Book review: Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins by
(University of California Press)
Edgar Ulmer is one of the great curiosities of Hollywood history. He collaborated with Billy Wilder, Curt and Robert Siodmak, Eugen Shüfftan and Fred Zinnemann on the celebrated German silent film People on Sunday but never achieved anything like their great success in America. His most prominent picture, The Black Cat (1934) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, turned out to be his only mainstream studio picture. Why? What happened that relegated Ulmer to the fringes of American cinema?
Ulmer barely eked out a living making B Westerns, Yiddish-language features, health-care shorts, half-baked European productions, a nudist film (for which he used a pseudonym) and, most famously, a string of ultra-cheap pictures for PRC, including the now-legendary film noir Detour (1945). Any director who could turn out a film so striking in one week’s time is surely worthy of notice.
Noah Isenberg has spent the last decade working on this most welcome book, which can lay claim to being a definitive study of Edgar G. Ulmer. He recognizes the filmmaker’s talent and points out his strengths as well as his failings. Best of all, he doesn’t aggrandize Ulmer, as some wide-eyed auteurists insisted on doing when he was “discovered” several decades ago. He also does his best to separate fact from fiction in Ulmer’s interviews, where he played fast and loose discussing every phase of his long career.
As a result of prodigious research, here and in Europe, and cooperation from the director’s daughter, Isenberg has given us more than an academic study of the filmmaker’s eclectic career. He manages to paint a rounded, sympathetic but honest picture of the man whose endless dreams were so often dashed.
The final section of the book is particularly revealing, as Isenberg had access to candid correspondence between Ulmer and his long-suffering agent at the Paul Kohner office in Hollywood.
Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins is scholarly but never dry. It is a valuable reference and a good read.