Peter Bogdanovich,  who actually interviewed Ulmer three times back in the 1960’s/1970’s as well as with Ulmer’s daughter who has the fondest memories of the man.  John Landis and Joe Dante riff a lot on him, as does Roger Corman.  Palm also interviews Wim Wenders and other historians and filmmakers from Austria and Germany, Ulmer’s country of origin.

Ulmer has become the patron saint of low-budget film-making.  His film’s were all made on the cheap, the cheapest of cheap, and yet aspired higher, far higher than their budgets and not fruitlessly.  Not all of his films were truly great but he achieved things on a low budget, the craftiness of innovation, the mother of invention, that proved out for film-makers with low means that their budget’s limitations could push them into creative tracks that money would never have discovered.

Some of Ulmer’s claims to have worked on almost every important German Expressionist film are debated, which is interesting.  Much other material on the subject seems to accept claims at face value.

Palm shoots a number of interviews in a studio-set car with a back-projected background as was common in Ulmer’s films.  He digs up several actors like William Schallert, Peter Marshall, and Ann Savage and puts them into sets not unlike those they would have worked in with Ulmer while he has them recount their experiences on their films.  It’s an interesting approach and it works.

It’s an above-average documentary on an obscure subject.  Good stuff.

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat (1934) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 10/05/2013

Sort of like I did with Vincent Price, I decided it was a good time to familiarize the kids with Béla Lugosi and by proxy Boris Karloff as well.  I’d actually queued up this disc for this film, The Black Cat, in particular because it is also an Edgar G. Ulmer movie.  It was Ulmer’s biggest budget production and biggest commercial success.  It was also Lugosi’s biggest post-Dracula (1931) commercial success.

It’s quite the cult film too.  Featuring all sorts of “out there” elements including “necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice.” (per critic Philip French)  It’s pretty far out, perhaps far outre.

It’s also a rambled, jambling mess.  I mean, I’m a fully cognizant adult and I felt like the story just kept turning, each step of the way, like it was making it up as it was going along.

Lugosi shows up as Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a vengeful doctor, fresh from fifteen years in a cruel prison, seeking the man who ran the prison and stole his wife and daughter.  He runs into a honeymooning couple on a train, but with whom he survives a motorcar crash and winds up on his nemesis’, Hjalmar Poelzig’s (Karloff), doorstep.  Poelzig had indeed run off with Werdegast’s wife, but then she died so he’s had her frozen in time in a glass case.  And then married her look-alike daughter.  And then runs a Satanic community.  In the location of the former prison, which is built on a pile of dynamite.

The weirdest aspect of the film is the only nod the film gives to its utterly non sequitur title.  Though one would assume that this was adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe story, the only thing that a black cat has to do with this film is that Werdegast is inexplicably mortally afraid of black cats and tries to kill them or has a nervous breakdown when they show up.

It’s all weird and convoluted and still quite campily charming.

For the kids, though, it was probably just confusing.  Felix actually fell asleep.  Clara had a myriad of questions, some of which I could answer, others of which I could not.

Bluebeard (1944)

Bluebeard (1944) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 07/01/2013

In working my way through the films of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, I happened upon a side theme, that of Bluebeard movies.  I had/have this vague memory of watching a movie about Bluebeard, the fairy tale serial killer of wives, when I was a kid.  And for some reason, I thought the film was an old one.  The memory is most vague.  So, this film, starring John Carradine, made on the cheap at PRC studio in 1944 seemed like it could well be the thing.  And with the only two other Bluebeard films that I could find, from 1972 and 2009, I figured it had to be it.  Since the latter film was directed by Catherine Breillat, I also had it in my queue, so I thought to pair them up as a double feature.  Since the 1972 version didn’t seem as relevant to my interests, I didn’t bother with it.

Well, now I don’t know.  I can easily suppose that I never saw Ulmer’s Bluebeard before.  It certainly wasn’t the Bluebeard that I thought I had seen.  For one thing, this Bluebeard doesn’t even have a beard.  So, I have since gone and queued up the 1972 version.

This Bluebeard is a period film, shot on sets, seemingly with more budget than films like Ulmer’s Detour (1945) or Strange Illusion (1945).  There is a serial killer in Paris, but it’s a Victorian era Paris, not some more long ago pastoral time.  Girls are being found in the Seine.  And John Carradine, not entirely sinister here, a vaguely tragic villain, is the unknown murderer, to whom people refer as “Bluebeard”.

