Edgar G. Ulmer | People on Sunday | The Black Cat | American Matchmaker | Goodbye, Mr. Germ | Tomorrow We Live | My Son, the Hero | Isle of Forgotten Sins / Monsoon | Jive Junction | Bluebeard | Strange Illusion | Detour | The Strange Woman | Carnegie Hall | Ruthless | The Pirates of Capri | The Man From Planet X | Murder Is My Beat | Swiss Family Robinson | The Amazing Transparent Man | Beyond the Time Barrier

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Edgar G. Ulmer

Edgar G. Ulmer directed films from the 1920's through the 1960's.

Ulmer: Visual Style

Ulmer's films are full of unusual sets, furniture and props. Common features include: Ulmer's films contain a number of special kinds of shots:

Ulmer: Themes and Subjects

Common subject matter in Ulmer's films: Science and Technology: Story telling: Characters: Themes: People and their Clothes: These elements do not all occur in every Ulmer film. In fact some occur in just a couple of Ulmer films.

People on Sunday

People on Sunday (1930) is a mix of a documentary film about Berlin, with a light story about a group of young Berliners and their Sunday excursion to a country resort. The silent film was co-directed by Robert Siodmak. It was the two men's only collaboration: most of each man's later projects would be solo directorial efforts. The article on Siodmak contains a detailed discussion of the film.

Siodmak and Ulmer share a number of subjects, that run through both directors' films. Several of these pop up in People on Sunday: women running enterprises, garages, boats with technology, staircases, poor men who want to dress up in good clothes. The article discusses this shared imagery in detail.

The wine salesman's torn shirt, anticipates hero David Manners' torn suit in The Black Cat.


The Black Cat

The Black Cat (1934). Many of Ulmer's fantastic films involve Constructivist, geometric design. This one takes place at a Modernistic house that was fabulously advanced in design for its era.

Much of this film involves pure, geometric patterns. They are everywhere, and not only in the mansion set. The bowl in which doctor Lugosi washes his hands is a huge transparent round surface. Its geometric qualities rivet one's attention. The train walls are full of geometric design, including many sided polygons on the walls.

The first half of The Black Cat, which introduces us to strange characters in fascinating architectural settings, is more interesting than the second half, which tends to involve more pure horror material. However, the film is a remarkable work considered as a whole.

Ulmer and Murnau

Ulmer had been an assistant to the silent film director F. W. Murnau. Murnau created his films in the studio, building elaborate sets. Murnau also favored the use of complex back projection, and other special effects, to create an entirely film-based, artificial reality. One sees a similar aesthetic in this and other Ulmer films. The Black Cat takes place entirely in a studio created universe of bizarre sets.

The train set has a window, through which Ulmer can project a wide variety of back projections. It resembles the factory set in Murder Is My Beat, which also uses back projection. Ulmer liked to create such artificial, only in the movies worlds.

The road on which the bus drives is one of Ulmer's minimalist worlds. The set consists of little more than a road and a fence, all surrounded by darkness. It anticipates the similarly minimalist exteriors of Scotland in The Man From Planet X.

Other Murnau influences involve lighting. In Nosferatu (1922), Murnau showed the set in darkness, and then after a candle was suddenly lit, flooding the set with light. Our introduction to the mansion interior here also begins in darkness, then has the lights come on at night. Boris Karloff's entrance is handled in a similar manner. He is in bed, behind a transparent curtain. Then his bed chamber is flooded with light. Other Nosferatu echoes: the bus that comes at night to take the characters to Gömbös reminds one of the phantom carriage that arrives to take the visitor to the vampire's castle in Nosferatu.

The camera movements here recall Murnau's joy in camera movement in his films. The movement which follows the characters up the staircase when they first enter the mansion is outstanding.

Ulmer and Fritz Lang's Metropolis

There are also influences in The Black Cat from Fritz Lang, especially Lang's science fiction film Metropolis (1926): Metropolis is filled with miniatures representing panoramas of the city of the future; in later science fiction films, Ulmer will include such miniature paintings and models, as part of his creation of a science fiction reality. The geometric and architectural qualities of Lang's cinema will also find echoes throughout Ulmer's.

Mirrors and Reflections: Another Fritz Lang Influence

The Black Cat also has such Lang trademarks as shots in mirrors, and staircases.

Ulmer includes a striking mirror shot, in which Manners sees his wife sleeping in her bed. The shot is constructed as a concentric series of zones, each containing the next inside it. First Manners is in the outer zone, then the doorway, then the dresser table with its bottle, then the mirror, then the bed, and finally the wife sleeping in the bed. This construction perhaps relates to Ulmer's interest in modular architecture, with each zone being a separate module. Such concentrically composed mirror shots are dissimilar to anything I remember in Fritz Lang.

At one point in the opening train ride, Lugosi sees his image in the window, a scene reminiscent of the store window reflections in Fritz Lang.

The way that Manners and his wife are a loving young couple, who have to share their railway compartment with a sinister third party, recalls the opening of Lang's Destiny (1921), and its engaged couple sharing a carriage ride with Death.

Feeding

Feeding has the importance here it does in other Ulmer films. One of the first conversations between the newlyweds centers on their desire to feed each other. The opening of the film shows strange baked goods being made in the train station. It is unclear whether Ulmer directed these train station scenes, or whether they are stock footage he included in the movie.

Later on, there was a scene in which Manners is fed at the house. It is deleted from current prints, but a production still survives. It shows Manners at a table, with a huge collection of glassware and plates in front of him. This is one of many still lifes in the film; the dresser table in the heroine's bedroom, and Karloff's desk, are also full of objects, all arranged in visually beautiful patterns. The scene in which Manners eats is referred to later in the dialogue, in a scene in which Manners and his wife are talking. A year earlier, Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) also included many still lifes of objects on the desks in front of the characters.

The Horrors of War

The subject matter of The Black Cat includes much about the horrors of war. This will be one of Ulmer's main themes throughout his career. Later, we will see the hero of Murder Is My Beat (1955) express horror over World War II, and the late pair of science fiction films The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) and Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) will look at the awful implications of nuclear weapons.

The Hero, Paul Cain and David Manners

The hero of this film (David Manners) is a young mystery author who is just married. Similarly, the real life screen writer of The Black Cat was a young mystery author who had just published his first book, Fast One (1932), and who was just starting a romance with actress Gertrude Michaels. This gives the couple in the film an autobiographical air. The author used the named Peter Ruric for his screen work and Paul Cain for his prose mystery fiction.

David Manners' characterization recalls that of Ricardo Cortez in Roy Del Ruth's version of The Maltese Falcon (1931). Both men smile constantly, and laugh a lot. Both offer a steady stream of humorous satirical observations on everything around them. Both are lightly cynical and jester-like. Both are elegantly dressed in superb suits with vests, that give them a festive, even party air. Both look as if they are having fun, and are attending one big party. Both are ladies' men, and pay a lot of attention to women. Both men have a similar manner of speaking. Even their voice intonations and timbres are similar. Everyone in The Black Cat has their own distinctive vocal approach: after all, this is a movie with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Ulmer has certainly encouraged such vocal individuality. Manners' style of speaking is almost as distinctive as theirs. It is not quite conventional; instead, it is a highly individualized form of speech. Manners is a bit more upper crust acting than Cortez. Cortez' version of Sam Spade is a cheap, sleazy private detective, just as in Dashiell Hammett's novel, and he seems like a lower class opportunist, while Manners acts like a refined, polished person one might meet at a country club or Chamber of Commerce meeting. Still, both men seem startlingly similar in their approach, right down to their facial expressions and vocal intonations.


American Matchmaker

American Matchmaker (1940) is a Yiddish musical. It is both a good movie in its own right, being a key work of the talented director Edgar G. Ulmer, and a priceless record of the once flourishing Yiddish theater of its era. It preserves the talents of gifted stage performers who would otherwise be only names in history books.

American Matchmaker is what Godard might have described as "a Lubitsch subject directed by Fritz Lang". In subject matter, it is like Lubitsch: a sweet romantic musical, that takes a sensitive, pathos-tinged look at its characters' romances. In visual style, however, it is like Fritz Lang, director of Metropolis: a dark, expressionist styled film with spectacular architecture and geometrically patterned sets.

American Matchmaker takes place in modern day New York City. Leo Fuchs, a bon vivant actor-singer known in his era as "the Yiddish Fred Astaire", plays a wealthy businessman constantly unlucky in love. So he adopts a pseudonym, and a new persona as a matchmaker, helping others attain the matrimony that has eluded him. Later Ulmer characters will also adopt new identities and lives: Detour, The Pirates of Capri, St. Benny the Dip. Both the Matchmaker, and the imitation priests in St. Benny, wind up ministering to other people.

Fuchs is always dressed to the nines, and is suave, agreeable and sophisticated. In this he resembles David Manners in The Black Cat. One suspects that this type was a fantasy ideal for Ulmer: a good-natured man who charms and is genuinely nice to all. American Matchmaker also has its characters running around in beautiful modernist interiors, also like The Black Cat. In his office as the Matchmaker, and wearing his formal morning clothes, the hero resembles the Master of Metropolis, no less.

