Nationality: Austrian. Born: Edgar Georg Ulmer in Vienna, 17 September 1904. Education: Studied architecture at Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vienna; studied stage design at Burgteater, Vienna. Family: Married Shirley Castle, one daughter. Career: Designer for Decla-Bioscope film company, 1918; designer for Max Reinhardt, Vienna, 1919–22; designer for Universal in New York, 1923; returned to Germany as assistant to Murnau, 1924; returned to United States, art director and production assistant at Universal, from 1925; co-directed first film, with Robert Siodmak, 1929; art director at MGM and stage designer for Philadelphia Grand Opera Co., 1930–33; made public health documentaries for minority groups, New York, mid-1930s; director and writer for Producers' Releasing Corporation (PRC), Hollywood, 1942–46; worked in United States, Mexico, Italy, Germany, and Spain, through 1950s. Died: In Woodland Hills, California, 30 September 1972.
Films as Director:
(claimed to have directed 128 films; following titles are reported in current filmographies):
Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (co-d, co-sc)
Damaged Lives (+ co-sc); Mr. Broadway
The Black Cat (+ co-sc); Thunder over Texas (d as "John Warner")
Green Fields (co-d)
Natalka Poltavka (+ sc, assoc pr); The Singing Blacksmith (+ pr); Zaporosch Sa Dunayem (Cossacks in Exile; TheCossacks across the Danube)
Die Tlatsche (The Light Ahead) (original title: Fishe da Krin) (+ pr); Moon over Harlem; Americaner Schadchen (TheMarriage Broker; American Matchmaker); Let My PeopleLive
Cloud in the Sky
Another to Conquer
Tomorrow We Live
My Son, the Hero (+ co-sc); Girls in Chains (+ story); Isle ofForgotten Sins (+ story); Jive Junction
Strange Illusion (Out of the Night); Club Havana; Detour
The Wife of Monte Cristo (+ co-sc); Her Sister's Secret; TheStrange Woman
I pirati de Capri (Pirates of Capri)
St. Benny the Dip; The Man from Planet X
Babes in Bagdad
Naked Dawn; Murder Is My Beat (Dynamite Anchorage)
The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll; The Perjurer
Hannibal; The Amazing Transparent Man; Beyond the TimeBarrier; L'Atlantide (Antinea, L'amante della città Sepolta); Journey beneath the Desert (co-d)
Sette contro la morte (Neunzing Nächte and ein Tag)
Sunrise (Murnau) (asst prod des)
Little Man, What Now? (set design)
Prisoner of Japan (story)
Corregidor (co-sc); Danger! Women at Work (co-story)
By ULMER: articles—
Interview, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), August 1961.
Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, in Film Culture (New York), no. 58/60, 1974.
On ULMER: books—
Belton, John, The Hollywood Professionals Vol. 3, New York, 1974.
McCarthy, Todd, and Charles Flynn, editors, Kings of the B's:Working within the Hollywood System, New York, 1975.
Belton, John, Cinema Stylists, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1983.
On ULMER: articles—
Moullet, Luc, "Edgar G. Ulmer," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1956.
Sarris, Andrew, "Esoterica," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.
Belton, John, "Prisoners of Paranoia," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Summer 1972; reprinted Winter 1977.
Beylie, Claude, "Edgar G. Ulmer, dandy de grand chemin," in Ecran (Paris), December 1972.
"Le Chat Noir Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1982.
Jenkins, Steve, "Ulmer and PRC: A Detour down Poverty Row," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1982.
Krohn, B., "King of the B's," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1983.
Mandell, P., "Edgar Ulmer and The Black Cat," in AmericanCinematographer (Los Angeles), October 1984.
Prédal, René, "L'usine aux maléfices," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1985.
* * *
The films of Edgar G. Ulmer have generally been classified as "B" pictures. However, it might be more appropriate to reclassify some of these films as "Z" pictures. On an average, Ulmer's pictures were filmed on a six-day shooting schedule with budgets as small as $20,000. He often worked without a decent script, adequate sets, or convincing actors. But these hardships did not prevent Ulmer from creating an individual style within his films.
Part of the look of Ulmer's films was, naturally, a result of their meager budgets. The cast was kept to a minimum., the sets were few and simple, and stock footage helped to keep costs down (even when it did not quite match the rest of the film). The length of the scripts was also kept to a minimum. Most of Ulmer's films ran only 60 to 70 minutes, and it was not uncommon for his pictures to open upon characters who were not formally introduced. Ulmer often plunged his audience into the middle of the action, which would add to their suspense as the story finally did unfold.
Characters in Ulmer's films commonly found themselves in strange and distant surroundings. This plight is especially true for the title character of The Man from Planet X. This curious being is stranded on earth (which from his point of view is an alien world) and is at the mercy of the strangers around him. In another example, the Allisons, a young couple on their honeymoon in The Black Cat, find themselves trapped in the futuristic home of the bizarre Mr. Poelzig. They are held against their will with all avenues of escape blocked off. Many of Ulmer's characters find that they are prisoners. Some of them are innocent, but many times they live in prisons of their own making.
Another theme that is prevalent in Ulmer's films is fate. His characters rarely have control over their own destiny, an idea verbalized by Al Roberts in Detour, who says, "whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out its foot to trip you." In The Amazing Transparent Man, a scientist who has been forced to work against his will on experiments with nuclear material explains that he "didn't do anything by choice." The Allisons in The Black Cat have no control over their destiny, either—their fate will be determined by the outcome of a game of chess. In most cases the characters in Ulmer's films find themselves swept away in a series of circumstances that they are unable to stop.
The critical recognition of Ulmer's work has been a fairly recent "discovery." Initial reviews of Ulmer's films (and not all of his films received reviews) were far from complimentary. Part of the reason for their dismissal may have been their exploitative nature. Titles likeGirls in Chains and Babes in Bagdad could conceivably have some difficulty finding a respectable niche in the film world. Taken as a whole, however, the work of Edgar Ulmer reveals a personal vision that is, at the very least, different and distinctive from the mainstream of film directors.