Hollywood Detour

The independent mind of Edgar G. Ulmer

Hollywood Detour

If you're familiar with the film director Edgar G. Ulmer, it is likely through his greatest achievement, Detour, a pinnacle of low-budget filmmaking in which the director created a sustained milieu of sheer perversity and unswerving doom with two actors and three sets. This new Austin Film Society series takes up where Detour leaves off: with a focused look at some of the other films in the Ulmer canon in an effort to understand what made this Poverty Row director tick.

Ulmer, by choice, worked on movies that were relegated to categories below the Bs (an economic term for lower-budgeted pictures, rather than an estimation of quality, as the term is often mistakenly interpreted). It was an atmosphere that suited him: quick shoots on makeshift sets that were fairly removed from studio interference. The conditions brought out his visual strengths, whereby he created worlds of intense emotion through the creative use of camerawork and lighting.

His career could have been otherwise; he certainly had the credentials to rise in Hollywood along with the many other German film-industry émigrés from the Nazi regime. Back in Europe, Ulmer, who had worked extensively in all facets of theatre since childhood (including a stint creating set designs for Max Reinhardt), first earned screen credit as the co-director of Menschen am Sonntag, the acclaimed German street film that also featured the talents of Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Eugen Schüfftan, and Fred Zinnemann, all of whom later went on to great careers in Hollywood. Ulmer chose a different path.

His first U.S. project was a film about venereal disease, which was followed by a Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi success called The Black Cat. He then produced and directed numerous foreign-language and minority-group films in New York, which are represented in this series by The Singing Blacksmith, American Matchmaker, and Moon Over Harlem. In addition to these ethnic films of the Thirties, Ulmer made dozens of films in a variety of American genres – all united by their expressive visual technique. The narratives are usually slipshod and the performances mediocre, but man, could Ulmer set a scene. An iconoclast until the end, he preferred the freedom of independent filmmaking over the comforts of the studio grind.

The opening film in this four-week series is a film biography of Ulmer, which will be presented by his daughter and collaborator Arianne Ulmer Cipes. For details about the films – all of which will screen at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado) – and admission, see www.austinfilm.org.

Nov. 29

7pm: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen

9:45pm: The Man From Planet X

Dec. 6

7pm: The Singing Blacksmith

9:45pm: American Matchmaker

Dec. 13

7pm: The Strange Woman

Dec. 14

9:45pm: Ruthless (special Wednesday screening)

Dec. 20

7pm: Bluebeard

9:45pm: Moon Over Harlem (free with admission to the 7pm show)

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Hollywood Detour:The Independent Mind of Edgar G. Ulmer, Austin Film Society

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