Science and Technology

The hero is explicitly situated in industry, being a big businessman in the Garment District. The garment business (manufacturing of clothing) was one of the biggest employers of Jews in New York City in that era. His friends include a sausage maker, also in manufacturing. This anticipates the visit to the factory in Murder Is My Beat.

The American Matchmaker stresses scientific investigation of clients: health, psychology, etc. He anticipates the later scientist characters in Ulmer: Goodbye Mr. Germ, the 1950's sf Ulmers.

Light

Bill Krohn has written about the darkened faces in Ulmer's films. There is a scene in American Matchmaker in which the hero douses the lights, so that his face is obscured, and his customer will not recognize who he is.

Sets

Like Lang, Ulmer loves geometrically interesting table lamps. The sets in this film are full of them, and resemble especially Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) - although this is a romantic comedy!

The grocery store set is full of shelves, with geometrically arranged canned goods. It resembles many scientific labs to come in Ulmer, which also tend to be back walls of the sets, filled with many shelves and horizontal work surfaces, all shot frontally - just like the grocery store here. The shelves emphasize different light and dark products, creating a design made up out of white and black. They are bounded on one side by a strong vertical of boxes rising to the ceiling.

These echo the verticals on either side of the living room panorama that opened the film, made up of tall lamps, a canary cage on a tall pole, and lintels of a door. This shot is dark, moody, and full of glowing white lamps. The two tall floor lamps on the left, seem almost merged together by the shot. Later, we will see that they flank either side of the doorway to the hero's bedroom.

While the opening is in near darkness, Ulmer will gradually concentrate more and more on white-background regions of the living room, in this opening scene. Eventually, the musical number will feature the men against the highly white region near the white piano.

The hero's bedroom has an alcove, for the head of his bed. The heroine of The Pirates of Capri will also have an alcove at her bed head. Later, Fritz Lang will do something similar in Scarlet Street (1945). Lang's alcove is strictly rectilinear, whereas Ulmer's alcove walls are fascinatingly curved. The curve of the walls is echoed by the curve of the table lamps by the bed. There is also a quilted wall behind the hero. Its numerous squares recall the multi-paned windows that show up in The Black Cat, and the grids of bars in the jail in The Pirates of Capri. The two alcove walls, the two lamps, and the repeating squares of the quilt all recall Ulmer's interest in modular, repeating units in architecture. (Another alcove in Ulmer holds the hero's piano in the night club in Detour.)

The foyer in the hero's apartment has large circles on the floor. They are prominent in Ulmer's compositions. They recall the concentric circles on the ground in the cockfight in the Venetian episode of Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921).

Architecture: Modernist and Art Deco

When Ulmer shows the Bronx, he includes a brief exterior, showing a Modernist building, around a dozen stories high, whose facade is full of repeating units.

Then a second building, this one in full Art Deco Moderne style, with curving, multi-square windows wrapping around the corners. This second building is made to serve as the Matchmaker's headquarters - although the building seems to be an apartment complex rather than an office building.

The Bronx is made to look like the capital of Modernist architecture. It is brightly lit, with whitish buildings, whereas most of the shots we see of Manhattan look dark and nocturnal.

Camera Movement

As the hero goes to bed, after the party, Ulmer has a one-take, moving camera shot, showing the hero slowly crossing the living room from right to left, pausing to talk with his butler. This shot is beautifully kinetic and graceful.

Visions and Dreams

The Matchmaker is told he resembles his Uncle Shya. He immediately has a vision, showing his Uncle back in the old country, working as a matchmaker. This scene seems to be a mental image of the hero's. It is not a pure flashback. Instead, it seems to be part of the personal imaginings of the hero. It anticipates, but is different from, the flash-forward in Detour, which is also a personal imagining by the hero. The Uncle Shya is also played by Leo Fuchs. The effect is that the hero is imagining himself as Uncle Shya.

The film also has a brief dream sequence, in which the hero sees his fiancee in a series of small circles, which then begin to revolve. Such a strongly geometric dream sequence is unusual in films. The small circles arranged in a large circle, and their revolution, resemble the dial of a rotary telephone - a high tech, glamorous device in 1940. The repeating circles are also modular units, in the Ulmer tradition. Here, they show repeating images of a human, an odd approach. They anticipate the mass production of the figurines at the factory, in Murder Is My Beat.


Goodbye, Mr. Germ

Goodbye, Mr. Germ (1940) is a short educational film about tuberculosis. It mixes animation with live action, and is mainly a straightforward educational film. But it has some inventive and personal Ulmer characteristics. The scientist creates a "germ radio", so he can talk to a personified germ: one of the many strange visionary devices in Ulmer's films, that allow people to see or hear the world in new ways.

Disease Prevention: A Backstage Look

The educational aspects, clearly explaining the whole world of the disease and its treatment, recall other such informative backstage looks in his work.

The Lab

Best of all, is a whimsical sequence showing the kindly scientist's laboratory. This lab is a gem of set design. It anticipates the delightful observatory work room set in The Man From Planet X, but is even more elaborate. It is full of fun little details that would appeal to children. The home for the white lab mice is a model house in the Art Deco style, for example, like the mansion in The Black Cat. There are geometric figures, scientific objects, animals, all arranged into Ulmer's Constructivist still lifes. As in The Man From Planet X, these are shot frontally, and composed of rectilinear grids of various kinds of equipment. A toy ladder from one level of the animal shelves to another forms the sort of diagonal that strings will later embody in The Man From Planet X. This whole sequence is three minutes long, over a fifth of the picture. It has little function in the plot - it only exists to delight the viewer, and one suspects, the director.

Light

The first shot of the young man who is the patient, shows him being swallowed up into the darkness in a twilight interior: a typical Ulmer lighting effect.

Lights go on and off in the lab as well, in the form of radio tubes.


Tomorrow We Live

Tomorrow We Live (1942) is a strange crime thriller, from the dawn of the film noir era. The main crooks in Tomorrow We Live are gangsters, and in some ways, Tomorrow We Live can be seen more as a late film in the 1930's gangster cycle, rather than as some sort of noir.

Ulmer Subjects and Characters

Tomorrow We Live fits into Ulmer traditions:

ID

Several Ulmer films show a world where the State presses people to show identification. Tomorrow We Live is different, in that it is not the government, but the gangster The Ghost who collects information on people's identities. He has a clipping and prison record for Pop, which he uses for leverage. The Ghost also keeps systematic files on people: just like the Gestapo.

The Army hero compares the Ghost to Hitler. The Ghost is explicitly linked to the sinister dictators of history, who the "little people" are now battling in World War II.

Modular Architecture

Tomorrow We Live has a little of the architecture constructed out of repeating modules, often found in Ulmer:

Geometric Architecture

The nightclub is a riot of geometric forms. These reflect the Constructivist tradition of geometric sets, that runs through much of Ulmer. The chandelier is full of hanging spheres. Large diamond-shaped motifs are on the walls.

The nightclub annex where people dine has a sloping roof, a common feature in Ulmer. The couple sit at a circular table.

The gas station pumps have circular forms on their tops.

The Ghost's office has an anteroom, with a mirror with a parabolic shape.

The doors in The Ghost's office are in recessed, box-shaped regions. There is a circular rug on the floor, recalling the floor circles on the hero's foyer in American Matchmaker. There are also trapezoidal light fixtures, on the right hand wall.

Sets with Internal Windows

The Ghost's office has a back window, that looks down over the nightclub below. Such internal windows are common in Ulmer's world.

Hypnosis?

I've seen plot descriptions of Tomorrow We Live, that suggest that The Ghost has hypnotic powers over the other characters. These descriptions keep showing up in various locales, from books to TV programs. But I just can't see it: The Ghost is well-dressed, in a snappy double-breasted white tuxedo. Ulmer's heroes like to get dressed up. But the rival Good Guy also has his dressy clothes: no less than three sets of Army uniforms, including a full dress uniform with Sam Browne belt. Ulmer does everything possible to make the Good Guy sexy.

My Son, the Hero

My Son, the Hero (1943) is a comedy about a two-bit boxing promoter who poses as a millionaire, to please and fool his Society son. This is essentially the same story as Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1943). It has a gender reversal: instead of the mother and daughter of the Capra film, in Ulmer we have a father and son.

Ulmer Subjects and Characters

My Son, the Hero also fits into Ulmer traditions:

My Son, the Hero is a sweet story. It is passable, good-natured entertainment. However, the film lacks brilliance, and is a minor work in the Ulmer canon.

In some ways, My Son, the Hero is more of a "conventional Hollywood film" than is typical of Ulmer. It is a loose remake of a classic Hollywood movie. The sets try to convey a more conventional upper class home than we often see in Ulmer's otherwise Modernist world. It has no artist or scientist characters. And no dream sequences or daydreams.

ID

Most of the characters in this film are living under assumed identities. By contrast, the son and his mother are exactly who they say they are. Paradoxically, the son is asked for his identification papers by an authority figure, in a scene that is played seriously, and which is oddly chilling. Ulmer would soon depict whole societies in which police ask citizens for ID in Detour and The Pirates of Capri.

Sets

The hotel elevator is represented by a sliding door. Such doors run through Ulmer films, most often in more Modernist buildings, as in The Black Cat and Beyond the Time Barrier.