What’s most amusing about this film is its extremely convoluted plot.  Carradine is a puppeteer, who puts on a show of Faust, apparently one of Ulmer’s most cherished elements of the film (he was famous for his sets and miniatures).  He has been a painter.  In fact, his devilish landlord, who is also his art dealer, blackmails him into painting.  So when he meets the charming Lucille, he quashes his desire to paint her.  You see, he kills all the women who sit for his painting.

This all gets explained toward the end in a long flashback narrative.  As a poor young painter, he found a collapsed woman on the street, brought her home to help her, and fell in love and painted her.  She then disappeared.  His painting was accepted at the Louvre and his career was on his way.  When he went to find this woman, upon whom he had projected the finest of qualities while she slept, he finds her a coarse harlot who throws money in his face. His illusion shattered, he strangles her and throws her body in the Seine.  Now every model he sits to paint inspires this awkwardly Freudian toxicity.

It’s just a little convoluted, right?  His landlord knows his secret but keeps getting him to paint (and kill) for money while he goes on to be revered for his work?  Well, if that wasn’t enough convolution for you, Lucille’s sister Francine is an undercover agent for her boyfriend the Inspector who is hunting Bluebeard the serial killer.  And when they think they have identified the murderer as a painter, she gets to sit a session with him, while he tries vainly to not be inspired to murder.  Though in the end, he does do her in.

The film is strange, though hackneyed, not my favorite of Ulmer’s so far.  But John Carradine gives a very sympathetic performance as the troubled serial murderer.  There is indeed a classic tragedy amid the odd psychological quirk of the villain.  Carradine, who was also great in Stagecoach (1939), shows himself to have been a very adept, unusual character actor.

While not a great film, it is good fun. And it has its moments, most significantly when Carradine’s eyes bug out in a masked close-up as he turns to kill.

Still, a Bluebeard without a beard is an odd thing.

The Man from Planet X (1951)

The Man from Planet X (1951) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 05/26/2013

From Edgar G. Ulmer, director of The Black Cat (1932), Detour (1945), and Strange Illusion (1945), a 1950’s sci-fi flick with aliens!

In 1951 two real classics of the genre were released, films that would come to embody the Fifties and American xenophobia, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World.  While science fiction existed before the 1950’s, it came be one of the definitive periods for the genre, Cold War metaphors and all.  The Man from Planet X may not be one of the jewels of the genre nor period, it’s a cool low-budget thriller with some awesome things about it.

Ulmer spent most of his career as a Poverty Row film-maker, but he made a couple of excellent films and certainly some other very interesting ones.  The Man from Planet X is darkly noirish, even to the extent of verging on expressionistic horror at times.  Set mostly in a remote and murky part of Scotland, a scientist and his daughter host a couple of former students as they study a phenomenon from space, a planet that has redirected its route directly toward Earth.  And the reason for being in this weird part of Scotland?  It happens to be the part of Earth that will come the closest to the planet when it “passes by”.

Clearly the science here isn’t the heartiest.

But wait! There is a spacecraft that has landed, with the man from this Planet X.  He’s a strange-looking spaceman who “speaks” through sounds, carries a gun, and needs some form of his own oxygen to breathe.  Sadly, one of the former students is Dr. Mears (the ageless William Schallert), seeks to profit from the technology of the spaceman.  This very short-sighted plan goes awry and the spaceman enslaves several people to prepare for the landing of his fellow creatures when the planet comes close.

It actually quite muddles the potential good or evil of the aliens.  They are trying to escape their dying world, but do they come in peace?  We never find out.  We blow them up.

One of Ulmer’s key qualities is his work in miniature landscapes and background matte paintings.  They are most remarkable here as well.  I don’t know but it probably says a lot about me that even as a kid, I loved the glorious, lurid fakery of matte paintings as background design.  Maybe I just loved the fantasy of it and the styles, didn’t need it to “look real”.

I think The Man from Planet X  has tipped me over the top with Ulmer.  I’ve liked his films and have cited Detour as a personal favorite, but now, the auteur of Poverty Row is now in my list of favorite directors.

