Edgar G. Ulmer
Film director Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972) is mostly remembered for the movies The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). These stylish and eccentric works have achieved cult status, but Ulmer's other films remain relatively unknown. As a young man Ulmer lived in Vienna, Austria where he worked as a stage actor and set designer while studying architecture and philosophy. He set designed for Max Reinhardt's theater, served his apprenticeship with F. W. Murnau, and worked with collaborators including Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Eugen Schüftan. Ulmer came to Hollywood with Murnau in the 20s to assist with the art direction on Sunrise (1927). In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich he also recalled making two-reel westerns in Hollywood around this time. The Black Cat (1933), starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, is an early example of Ulmer's striking visual style. Ulmer's career was spent mostly in Poverty Row cinema: after an early success at Universal with The Black Cat, Ulmer, for both personal reasons and a desire for creative independence, left the major studios behind. He specialized first in ethnic films, notably four in Yiddish. The best-known of the Yiddish films is Green Fields (1937), co-directed with Jacob Ben-Ami. Ulmer then found a niche making melodramas on miniscule budgets and with often unpromising scripts and actors for PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation). Through the rest of his career, Ulmer worked mostly on low-budget films in America and Europe. In the 40s he did get a chance to direct two films with larger budgets, Ruthless (1948) and The Strange Woman (1946). The latter is an example of Ulmer at his best, featuring a strong performance by Hedy Lamarr. Detour (1945) has achieved considerable acclaim as a seminal example of film noir, and was picked by the Library of Congress as one of the first group of 100 films worthy of special preservation efforts. Wife Shirley Ulmer acted as script supervisor on nearly all of her director-husband films from 1934 on. He directed his last film, The Cavern, in Italy in 1964; several years later, he suffered a crippling stroke, and died September 30, 1972.
Bibliography Bogdanovich, Peter, Who the Devil Made It, Knopf, 1997
Selected film works