The roulette wheel is a pure circle.

The millionaire who owns the home has a figurine on his desk.

Still lifes of cola bottles run through the film.


Isle of Forgotten Sins / Monsoon

Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943) was later known as Monsoon. It is a South Sea Island adventure story, in the same genre as Seven Sinners (1940) of Tay Garnett. Despite all the sin in these titles, the good natured plots focus on sailors who hang out in rowdy saloons with glamorous bar girls.

Technical, Constructivist Worlds

Isle of Forgotten Sins shows the same side of Ulmer's art as The Man From Planet X. Both take place in a scientifically oriented world: Isle of Forgotten Sins involves undersea divers and their high tech boats and equipment; The Man From Planet X involves space visitors, observatories and spaceships. Both are re-created on studio sets, rather than having location photography.

In both, all the high tech equipment is Constructivist: that is, it involves elaborate geometrical shapes and patterns.

The boat in Isle of Forgotten Sins is full of geometric shapes. It has two of Ulmer's modernist lamps. Both are roughly hemispherical. The winch is turned by two circular handles. In addition, it has a small circle on its front. Another circle is on the upper right, on what seems to be a box. One hanging lamp is supported by a triangular frame. The other is on a boom, that makes a huge diagonal.

The boat is shot frontally, like many of the labs in other Ulmer films. In other words, the plane of the screen is parallel to the boat. This underscores the similarity of the boat, to the other high tech and lab worlds found in other Ulmer.

The underwater sequences are striking. They are some of the non-standard visions or worlds found in Ulmer. They are accompanied by classical music, like the dream that opens Strange Illusion.

The underwater wreck is also geometric. Ulmer includes a whole light show. He has rhythmic, regularly repeating lights pulse over the undersea wreck. In part, this is to produce a "rippling water" effect. But it goes beyond this, to a whole abstract light pattern experience.

Telling the Story with Light

When the men have the fight in the heroine's office near the start, their fighting immediately knocks out a light. The fight is now in semi-darkness, with various small sources of light remaining. This is typical of Ulmer's use of dramatic light changes to tell a story.

The office has an alcove in back, a common Ulmer architectural feature.

One of the men on ship shaves, using his reflection in a porthole. This is another of Ulmer's unusual mirrors.

Weather

There are two shots later in the film, of weather. These are mirror shots showing strange cloud patterns forming, with the mirror turning them into symmetric patterns like Rorschach tests. I have never seen anything exactly like this in a movie. The shots are almost abstract, and in this recall the abstract sequences Fritz Lang interpolated in Metropolis.

The Night Club

Isle of Forgotten Sins is often remarkably beautiful. In addition to the diving sequences, there is a strikingly designed saloon set in the beginning of the film. It is full of bamboo handrails and arched bridges, which Ulmer uses to make beautiful geometric patterns on screen. Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921) was also full of elaborate bridges. Ulmer loves bridges too: the one in Isle of Forgotten Sins is unusual by being indoors.

Modular Architecture

Isle of Forgotten Sins contains the modular architecture that runs through Ulmer: Ulmer gets much mileage out of the porch screen doors at Toler's villa. He can shoot people through their wire mesh doors. And shoot atmospheric effects, such as rain and dark storms through them as well.

Figurines

One of Ulmer's figurines is sitting on the cash register.

The divers with their lines, are like giant versions of the puppets on the strings in Bluebeard.

Tilted Camera Angle

When the crowd flees the night club after the shooting, Ulmer includes a tilted camera angle, of the steps down which they are running.

Characters

Johnny Pacific is an unusual character. He is both a rowdy sailor, and a gifted classical pianist. He reminds one of the hero of Detour. Both seem like trained musicians who are at the bottom of a working class existence. The black leather jackets worn by Toler and him anticipate the hero of The Man From Planet X. Johnny Pacific is much more glamorized than most of Ulmer's villains, who are usually a pretty disgusting lot. He is not so much a bad guy, really, as a deluded, naive man who foolishly throws his lot in with the bad guys. In this, he also recalls the doomed hero of Detour, who also makes bad mistakes and gets involved in criminal schemes.

"Johnny Pacific" is a new name and identity for the man, after his former life as a purser on a ship. He is one of Ulmer's characters with a new identity. He got the name, because he was supposedly fished out of the Pacific Ocean. Later, the hero will emerge from the ocean in his diving suit, a poetic image.

The ruthlessness of Toler's villain anticipates the bad guys in Strange Illusion and The Amazing Transparent Man, who also combine the same mix of greed and viciousness. The villain makes a speech about the gold will buy him "luxuries". This is perhaps social commentary, about the rich having luxuries, while many working people lack necessities.

The women flee from the bar, so they will not be charged by the authorities, in the aftermath of the shooting at the bar. They are among several Ulmer characters who flee from false accusations of crime. They also become an Ulmer staple, people who live away from home.

The Finale

The destruction that engulfs the characters at the end also recurs in The Amazing Transparent Man, and has occurred long before the opening of The Black Cat.

Uniforms

In some of Ulmer's World War II era films, (Tomorrow We Live, My Son, the Hero, Jive Junction), characters are not-too-surprisingly in United States uniforms. The escapist Isle of Forgotten Sins is different. Here the sailors wear naval uniforms, that are private and not associated with any government: The local chief, who warns about the storm, wears an interestingly patterned geometric shirt.

Jive Junction

Jive Junction (1943) is a beautiful movie. Its film style reminds one of Murder Is My Beat. There are the same sort of exteriors, including a tree shot like the giant pine in the snow sequence of Murder Is My Beat.

This visual similarity is despite Jive Junction being a musical, and Murder Is My Beat being a whodunit mystery.

The Hero

The young musician hero (Dickie Moore) of Jive Junction resembles David Manners in The Black Cat, and Leo Fuchs in American Matchmaker, in being suave and sophisticated, and unfailingly polite and considerate to others. As a musician, he is especially close to the Fuchs character. He also resembles a bit the classical musician who shows up towards the end of American Matchmaker.

Camera Movement

The interiors feature some of Ulmer's patented maze like tracking shots through complex sets, as in Murder Is My Beat to come.

Also notable: the long receding tracking shot out of the barn, during the opening of the dance hall. The track-out eventually reveals the sign.

Constructivism

The "clean-up" camera movement, is full of geometric objects: ladders forming inverted V's, a carriage being rolled out on its giant wheels.

The wagon wheels turned into chandeliers in the barn, are pure geometric figures.


Bluebeard

Bluebeard (1944) is a crime thriller. Like Tomorrow We Live, it deals with the sinister romantic encounter between a criminal but charming man, and a heroine in danger. Ruthless also has a sinister protagonist, who manipulates the women in his life.

Puppets

The puppet theater run by John Carradine is the most interesting part of the film. It reminds one of all the special effects parts of Ulmer's cinema. Ulmer is often creating worlds through back projection, or paintings, or other means to extend cinema through studio-based special effects. The puppet theater itself is such an imaginary world, as artificial as the view into the spaceship in The Man From Planet X. The theater is also classical music centered, like much of Ulmer's cinema. Carradine presents opera to the masses with his puppet theater, just as Ulmer does with his films.

The puppets themselves recall the small statues that run through Ulmer: the statue in The Black Cat and the figurine in Murder Is My Beat. Just as we visit the factory where the figurine is made in Murder Is My Beat, so here do we learn about the making of the puppets and their costumes. Ulmer tends to take us backstage in professions. In St. Benny the Dip, we see not just a cathedral, but also a look at the rectory and the lives of the ministers who work there; in Jive Junction, we learn much about the lives of musicians.

Constructivism

The heroine stands by a strange lamp, in her first scene. The lamp is a sphere, indented with dozens of small circles in a regular grid. She also stands in front of rectilinear shelves.

The heroine soon turns out this light, plunging the screen into complex shadows. This is another instance of Ulmer telling a story with light.

Earlier, a man knocking on a woman's door, is framed by spiral grillwork.

Carradine's door has a geometric pattern on it: a circle with radiating lines. We see him look through it.

The window at Carradine's is tilted: common in Ulmer walls and roofs. Its numerous panes also makes it an example of Ulmer modular architecture.

Sets Made of Light

John Carradine makes his entrance, walking in the street. His second shot frames him against a "set" that consists of nothing but an iron fence and background shadows.

A memorable shot shows the shadows of the puppets on the wall, dangling on strings. This anticipates the musicians in the vision of the future in Detour, who are also shown as shadows.

Water

We first see a body floating in the water: anticipating the murder in The Strange Woman.

Identification

The hero identifies one of the victims for the police, who are grateful. Police concerned with identification run through Ulmer. These are 19th Century Parisian police, in fancy uniforms. They anticipate the secret police in The Pirates of Capri, who are obssessed with identification.

Strange Illusion

Strange Illusion (1945) combines some plot approaches of other Ulmer films. A sinister man here once again tries to romance an innocent woman. However, unlike Tomorrow We Live, Bluebeard or Ruthless, the villainous man is not the protagonist or leading man of the film. Instead, the hero is a man trying to prevent the marriage.