Detour (1945)

Detour (1945) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 05/13/2012 at the Roxie Theater, SF, CA

The final installment of my film noir triple feature at the Roxie, Detour, is actually one of my favorite films.  Certainly, it’s one of my favorite noir films, so lean and ruthless, so deceptively simple, so razor-sharp tight.  Ann Savage is amazing as the femme fatale par excellence, swerving between rage and kittenish vulnerability, manipulative to a fault, vicious yet pathetic.  I’m more struck by her performance every time I see it, and I’d never seen it on the big screen before.

Of the three films that I saw as part of the “I Wake up Dreaming” noir festival, only The Pretender (1947) was shown on film.  So that was a little disappointing.  But still, it was cool to see it big and bold, with a crowd.

Strange Illusion

Strange Illusion (1945) movie poster

(1945) director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 08/09/2011

After revisiting director Edgar G. Ulmer’s no budget noir masterpiece, Detour (1945), I queued up another noir of his, released the same year, the interesting-sounding, Strange Illusion.

Ulmer, who started out as a set designer for Fritz Lang, among others, made it to Hollywood, but rarely worked with a real budget.  Strange Illusion is similarly bare-bones, but also more interesting than a lot of movies made with higher budgets.

It’s the story of a young collegian, Jimmy, who revisits his home after his father’s sudden death in a mysterious car accident.  He has a vision of a dark figure trying to step into the picture and suspects that his father’s death may have been murder.  The film channels Hamlet and is rife with Freudian themes, especially Oedipal lust.  For his mother is being pursued by a gentleman, and Jimmy finds himself in a mental institution, trapped by a sinister psychiatrist.

For its low budget, the dream sequences, including the scene of the car accident, have real flair.  It doesn’t have the mean, lean perfection nor significant performances to rival the much richer Detour.  But it is an interesting film, in no small part to its low budget and high capabilities of Edgar Ulmer.  I’m queueing up more of his films, as I type.  So to speak.

Detour

Detour (1945) movie poster

(1945) director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 09/23/10

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is one of the best film noir ever made.  Not just my opinion, but one that is widely shared.  But unlike some of the other finest noir films, Detour was filmed on the lowest of budgets, often referred to as “poverty row” pictures, and both because of and despite its limited and cheap constructs, is a bleak and vivid a noir film as there is ever made.  I had seen Detour some years ago and it had stuck with me.

Tom Neal is a piano playing schmoe in New York whose girl heads off to California to try to make it big.  After their initial split, he decides to follow her out there so that they can get married.  As Neal hitchhikes his way across the country, he gets a ride with a garrolous fellow who is heading all the way to Los Angeles.  But when Neal stops the car to rest and tries to rouse the car’s owner, the owner falls out of the car and hits his head, dying instantly.  Sure that he’s going to be blamed for killing the man, Neal does the only thing he can think of, steals the man’s car, clothes, and identity, with the plan of ditching the car once he makes LA.

The film is narrated by Neal in voiceover, a reflection on what has brought him to be where he is, haunted and cast in shadow and weird lighting at some diner in Bakersfield.  But the illogic of his choices start to call into question the verity of his storyline.  No one will believe him because it’s so unbelievable that he didn’t kill the man.  Maybe we don’t even believe him.

As Neal hits the road again for LA, he picks up another hitchhiker, a young woman, Patricia Savage.  Only it turns out that Neal had ridden with the original owner of the car and immediately sizes up the situation and takes control, lest she report Neal to the cops.  She’s as hard-boiled as they come and gets him to head to LA with her in tow, pretending to be the dead man and his wife.

Savage is savage, an emotional rollercoaster of a broad, ten thousand times more wise than Neal, biting his head off and bullying him, while drinking and being vicious.  Savage’s performance is really something else, suggesting so much, while veering between viciousness and vulnerability.  Neal is just a sap, with the face of an injured puppy dog, but also the mug of the Depression and depression.

Like so many film noir protagonists/lovers, they are in a spiralling dance of death.  And the dramatic event, the twist in the story that makes it so weird and lurid, what pushes them both over the edge, is just a strange and clever plot device.

For a film that is not even 70 minutes long, made on the way cheap, starring an actor and actress for whom this was their biggest claim to fame, what is created is nothing short of grand cinema magic.   The film has a ruthless air of depression and doom, but is vibrant and clever.

And interestingly, this film, which was selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation (showing a keen and selective eye for this diamond in the rough), is part of the public domain.  Available on DVD in several formats as a result, it is also available for free download on the web from a number of sites.  And it is just plain one of the great films out there.