Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

Synopsis

Edgar G. Ulmer is perhaps best known today for Detour, considered by many to be the epitome of a certain noir style that transcends its B-list origins. But in his lifetime he never achieved the celebrity of his fellow Austrian and German émigré directors—Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fred Zinnemann, and Robert Siodmak. Despite early work with Max Reinhardt and F. W. Murnau, his auspicious debut with Siodmak on their celebrated Weimar classic People on Sunday, and the success of films like Detour and Ruthless, Ulmer spent most of his career as an itinerant filmmaker earning modest paychecks for films that have either been overlooked or forgotten. In this fascinating and well-researched account of a career spent on the margins of Hollywood, Noah Isenberg provides the little-known details of Ulmer’s personal life and a thorough analysis of his wide-ranging, eclectic films—features aimed at minority audiences, horror and sci-fi flicks, genre pictures made in the U.S. and abroad. Isenberg shows that Ulmer’s unconventional path was in many ways more typical than that of his more famous colleagues. As he follows the twists and turns of Ulmer’s fortunes, Isenberg also conveys a new understanding of low-budget filmmaking in the studio era and beyond.

Excerpt

The origins of this project lie in a conversation I had more than a decade ago. I was sitting on the redwood deck at my mother’s house in La Jolla, California, and her companion of many years, Bob Lurie, was talking with me about my current teaching and research interests. An adman by profession, Bob had a keen understanding of film, particularly of the glory days of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, when he’d lived in Los Angeles, having moved there from New York to attend ucla on the gi Bill. I happened to mention to Bob that a director who really intrigued me, whose films I had taught in several of my courses, was one of Hollywood’s European transplants, a lesser-known figure among the celebrated lot, a guy named Edgar G. Ulmer. the very mention of his name prompted an outburst. “Don’t believe a word he said!” Bob exclaimed. As fate would have it, Bob’s first cousin was Shirley Ulmer, Edgar’s wife and lifelong collaborator. Bob had sat through many a meal with the director holding court and telling some of the tallest of his tales, and he wasn’t buying any of it.

This, naturally, made me only more eager to explore the career of this enigmatic director, a man who clearly had talent but repeatedly exaggerated his accomplishments and affiliations, especially late in life, in such a way as to provoke total disbelief. I needed to find out more, so Bob offered to put me in touch with Shirley Ulmer. My calls went unanswered until one autumn evening in 2001, when I heard from Shirley’s daughter, Arianné, a former actor, who told me that Shirley had recently . . .

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