Strange Illusion also has a sympathetic teenager as its protagonist, just as in Jive Junction. Such teen protagonists were fairly atypical of film noir. In both films, the teenage hero is an intelligent, studious intellectual. This is a distinctive type of hero for a film. Both heroes show determination, and quiet leadership ability. Both are fertile sources of ideas. Both also mainly wear suits or evening clothes throughout the film, symbolic of their attempt to fill a grown-up's role. Both heroes are in mourning for their father. The young musician hero of Carnegie Hall is another serious teenager who has lost his father.

The bad guys in this film adopt the attitudes of anti-intellectuals. They are always trying to get the hero to stop reading, and get out into fresh air. It is a whole non-intellectual role they are trying to thrust on him.

Non-Standard Vision and Worlds

Binoculars play a key role in this film. Ulmer likes to show non-standard kinds of vision, such as the view through the spaceship porthole in The Man From Planet X. There is also a striking shot the characters reflected in the water. In Strange Illusion, truth always seems to emerge out of such non-standard forms of vision. These are scenes that allow the hero to discover more and more of the secrets of the mystery plot.

The dream sequence that opens and ends the film is another of Ulmer's non-standard worlds, made up of fog, unusual lighting, and model-based special effects. The fog recalls other setless, non-standard scenes in Detour and The Man From Planet X. The dream sequence also works in that Ulmer favorite, classical music - here Schumann. Most of the rest of the film is relatively realistic. However, some scenes of the hero looking out a window down onto the asylum grounds also are probably studio-created effects, like the windows into the factory in Murder Is My Beat. Both the dream and the window are interesting example of this special Ulmer approach to movies. Once again, both the dream and the window are scenes in which truth is excavated by the hero about the mystery.

Social Commentary: Anti-Psychiatry

Politically, Strange Illusion is most notable for its exceptionally negative view of psychiatry. This was in an era in which many Hollywood films were virtually commercials for Freudian psychoanalysis.

The psychiatric facility has something of the Modernist look of the mansion in The Black Cat, while most of the other sets are in a non-Deco, homey style (the government building also has slightly Deco halls). The hero winds up prisoner here, just like the young couple in The Black Cat.

Strange Illusion shows some of the spirit of Fritz Lang. We see technology used for sinister social control of recalcitrant individuals. And this involves that favorite Lang image, the mirror. Phones and switchboards, also Lang traditions, play a role.

Geometry and Sets

The angle of the mirror recalls the trapezoidal cellar walls in The Black Cat, the angled ceiling of the heroine's room at the beginning of Carnegie Hall, the tilted poles in the night club in Carnegie Hall, and the tilted ceilings in The Amazing Transparent Man.

Detour

Detour (1945) is far more film noir in style than Constructivist, compared to The Black Cat. Detour is considered an archetypal example of film noir. The film has an elaborate "narrated flashback" structure frequently found in noir. It also has a femme fatale, and many discussions about fate. These lines are highly quotable, and are often cited as exemplars of philosophies that lie behind noir as a whole.

Like The Black Cat, Detour centers on a romantic couple who are torn apart by evil circumstances. Here, however, the woman breaks up the romance initially, because she wants to achieve success in Hollywood, a dream the film explicitly suggests is a delusion. Unlike the hero and heroine of The Black Cat, who show exemplary loyalty to each other, this couple is torn apart by internal forces.

On the Road - and the Police

There are many scenes of driving here. These recall similar bus scenes in The Black Cat, and car shots in Murder Is My Beat. There is also a fateful accident here, just as in The Black Cat and Strange Illusion. Film noir in general had little enthusiasm for car culture. Ida Lupino's The Hitchhiker (1953) showed hitchhiking to be just as dangerous as this movie, and the films of Fritz Lang tend to be negative about car travel.

Detour contains events that anticipate Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Both have scenes of Arizona desert driving; in both the lead nearly falls asleep highway driving at night, both have the protagonist chewed out by a suspicious highway cop after stopping on the side of the road. Both have a scene where the protagonist tries to sell a car under suspenseful circumstances at a used car lot. Both deal with stolen money. Both contain roadside motels with a shower, and both are steeped in the car culture of the day.

The police are constantly regulating everything on the road in Detour. People are stopped and asked for papers and identification. Even back in New York City, there is a cop standing silently on the beat during the walk in the fog. But in 1945 Arizona and California, the police are deeply entwined with car culture, regulating it and the population at every step.

Ulmer will soon create a portrait of a genuine police state in The Pirates of Capri. In The Pirates of Capri, this involves countless arrests for political dissent, and inhumane treatment by the police of those arrested - neither of which are present in Detour. Still, police constantly asking people for papers are also present in The Pirates of Capri, giving what is going on a point in common with Detour.

Ulmer Subjects

Ulmer's characters are often artists: the musicians here and in American Matchmaker, Jive Junction, Carnegie Hall and Murder Is My Beat, the mystery writer and architect in The Black Cat, the puppeteer and modiste in Bluebeard, the dancers in The Pirates of Capri, the artist in St. Benny the Dip. The female singer and the male pianist in Detour will return as archetypes among the musicians in Carnegie Hall, where women singers and male classical pianists are common.

Kindness in Ulmer often involves one man feeding another. Here the driver feeds the starving hero. In Strange Illusion, the doctor feeds the young hero, his first action after the frightening dream. In Murder Is My Beat, the hero feeds his police boss, in attempt to plead for his help in solving the crime. He gets it - such feeding scenes tend to be successful. In Swiss Family Robinson, the parents feed the children, including an orphan they are trying to coax.

The driver falls asleep in his suit, while the hero is driving the car. "Men sleeping in suits" are a recurring image in Ulmer.

There is a figurine standing on the apartment table, next to the phone. It plays no role in the plot here, unlike the figurine in Murder Is My Beat.

The Joshua trees are unique plants to the Southwestern deserts, giant species of Yucca that form trees. They are another instance of Ulmer's love of trees.

The climactic mirror shot of Detour echoes the scene in The Black Cat, where the hero sees the heroine in the mirror.

Modular Architecture

The lunch counter interior at the film start is modular: there are repeating chairs, napkin holders on the counter, and repeating wall panels, windows and pictures along the back wall.

The motel where the hero stops after the man's death is full of repeating units.

The used car lot reminds one of the motel in Murder Is My Beat. It has a number of wooden buildings that look like the cabins in the later motel; these buildings empty out into the parking area of the used car lot.

The drive-in has glass brick windows. These are made up of numerous glass bricks, with small size bricks on top and larger below, both repeating in quantity. The Matchmaker's headquarters in American Matchmaker had multipaned windows, too.

The apartment house lobby has mail slots, arranged into a rectangular grid, like the windows at the drive-in.

The telephone switchboard is full of repeating units, each staffed by a different operator, themselves in a row. The board also recalls the flat radio broadcast control panel in Carnegie Hall, and both recall somewhat similar flat lab benches that run through Ulmer's science and science fiction films.

The gas station is full of tall poles - more repeating units. These echo the street signs on poles during the walk in New York City. They recall the lamps and canary cage on poles in the living room at the opening of American Matchmaker. The street signs themselves perhaps recall the crossroads sign in Lang's Destiny.

Ulmer has a camera movement at the gas station. The camera spins round in an arc, and gradually, a sign disappears behind one of the tall poles. The camera winds up exactly "on edge" to the sign, making it invisible behind the skinny pole. It is a striking geometric effect. Earlier, the camera turned around the huge switchboard., till it was seen exactly on edge. This too causes the vast surface of the switchboard to disappear, turning into a narrow vertical line.

Geometric Objects

The jukebox at the opening diner is one of Ulmer's machines. We see its interior through a window in its front, like the view of the spaceship interior through its portal in The Man From Planet X. It is also geometric in form, like many Ulmer technological constructs, full of circular records and players, as well as a rectilinear box. Like some other geometric objects in Ulmer, it has moving parts, making it a work of Kinetic Art.

Ulmer dissolves from it to another set of geometric objects, the cylindrical drum set. During the dissolve, a drum is seen as first a pure white circle, which only gradually turns into a recognizable object. The drum perhaps echoes another white object, a white coffee mug, which we saw at the start of the camera movement containing the jukebox.

The dashboard of the fancy car is often seen, full of dials and a large steering wheel. It too is an assembly of geometric forms. Its flatness and technological control use recall the flat radio broadcast control panel in Carnegie Hall, and the flat lab benches in Ulmer movies.

The revolving bed in the apartment wall is less purely geometric. But it does have qualities of Kinetic Art.

An Imaginary World

Much of Detour takes place in a world made up of light and atmosphere. These scenes literally have no sets. Ulmer creates a world entirely on film. For example, the street scenes in New York City are wreathed in fog. There seems to be no set in the conventional sense: just the players walking through fog. Every so often, Ulmer cuts away to a New York street sign. This is it: it is simply a world made out of light. Similarly, the flash-forward where the hero dreams about Sue's future success as a singer: it shows shadows of musicians on a plain gray wall or backdrop. Sue stands in front of this and sings, the only real person in this environment. There is no set in any meaningful sense of the term. Many of the car scenes at night simply take place against a background projection of other car lights at night. This is simply light; it is a world made out of pure light.

