The reputation is true as far as it goes. But Ulmer (1904-1972), who was F.W. Murnaus assistant on, among others, Faust (1926) and Sunrise (1927), was a great deal more than that. He directed Yiddish-language films in New Jersey, an all-black musical, an exploitative anti-venereal disease documentary with a spectacularly moving suicide sequence, two-reel silent Westerns, medium budget melodramas, cheap-cheap sci-fi, and so forth and so on. To each and every one of his films, he brought an unreserved commitment, resulting in some very strange, but extremely accomplished works of art. Popular prejudice has sometimes branded Ulmers films as camp, kitsch, or trash. But to see the value of Ulmers work, all you have to do is put aside your biases and see.
Proof of this comes courtesy of All Day Entertainment, which is releasing the multi-volume DVD Edgar G. Ulmer Collection (check it out at All Day Entertainment). A good place to start is Bluebeard (1944), an excellent film, which the DVD presents in as good a print as youre likely to find. After completing The Black Cat, Ulmer left Universal under some mysterious cloud, and, eventually, ended up at working steadily at PRC (Producers Releasing Corp.), one of the cheapest outfits on Hollywoods Poverty Row. To give an example of the companys parsimony, Ulmer was sometimes forced to shoot with short ends, left-over pieces of unexposed film from other productions. For a filmmaker who preferred to use a mobile camera and long-takes, this was a terrible limitation, yet Ulmer accepted it. As you might imagine, preservation was not a high priority at such an institution, so finding good prints of Ulmers work today is difficult to say the least. All Day has done a superior job with its Bluebeard print.
Bluebeard is set in 19th-century Paris (seemingly during the era of Louis Bonaparte?), when the eponymous, but unknown killer is leaving a school of pretty young victims floating in the Seine. John Carradine, coached by Ulmer into giving a restrained performance, plays Gaston, a painter and puppeteer who has been leading his marionettes through popular performances of Gounods Faust in a small neighborhood park. A bachelor with an eye for pretty young women, he becomes infatuated with a pretty young milliner, Lucille (Jean Parker), and hires her to sew the costumes for his next production, a puppet ballet. When Lucille discovers that Gaston has painted the portraits of other young women, she suggests that he paint hers. But almost violently Gaston refuses, for, as weve seen, bad things happen to women when Gaston paints their portrait, and hes trying to give up painting altogether.
Ulmers treatment of the material is immediately atmospheric. Ulmer himself had once been a set designer, and the sets for Bluebeard are quite remarkable. The park where the puppet shows occur (all the exteriors are in a small studio) lends itself to picturesque compositions of women in bonnets, soldiers on horseback, etc. From the original and painterly, Ulmer moves to the familiar and stagy: Gastons studio is a mildly expressionist tableau of windows and stairs that avoids most clichés but invokes that good old gothic mood. Finally, underneath Gastons rooms is the site of pure melodrama and psychic shadow, the Parisian sewers, which not only provide a convenient dumping place for his victims corpses, but also a secret entrance for the films real villain, an art dealer named Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel).
Ulmer unites these and the movies settings with his mobile camera work and a subtle use of shadow, the latter particularly filigreed for such a low-budget film. In this, he was aided by his frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, who, during the 1940s, split much of his time between work for Ulmer and Douglas Sirk (see more on Schüfftan in the Gunman in the Streets DVD review). Schüfftan couldnt get a union card, so hes not credited as cinematographer on the movie, but as production designer, a function Ulmer probably took for himself. In any case, his typical avoidance of low-key lighting, but maintenance of a high degree of shadow and variable lighting within the frame, is both remarkable and highly effective.
All this craftsmanship made for an effective thriller, heavy on foreshadowing, double-crossing, and mixed sympathies. No doubt, Ulmer had some sympathy for Gaston, like himself an artist victimized by greedy and exploitative businessmen. Some may see the movie as a anti-heroic reversal, a chance to root for a killer against his pursuers. But this interpretation overestimates Ulmers admittedly frequent perversity. Bluebeard presents an opportunity to investigate an Ulmer that is less fanciful, but perhaps more impressive.
The first question Bluebeard poses is why do Ulmer and his middle-European collaborators insist on using a mobile camera, tracking through their sets whenever they can and cutting only when absolutely necessary? Its true that Ulmer was a longtime assistant to Murnau, who provided a philosophical mandate for the style. But Ulmer was also one of the directors of Menschen Am Sonntag (People on Sunday), which took an entirely different approach and quite effectively at that.
One outcome of Ulmers tracking style in Bluebeard is that it tends to put everyone on the same moral footing. Lucille, Gaston, their friends and foes, all the bystanders and passers-by, share the same physical space and on the same level. Even when we see Gaston the first time - who we know from the first minutes is Bluebeard - hes walking down the street and greeting people in a normal way, not emerging from some black doorway like a nosferatu from its lair. Even during conversations, when Ulmer cuts back and forth between characters, he avoids the changes in lighting or angles that would excessively isolate characters from one another, or inhumanly distort ones features.
So while its poking around, does this camera find a hero? Or even a figure of identification? Lucille is considerably more than the usual damsel in distress, though she spends a lot of time on mortal jeopardy. Theres a policeman in Bluebeard, but he hardly seems to figure in the action. Lucille has a sister who works as a part-time police agent, and she has a large role to play. But its Gaston who keeps coming to fore, whether hes menacing or being menaced in his turn.
An American audience, used to Hollywood films, might be waiting for Ulmer to pick a single character perspective and stick with it. But Ulmer refuses, remaining detached, though never Olympian. He displays sympathy for some of his ill-used characters, but only in stingily measured portions. As soon as his characters step over one of Ulmers moral lines, his camera will, sometimes literally, turn away in rejection.
Ulmer generally centers his attention on an alien of some sort. In Detour, the alien was a New York musician who finds himself in a strange Western landscape. In Bluebeard, its an artist with a bent psyche. One becomes an alien, the other seems to have been born one. Each has set out on a lifes path to go West, to become an artist as an act of free will, and become a killer through accident. Yet, the accident seems an inevitable part of the act of free will, part of a larger, inexplicable part of destiny. Yet, free will and destiny, or fate, are contradictory.
This paradox brings us closer to both the creepiness that underlies Ulmers projects and the mandarin artistry he brought to bear on them. His films are based on the monstrous, irresolvable contradictions of the mid-20th century in which he lived. Gaston is a victimizer and victim; unfortunately, neither makes him particularly remarkable or likable to Ulmer. Thats why hes just another figure moving through the world along with Ulmers moving camera. And that camera, after all, is just Ulmer himself, the sardonic Viennese, student of philosophy, an artist and intellectual, strolling through his own reflection of the world outside the studio door.