director Michael Palm
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.