Almost as minimalistic is the nightclub. It is largely some tables and chairs arranged in front of a curtain. This is hardly a set. It is probably the least elaborate nightclub in Hollywood history. Ulmer's motivation here simply could be to save money. Detour is a notoriously cheap looking film, and such non-sets greatly contribute to this no-money look. However, it also places Detour in a non-physical world. People are wandering around in an environment with no physical substance.

At the motel room, we see the maid's shadow moving outside the window, and her voice. There is no exterior: just storytelling done through shadows. In other films, such as Strange Illusion and Murder Is My Beat, Ulmer will use back projection to create a world apparently seen through a window. Here he uses shadows on the window instead.

A Vision of a Possible Future

The hero has a mental vision, showing a possible future success of Sue. Such flash-forwards to hypothetical scenes are quite unusual in movies, although daydreams pop up in comedies with some regularity. The way Ulmer shoots this vision all in one take gives the flash-forward a structural unity.

Artur Robison has a lengthy what-if sequence in Schatten / Warning Shadows (1923), and Murnau included flash-forwards in Phantom (1922) and Sunrise (1927). Ulmer is probably building on this tradition. The wall-shadows in Ulmer's flash-forward are perhaps a direct echo of those in Warning Shadows. There are also daydreams of the future in The Courage of the Commonplace (1913) and Crainquebille (Jacques Feyder, 1922). Alain Resnais included flash-forwards in La Guerre est finie (1966). The dream sequence in Boris Ingster's pioneering noir film The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) looks forward to the characters' future lives. So does the heroine's daydream in Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase (1946). Many of these directors are influenced by the German Expressionist tradition.

The flash-forward starts and ends with an unusual rectangular wipe. I have never seen this in any other film.

Dreams

The film has a brief dream sequence. It is a simple montage, showing the death of the driver. It is a bit like the brief dreams in Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, in that it shows the most awful events that have occurred to the hero. However, the dream in Detour has no new material, just clips from events we've already seen, and it is probably the least creative dream in Ulmer.

Transition

The best parts of Detour are the sections from the start, leading up to the accidental death of the driver. As the film itself points out, everything changes after this moment. By any standard, the behavior of the hero at this point is extraordinarily stupid. He should have told the police the truth at this point, and taken his chances. After all, he has no motive for committing any crime, and the police would probably have either believed him, or at least be forced to give him the benefit of the doubt.

When I saw Detour as a teenager, I was extraordinarily impressed by the paranoia that engulfs the protagonist at this point. As an adult, it gives me the willies. People should run, run, run from trouble, not embrace it as the hero does.

An Unreliable Narrator?

Several critics have advanced the idea that the hero is an unreliable narrator, deliberately lying to us, and perhaps himself, about his motives or even actions. Such interpretations often paint the protagonist as a monster of greed, and a symbol of the evils of capitalism or corruption.

I confess I have severe doubts about this whole approach. I can't see any hard evidence in the film, that the hero is doing anything but telling the truth about his actions and motives. I agree that the hero uses very poor judgment in not going to the police. But I don't think he is lying about his motives.

The hero's actions, after all, have a certain believability. A man who suddenly finds himself as a suspect in what looks like a murder case, might well panic and do the sort of cover-up we see on screen.


The Strange Woman

The Strange Woman (1946) is not a film I like. A depressing look at a seriously evil femme fatale and the men she lures into murder, the film is Ulmer's grimmest work. It also seems oddly impersonal, a film with only a few stylistic links to the rest of Ulmer's work.

Modular Architecture

The film does open with an archetypal kind of Ulmer architecture: we see a small bridge over a stream. The bridge is modular, too, like much Ulmer architecture: it consists of repeating units, each made up of separate planks.

The outside entrance to the house also has Ulmer features. It too is modular, with a fence made up of repeating units, and matching sets of windows on either side of the door. The fence is open at the door area, and the two ends of the fence provide sorts of gateposts to the entrance way. This recalls the posts at the street entrance to the motel in Murder Is My Beat.

A grocery store is seen near the start, recalling the grocery in American Matchmaker. It has repeating tea kettles hanging on the wall, and other multiple-copy objects for sale. These repeating objects can also be seen as modular.

The New England Church has repeating pews: also a modular construction.

The mirror is one of the strangest in film. It is full of curvilinear subsections. This too can be seen as modular.

The wallpaper in the tavern also has some repeating module features.

Maze-like Paths

The heroine makes her way through objects being unloaded at the docks, near the start. In a small way, this is an Ulmer maze-like path through objects.

Character Actors as Action Heroes

George Sanders is cast startlingly against type as a Maine lumberjack. Sanders is a gifted actor and he pulls it off: he is in fact athletic and well built, and is physically suitable for the role. The casting recalls character actor John Carradine's atypical role as a two-fisted sailor in Isle of Forgotten Sins. Sanders makes an impressive leap over the porch.

Getting Dressed Up in Suits

Sanders makes his entrance wearing a lumberjack's plaid jacket. He looks relieved later on, when he gets to wear some snazzy suits. This comes after his character's promotion into the middle class, out of the working class. This is another Ulmer man, who upgrades his appearance into suits.

Sleeping Away From Home

After the heroine is beaten by her father, she flees to another home. A long discussion follows among townsmen, about where the heroine can move to another dwelling. She becomes one of many Ulmer characters who sleep and live away from home.

At the end, Sanders flees and hides out in one of the woods camp buildings. He too becomes a character sleeping away from home.

Working for a Woman

The film has a strange scene, in which the men of the lumber company meet their new woman boss for the first time. This is filled with sociological detail, about the unusual adjustment to working for a woman in 1824. Since the heroine has murdered her way into control of the company, the scene is not necessarily a feminist statement!

The scene does contain a striking camera movement, down the board members.

Forgetting

The characters at the end are unable to forget their crimes. And the minister and deacon forcibly remind them, too. This is the opposite of the comic opening of Isle of Forgotten Sins, when characters are presented with a potion that is claimed to make them forget their sins.

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall (1947) is Ulmer's richest celebration of classical music, something that runs through many of his films.

Characters

At first it looks as if Salerno is going to be the hero of the movie. As a sophisticated, intellectual, musical immigrant to New York City, he recalls the hero of American Matchmaker. But he soon disappears from the film. Both films do evoke a world we rarely see in film: cultured, non-WASP residents of New York. The comic valet in the earlier film also anticipates two of the characters in Carnegie Hall: John, who runs throughout the film, and the briefly seen comedy relief costume designer in the Enzio Pinza episode. Pinza's personality anticipates the swashbuckling, hammy performance of Louis Hayward in The Pirates of Capri. The teenage hero of the middle sections is the sort of suit-wearing, dutiful, intelligent and active adolescent that served as the hero of Jive Junction and Strange Illusion.

The son takes on a new identity when he becomes a popular musician. This is not quite a secret identity, like other Ulmer characters - he does it openly - but it is a completely new identity. At the end, he takes over Carnegie Hall with his popular music, a bit like the revolution pulled off by the hero at the end of The Pirates of Capri.

Long Takes

Many of the dialogue scenes in the film are shot in long takes, and are staged with camera movements. Most of the conversation between John and the cleaning lady during Bruno Walter's music is one long take. Ulmer moves in and up a series of stairs, then back out again later.

Later, the scene introducing the adult son is in two long takes, each one of which contains a different Chopin piano piece. The first one shows a series of photos of the son growing up, followed by a door opening on to a second room in the set, showing the son: his entrance into the picture. A single moving camera shot embodies the passage of time, from birth to adulthood: a powerful image.

Music

Earlier, the hero played a swing version of Chopin, something the piano playing protagonist of Detour also did. He eventually develops a cross between jazz and classical music: something that musicians of the era viewed with great fascination. There were hopes that popular and highbrow strains of music could eventually come together. The rise of rock in the 1950's dealt a blow to these ideas: most rock fans had a total dislike of any sort of music but pure rock. Jazz, the most complex form of popular music, eventually became more marginalized in popular taste. The excellent 1947 teaching notes, available on the DVD, will have none of this, however. They staunchly maintain that the popular music in the film is of lesser value than the classical - which I have to agree is true.

Carnegie Hall shares the limitations of classical music repertoire of its day. The only pre-1800 music is some Mozart; the only post-1900 music is a little Rachmaninoff and Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance" (1914). Bach is mentioned, but not performed. The only "modern" music recognized by the film is popular music.

There are heaping helpings of Tchaikovsky - presumably because he was thought to be a crowd pleaser in 1947. One might note that the musicians in the film were hardly lacking in appeal to a mass audience. Artur Rubinstein sold 10 million records during his life, for example.

An Artificial World

The film is one of Ulmer's artificially created worlds. It mixes concert footage, fictional scenes with the actors, in a complex montage. We see a drawn version of Carnegie Hall, sometimes through the heroine's window, which is like the drawn version of the spaceship interior to come in The Man From Planet X.

The temporal quality of the film is strange, too: contemporary musicians play themselves, in scenes which purportedly take place decades ago. The musicians also do an unusually good job in saying their lines, for non-actors.

Radio Control Panel

At the start of the Beethoven sequence, we see a radio control panel: the concert is being broadcast. The panel is a whole flat wall of switches. It reminds one a bit of the labs in Goodbye, Mr. Germ and The Man From Planet X, which are also spread out over walls.

