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A Cult Favorite Gets His Due

by Leonard Maltin
March 11, 2014 12:00 AM
  • |
(University of California Press)

Book review: Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins by Noah Isenberg 
(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.



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  • Jim Reinecke | March 13, 2014 10:35 AMReply

    Thanks for calling our attention to this book, Leonard. Certainly I've always been a great fan of the top rank directors who enjoy (and deserve) their legendary reputations (Ford, Capra, Hitchcock, Sturges, Wellman, Wilder, etc. as well as such later luminaries as Scorsese and Woody Allen), but I've always had this "second tier" of filmmakers who, either through neglect, the passage of time or obscurity have had their reputations--and, sadly in many cases, their work--eclipsed. Ulmer certainly falls into this category. I only hope that there are others who will similarly be recognized for their contributions to the overall body of work in American movie making, and I'm talking about such always intriguing directors as Richard Boleslawski (check out the 1935 version of LES MISERABLES, folks), Harry Lachman (his Charlie Chan films at Fox in the late '30's and early '40's are beautifully done, both suspenseful and atmospheric), John Brahm (the 1944 version of THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE from the following year are gems) and, my favorite unheralded filmmaker, Roy William Neill, who gave us some very worthwhile movies, both at Columbia in the mid-'30's (THE BLACK ROOM with Karloff is terrific!) and Universal in the '40's (his Sherlock Holmes efforts, for instance). There are others I could mention. In the meantime, I'll definitely make it my business to read this most-welcome study of Mr. Ulmer!

  • Norm | March 11, 2014 5:25 PMReply

    Makes you wonder how many talented people are out there , but with no voice or oppotunity...

  • arianne ulmer cipes | March 11, 2014 12:53 PMReply

    Thank you for your review of the Biography of my Father. My dream of preserving his actual films and extending the knowledge of his work has finally been realized.

    Best regads,

    Arianne Ulmer Cipes - President of the Edgar G Ulmer Preservation Corp.

  • kailash Gaur | March 11, 2014 3:39 AMReply

    Nice article

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