This is followed by a view through the glass wall of a control panel. This is a standard in radio broadcasting. But it also anticipates the huge glass windows that look into the factory in Murder Is My Beat.

Architecture and Composition: Carnegie Hall

The rows of boxes in Carnegie Hall's main auditorium furnish the "repeated architectural units" that Ulmer loves. Ulmer shoots these "modular units" in a huge number of ways throughout the film. They are one of the main building blocks of his compositions.

The Bruno Walter sequence is the first to show the far right hand side of the boxes. They end in a series of staggered rows. The whole arrangement looks like the outside of a spaceship. It is very dramatic, and forms one of Ulmer's best compositions. There are many other modular, repeated forms in this sequence: the music stands, the many violinists, the rows of double basses, the tapestry panels on the wall, the row of lights beaming down on the orchestra. Ulmer uses a dramatic camera movement on stage, past the violinists, and past the legs of the standing Walter. He then shows the first of three dramatic views of the right hand side of the hall: the shot including the timpani. This is followed by Walter's first close-up. The two are linked: the awesome view of the wall and its boxes, followed by Walter. Soon we get an even better view of the right hand wall, the one that includes a standing Walter. This shot is one of the high points of the entire film. It is an astonishing piece of composition. It will be repeated at the end, this time showing everyone in the boxes applauding Walter, with each individual figure clear in deep focus. Ulmer also includes a shot directly underneath Walter, looking straight out into the hall, with the balconies forming two large curves behind him. After the whole montage is complete, there will be a final shot of the right hand wall from below, framed in the sweeping curve of a balcony - also highly creative. This lasts but briefly. Walter is perhaps the most lovable of all the musicians in the film, a man whose conducting is full of warmth and joy. Ulmer plainly felt the same way, and gave him a sequence that is perhaps the cinematic high point of the entire film.

While Lily Pons is shot entirely from the front, Rise Stevens is largely shot showing the left side of the theater. A beautifully balanced shot shows a harp on the left of the frame, and the boxes on the left hand wall in the right of the frame, with Stevens in the middle. This is the first glance of the left hand wall's boxes.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - the most famous work of classical music - immediately follows. This too frames its conductor against shots of the left hand wall. Here we see just two rows of boxes: a closer, more intimate view than in the Walter sequence. The Beethoven shots mainly focus on the musicians, playing as a group. Each individual violist is made clear in these group shots. It is a portrait of individuals coming together to perform a collective action. These are the shots in the film that highlight individual orchestra members most clearly. We see other groups of musicians as well, such as the horn players, also seen both as individuals and a group. These scenes provoke thought, about the meaning of humans coming together.

Ulmer finds completely different ways of shooting Artur Rubinstein's two piano pieces. The Chopin opens with a remarkable camera movement along the boxes, then down onto the stage. The Falla is often shot from above, an angle Ulmer rarely uses on musicians. Both pieces emphasize Rubinstein's close bond with the audience, who are shown seated near him on the floor of the concert hall. Only at the end during the applause do we see more grandiose compositions, that echo the end of the Walter sequence, with boxes piled up four levels deep along the side walls. The performance of the Falla has fascinating shots of Rubinstein's hands while playing. Even a non-musician like me can see that something unique is going on. The hand motions seem like a piece of choreography to the music.

The late sequence, with the Tchaikovsky symphony, opens with a spectacular camera movement, which begins along the boxes, then gradually moves over till it show the stage from above. This is followed by a cut to two more high angled views of the stage.

The apartment of the timpani player has two alcoves, a favorite type of Ulmer architecture. There are unusual stencils along the walls outside one of the alcoves. These have an ethnic feel - they are often associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch in the United Sates. They also recall a bit the grillwork around the entrance to the heroine's kitchen. Ulmer shows the whole apartment of the timpanist, with the musicians playing the Schumann quintet arranged to make an interesting overall pattern. This recalls some of the elaborately composed interiors in the hero's apartment in American Matchmaker.

The final sequence, the hero's composition, frequently shows two rows of boxes in the background. Unlike the sharp focus depth shots of most of the film, these are slightly blurred, to make abstract patterns of light and shade. This technique recalls Sternberg, and the abstract backgrounds in such Sternberg films as Blonde Venus (1932). Once can still see repeating forms in the architecture, as well as pleasing variety made up of blurred forms of various people in the boxes.

During this finale, the mother wears a scarf wrapped around her hat. The scarf is lace work, with repeating modular forms in the fretwork of the scarf - just like the kind of architecture Ulmer loves.

Filling Up Corridors and Rooms

Ulmer can jazz up corridors, by filling them up. When the heroine arrives as a little girl, and hears Tchaikovsky, the corridors are filled with flowers. When the couple gets married, band members stand along the staircase, playing the wedding march. When the hero and his girlfriend wander around Carnegie Hall, the staircase and corridors are filled with rehearsing students.

Pinza's studio is also filled with flowers. It also has the long rows of mid-level bookcases also found in the hero's living room in American Matchmaker. The two sets have a similar feel, as warm, friendly living quarters that are the last word in chic.

The Night Club

Vaughn Monroe's night club is also full of modular architecture. These are the repeated poles, that stick up and out at a steep angle. Earlier, the cellist was surrounded by a circle of women harpists; their harps also formed a repeating series of jutting lines. The nightclub is full of wall hangings - just like the pianist's alcove in the nightclub in Detour, only as elaborate and lavish as the earlier set was minimal.

After Monroe offers the hero a job, the hero and his girlfriend go to a lobby in the club. There is a startling floor to ceiling sculpture. It looks a bit like artificial flowers. But we never get a close view to see all the details. It looks like nothing else: a complex, 3D abstraction. It reminds us of Fritz Lang's complex objects in the office of the Master of Metropolis, only much less regular, and not at all radially symmetrical, unlike Lang's standing forms.

The angular poles in Ulmer's night club recall the tilted, jutting triangular walls of the Schramm Grill in Part One of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922). The Schramm Grill also has a tall standing sculpture in it. It is not abstract, like Ulmer's here, but it is highly stylized and geometric, and anticipates a little the one in Ulmer's film.


Ruthless

Ruthless (1948) is a drama about the rise of a millionaire.

Gay Subtexts

The strange behavior of the the hero towards women is full of hidden depths. He repeatedly romances women whose fathers can advance his career. And seems indifferent otherwise to them - or is he?

One possibility is that the hero is a gay man. Or perhaps, while the hero is not gay, the film Ruthless is trying to convey experiences common to gay men, in a slightly disguised form. In 1948, many gay men faked romantic feelings towards women, and married them, as a cover, and because there were strong social pressures to behave this way. The hero of Ruthless might be engaging in similar courtships, with romance-for-money, a subject that could get by the censors of 1949, standing in for the more widespread-in-real-life activities of gay men.

However, it is not clear that this is a subtext of Ruthless. The hero tells his first girlfriend that he really loves her - but that he has to reject her to find someone richer. He acts as if he is under a compulsion. This may or may not be true: he might be simply coming up with a "cover story" that is more socially acceptable than either gay feelings, or a cold-hearted pursuit of money.

The hero spends a good deal of time "courting" older men who can advance his career. We see him first planning a college education with the heroine's father, then impressing a Wall Street millionaire with his financial expertise. These scenes might, or might not, have a gay subtext. They can be viewed as a man romancing various older men. In some ways, they seem more central to the hero and his feelings, than any scenes with women. The hero also seems genuinely fond of his friend Louis Hayward - maybe strongly so.

The hero's extraordinary outburst, "I don't want to be a man!", is also one of his most honest and sincere statements. It is not explored further.

Nice Clothes

Several Ulmer heroes have strong desires for good clothes. This is a motivating force of the hero of Ruthless.

As a kid, we see him trying to get a good suit, so that he can go to a party to which he has been invited. He makes his first visit to his father in two years, on a quest for money for the suit.

Our first view of the hero shows him in white tie and tails. This symbolizes his success, and everything he has been working for. The hero of Ulmer's previous film Carnegie Hall was also seemingly motivated by a desire for white tie and tails, where it was a symbol of popular music success.

The other men at the hero's big party are also in white tie, at the film's start. They really look good: they are handsome leading men types, and are in really splendid tails. There is perhaps also something of a gay subtext here: the hero's desire is to be in man in tails, surrounded by other men in tails. His aspirations are not related to women, but to men. He notably lacks any sort of female companion at this gala tribute, unlike guest Louis Hayward.

This is taken further, by the first modern-day interlude in the midpoint of the film. Here we see one of the good-looking men in tails suddenly turn into some sort of security officer. He reports directly to the hero, talking to him in terms of respect. This too can be seen as a homoerotic fantasy, with the hero having such men around him under his command. The hero addresses the man as "Lieutenant", suggesting an officer's rank. It is unclear if this man is a police officer or private security guard.

The Young Hero - and Running Away from Home

The young hero is one of many serious, mature acting teenagers in Ulmer. These are far from the frivolous teens that were stereotyped in later movies.

Early in the film, our hero is partly thrown out of his home, and partly runs away by his own volition. He becomes one of several Ulmer heroes to wind up sleeping and living away from home. Sleeping is especially important: we see him sleeping in the bed in the coach house. By contrast, there are few scenes of him sharing daily activities at the new house, such as meals or a family get-together in the parlor. Both "sleeping away from home", and sleeping in general, are Ulmer motifs.

The heroine's mother, who welcomes the hero into her home, is one of several warm-hearted Ulmer mothers who adopt or take on young people.

Peace

Several Ulmer films have anti-war themes. Ruthless does something related: it opens with its hero funding a foundation designed to advance peace.

In 1948, peace would inevitably involve peace with Communism and the Soviet Union. Ruthless does not discuss such issues. Instead, it shows the peace foundation as having ties to the US State Department. This should make the foundation acceptable to mainstream American viewers of Ruthless.

The hero mentions that he does not want his foundation to compete or conflict with either the UN or the US State Department. The State Department in this era was full of gay men, working as diplomats. The milieu depicted in the opening scenes - polished men with diplomatic ties, beautifully dressed and mannered, and perhaps with links to the US State Department - was a world filled with gay men. Few of the men at the party seem to have female companions.

The kind-hearted man at the party who talks about peace, seems to evoke an Ulmer ideal: good looking, well dressed, kind hearted sophisticated men. Such men are prominent characters in several Ulmer films.

Power Companies

The hero and his friend Louis Hayward both get involved with companies that provide power. But they have different philosophies. Engineer Hayward wants to bring electricity and power to people who have never had it, at least on terms they could afford, and his work in Latin America benefited the poor. By contrast, the sinister hero (really more an evil protagonist), wants holds people up, price gouging users and taking advantage of his monopoly on power. The hero tells Hayward he shares his idealistic philosophy: then we see his real plans in the next scene.

Ulmer frequently looks at scientific and technological worlds. This is a look by him at the world of energy and capitalism.

The later 1940's was a time in which authors and filmmakers looked at energy. Some of this work seems oddly prophetic of later energy crises and debates about energy creation and usage.

Race, Class and Identity

When he first meets Wall Street financiers as a Harvard student, the hero begins identifying himself as H. Woodruff Vendig. The Woodruff is the key. It identifies him as a WASP. WASPs dominated the economic life of the USA for generations. It is terribly important to all the rich men the hero meets, that he is such a WASP. Vendig itself sounds possibly ethnic - something objectionable to the rich. The hero also emphasizes, just as his shabby genteel mother did, that he is one of the "Woodruffs from Maine". This establishes him as a New England WASP - an especially certified kind - and a member of an "established family". The hero will keep on using this name: it becomes the name of his firm, when he becomes a businessman. His whole approach is deeply racist, as is the entire upper class.

Ulmer had made several films about sympathetic immigrants to the USA, often ethnic: American Matchmaker, My Son, the Hero, Carnegie Hall. He was unusually aware of what such people contribute to society. In Ruthless, he is exploring the social system they are facing.

At the party at the start, the well-tailored guard, in white tie and tails, checks each guest's invitation for authenticity. This recalls the police in other Ulmer films, who check the public's ID.

Water

Ruthless opens its first flashback with the main characters on the water. This is one of several scenes in Ulmer involving rowing in small boats.

The hero's association with water persists: at Harvard, he wins a swim meet, attracting attention to him from a rich sister of a student. The last scene with the hero and heroine is also by the river, and other water scenes occur too.

Sets: Realism

The sets of Ruthless seem different in some ways from those of other Ulmer films: However, the heroine's house has a prominent gate leading to the street, a feature that runs through Ulmer.

The aquarium in the window of the father's saloon, is also the sort of oddity that sometimes appears in Ulmer sets.

The hero's business office has a window full of an image of New York City. This recalls a bit the fake views out of windows in other Ulmer. However, such fake cityscapes are ubiquitous in Hollywood films of the studio era, and this one seems less Ulmer-like than some of the windows-with-scenery in other Ulmer films.

The sets of Ruthless tend not to have the maze-like quality sometimes found in other Ulmer. One that comes close: the living room in the heroine's house. When the hero and heroine get engaged, the heroine's father takes the hero into a second room. They have to walk around some furniture, arranged around a hearth. They make a path around this furniture. It is not fully maze-like, but it does recall the maze-like paths through furniture in other Ulmer films.

Visual Style

Ruthless has an almost magically vivid visual style. It is not fully clear how this is created.

Partly it has to do with the sets, and their profusion. Almost every shot shows us either some new set, or new portion of a set we have not seen before. As the characters make their way through the story, they are also walking through the sets. We seem to be in a continuously unveiling new world. Each set is carefully crafted to create some new mood or atmosphere.

The tunnel in the mansion through which Hayward and his date move at the start, can seem almost like a metaphor for the film. The characters are always moving through some path, one laid out for them by the film's staging. These paths are not typically tunnels. But they almost have a tunnel-like effect, in that the characters are proceeding down some richly designed path with contains them, a path that surrounds them with both a story, and a new set, and an emotional atmosphere.

Also important: most of the film's first half or more takes place at night. The film is full of rich, moody nocturnes, with glowing light from a window creating atmosphere. Ulmer often specialized in such nocturnal scenes.

Sets: Modules

The sets of Ruthless are not as modular as those of some other Ulmer films. But modules do occasionally appear. The hero's mansion in the opening scene is especially modular: Later, both of the hero's business offices have repeating units in their panelling.

The pier at the end has repeated street lamps, all along its length.

Sets: Symmetry

Some of the sets are deeply symmetric: Such symmetric architecture is a special case of the modular architecture that runs through Ulmer.

Ulmer sometimes uses "flat wall shots" to bring out this symmetry. These are shots in which the screen is parallel to the back wall of the set.

Sets: Kinetic Art, Light and Mirrors

Greenstreet's bedroom doors with mirrors are also an example of the Kinetic Art sometimes found in Ulmer. We see them swing open, carrying their mirrors with them.

The elevator has lights inside, indicating various floors. This too can be seen as Kinetic Art.

Not Kinetic, but also involving mirrors, is the spectacular shot showing Greenstreet leaving his wife's bedroom. This is shown in his wife's full-length mirror, in which we see nested another mirror, which in turn shows Greenstreet leaving. This shot is perhaps inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in Citizen Kane, although it is not such a Hall. Certainly, Greenstreet's emotions in this scene recall the broken Kane at the end of Citizen Kane.

Telling a Story with Light

Earlier in this scene, the fight between Greenstreet and his wife is marked by them turning on two lamps. Each such turning on a light plays a role in their quarrel. This is an example of Ulmer telling a story through changes of light.

There are other examples. When the boy hero meets his Dad, the Dad shows his pleasure by turning on light in the dark saloon. Similarly, the hero turns on a light at his party, after he meets the woman pianist.

Deep Focus

Ruthless contains a number of deep focus stagings: The deep focus shots perhaps recall Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), often cited as a major influence on Ruthless.

The Pirates of Capri

The Pirates of Capri (1949) is unusual in Ulmer's work, being a fairly big budget work, filled with extras and spectacle scenes, many of them filmed outdoors against spectacular locations.

Despite its atypicality, The Pirates of Capri has a number of features in common with other Ulmer works. The elaborate stage spectacles of the clown troop recall the puppet opera productions in Bluebeard. Both are a highly stylized, non-naturalistic traditional form of theater. Both films place this against European settings: Paris in Bluebeard, Naples in The Pirates of Capri. Both films' leads give over the top, self consciously dramatic performances. The stage scenes also recall the concert performances in Carnegie Hall.

The hero with a secret identity is familiar in fiction. The heroes of American Matchmaker and St. Benny the Dip also take on a secret identity, and the hero of Detour a new fictitious identity as an heir.

If the hero recalls Bluebeard, the villain and his torture chamber recall the torture scenes at the end of The Black Cat. One also thinks of the torture chambers in such Dreyer films as Leaves from Satan's Book and The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Links to Zorro

Much of the plot of The Pirates of Capri seems directly imitative of The Mark of Zorro (Rouben Mamoulian, 1940). We have a foppish hero with a secret identity as a great swordsman, a champion of the people against an oppressive regime. Each has a comic and loyal assistant, the only one who knows his secret; each is the subject of an arranged marriage with a nice woman who falls in love with his secret identity; in both the arranger of the marriage is an older woman, associated with the evil regime, who develops a quasi-romantic relationship with the foppish hero; both films show monks of the Roman Catholic Church as sympathetic to the plotters against the regime; in both, there is an icy, formidable figure within the oppressive regime that serves as the film's villain; and in both, the hero and the villain have an exciting climactic sword fight. Both films end with a revolutionary uprising, that changes the regime.

Links to The Son of Monte Cristo

The Pirates of Capri also recalls a previous swashbuckler starring Louis Hayward, The Son of Monte Cristo (Rowland V. Lee, 1940). Hayward's performance and dual characterization as verbally fluent upper class man and secret revolutionary hero is actually quite similar in both films. The Son of Monte Cristo is set in one of those Ruritanian kingdoms, but it too deals with revolution in 19th Century Europe. The Son of Monte Cristo is most notable for its visually striking art direction and costumes.

Politics

The big difference from The Mark of Zorro is that in The Pirates of Capri, there is a more explicit depiction of revolutionary politics. Ulmer's revolutionary band is an organized force, seen throughout the picture; it steals and distributes arms; it actually overthrows a European government; and it is linked to the French Revolution.

I am not comfortable, with the film's "violence is fun" ethic. The hero routinely kills members of the secret police, and his attitude suggests it is all a lark. Nor does the film convince one that revolutionary violence is an effective or moral tool for human progress. All of this seems so different from Ulmer's usual anti-war attitudes. Also disturbing: the way both the alleged good guys and bad guys practice torture to obtain information. A really wrong idea, and one that experts agree is of little practical value in the real world.

Ulmer's underground band bears some similarity to the anti-Nazi Resistance movements that operated during World War II (1939-1945). When the police chief has the town burned, it recalls Nazi atrocities in which villages were wiped out.

While Ulmer was making The Pirates of Capri, Anthony Mann was directing a far more negative look at the French Revolution, Reign of Terror (1949).

The Pirates of Capri is often sympathetic to aristocrats and their life style. The hero makes a big deal about saving the queen's life. More profoundly, Ulmer clearly likes the court fetes, theater and pageantry. What the film opposes is the monstrous regime of the police, and their prisons and torture. Even here, Ulmer seems to have some sympathy for the police's long suffering second-in-command, a dashingly dressed young man who keeps having to suffer the police chief's tirades.

Maps

The film opens with a map of the region. And city maps are being used by the revolutionaries to plot their future revolt. Maps were a prominent feature in a number of Fritz Lang films, where they tend to be used for social control by the authorities. Here maps seem to have the opposite use.

Maps also pop up in Detour, as part of a fairly conventional montage sequence showing the hero traveling cross-country.

Mazes

When the hero rides to the rebel meeting in the middle of the film, he passes through a series of formal garden locations. These form the sort of outdoor maze one sometimes finds in Ulmer: see the motel grounds in Murder Is My Beat.

Soon, the hero will be wandering over the roofs of Naples, being chased by the police. This reminds one of the hero of Fritz Lang's Spies (1928). In both films, the roofs form a three dimensional maze.

Modular Architecture

The theater at the end is full of "repeating architectural units": an Ulmer tradition. These include:

Boats

The scenes of people rowing in small boats on the water recall Bluebeard, and the murder sequence in The Strange Woman.

The Man From Planet X

The Man From Planet X (1951) is a little science fiction film. Its best parts involve a friendly alien who comes to Earth. Ulmer depicts the First Contact between humans and alien with a sense of wonder. He makes one think about what an awesome event this would be. Ulmer's science fiction films tend to involve potential future happenings of genuine significance in human history. They are not simply designed for thrills or adventure.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the film's script is not very inspired. Despite some interesting plots ideas, and some fine sets, it has to be considered as a lesser Ulmer work. However, certain scenes are of great visual beauty, and these really soar.

In the realistic, non-science fiction film Ruthless (1948), there is a line of dialogue casually referring to exploring other planets. This was before Hollywood started making science fiction films in teh 1950's.

Geometric, Constructivist Sets and Objects

The spaceship of the alien seems like a Bauhaus, Constructivist kinetic sculpture. It involves metallic spheres, whirling circular discs, and metal rods. Ulmer introduces a similar Constructivist object into Murder Is My Beat (1955), a metal lamp with a circular stem and a hemispherical shade - recalling complex Constructivist lamps in Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Ulmer shoots a desk clerk through the stem, framing him in the circle. The metallic nature of both objects underscores their relation to modern, abstract sculpture. A similar lamp sits on top of the hero's piano in Detour.

The briefly seen interior of the spaceship in The Man From Planet X is also in Constructivist style. So is the metal artifact found on the moors, a large, trilaterally symmetric object that looks like a small rocket ship. Its mixture of triangles, a central linear axis, circular discs and complexly curving flanges is most delightful. Ulmer has his hero pick it up, and turn it and rotate it in different directions. This gives a quality of Kinetic Art to this piece.

Ulmer's film is contemporary with Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which is also about a friendly alien who comes to Earth in a Constructivist spaceship.

The opening observatory scenes are not quite Constructivist. But they too are filled with complex machinery, which often is made up out of geometric regions: pretty close to the Constructivist style. The opening shot of a telescope is beautiful. There is some complex, mushroom shaped piece of machinery below, which makes complex flashing light effects. I have no idea if it is a real piece of astronomical machinery, or whether it is something made up for the film. In any case, it is fascinating to watch.

The next scene takes place in an observatory work room devoted to photography. Ulmer shoots this in his "frontal mode". The plane of the image is parallel to the back of the set, with the objects on the back wall making a beautifully organized frieze to support the composition. This is typical of this Ulmer approach. Here the objects are in two rows, a workbench and a higher shelf. Ulmer has some strings tied at an acute angle to the strong horizontals of the shelf and workbench. This adds some diagonals to the compositions. This set also reveals Ulmer's interest in lights that go on and off within a scene. The various photographic viewers are turned on and off by the characters, thus changing the lighting. At one point, the screen goes entirely black for a sequence, while the characters continue talking. It is a daring and unusual effect.

The other sets are in a different style. The Scottish castle and local village in the film remind one of the farm sets of Murnau's Sunrise (1927). The moor itself also looks somewhat like the marshlands surrounding the farm house in that film. The castle also recalls the architect's house in The Black Cat, at least in terms of plot, although it is in a very different visual style. In both films, we are at a remote location, a large house on which numerous eccentric and strange people converge, and which is the center of strange and unusual activity. In both films, we ultimately meet the unsophisticated local residents of the surrounding area.

A World of Light

The moor sets show a world enshrouded in continuous fog. They remind one of other outdoor foggy locations in Ulmer, such as the foggy walk at the start of Detour. The fog here is also as omnipresent as the snow in the mountain sequence in Murder Is My Beat (1955). These foggy sets have a poetic quality. They form a world largely made up out of light and atmospheric effects. These scenes are far more elaborate and sustained than the ones in Detour. Ulmer shows the foggy moor sets both by night and by day. They are equally fog enshrouded in both cases, but with different degrees and kinds of illumination. It is a beautiful effect.

Ulmer gets considerable mileage out of the flashing lights of the spaceship here too. This is truly a world made up out of light: a favorite Ulmer environment. The way the lights of the spaceship go on and off establishes both the main plot events of several scenes, and their visual style. One scene shows the hero and heroine mistaking the flashing lights off-camera for lightning, and discussing the same. Other scenes at the space ship itself have the ship's lights flashing on and off in different patterns. We see this in long shot, and later in medium shots. A sequence shows the professor looking right into the ship's portholes, with the flashing light alternating illuminating and darkening his face. The change of light here is the main event in the shot. Later, the top of the ship emits a spotlight that hypnotizes anyone whose face it strikes. This too is a dramatic lighting event. The spotlight can move around, at all different angles and directions. The moving spotlight, and the flashing lights from the portholes, establish the ship as a piece of Kinetic Art.

The brief glimpse Ulmer allows through the porthole of the spaceship is a high point of the film. It is hard to tell if the spaceship interior is a two dimensional frieze, or a 3D model. It too is filled with flashing lights that go on and off, creating different stages of illumination within the interior. The interior is a beautiful, complex Constructivist world. The porthole is a complex, largely ellipsoidal shape. This is balanced by one quarter of the image, which shows the spaceship leading up to a wall or window made up of curving lines. Many straight lines radiate outward from the center of the ship to this curving surface. These lines might be pipes, or they might be elaborate rails. The scale of the interior is creatively ambiguous. One large rectangular region might be a television monitor. Or it could be a whole, ten foot high bulkhead. The metal work leading over its top in that case would be a stairway for beings to climb to its top. Or, if it is TV set sized, they could be some small electrical equipment. The whole interior has this sort of ambiguity of scale, with its various regions interpretable in different ways, depending on the size one believes the components to be.

Costumes

In some of the scenes Ulmer's reporter hero wears a suit and trenchcoat. In others, he is clad in a black leather flight jacket that is presumably left over from his military service in World War II. It is unusual to see an Ulmer hero in something other than a suit, although Johnny Pacific in Isle of Forgotten Sins also wears a black leather jacket. Like the hero of Murder Is My Beat, the dialogue establishes him as a veteran of World War II, here an Air Force pilot. But while the hero of the later film expresses horror at all the killing he saw, the protagonist of this film seems to accept everything about the war blandly.

Also like Murder Is My Beat, this film opens with a later scene, then flashes back to the beginning of the story. Both opening, later scenes show the hero in serious trouble. In both, he is all by himself, isolated in a strange, remote building far from his normal home.


Murder Is My Beat

Murder Is My Beat (1955) has magical qualities. The characters often seem to be wandering in a fairy tale landscape. The most magical scene here involves resurrection, the hero seeing someone who she thought was dead. There are similar scenes in The Black Cat.

People in Ulmer often wind up living in areas other than their home. The many shots here of the couple on the train, in the motel and in the mountain cabin are in this tradition. There is a sense of displacement in these scenes. People are living in utterly impersonal, often public accommodations. The hero does not have an office for himself at police headquarters, either. Instead, he is camped out at a desk stationed near his boss' door. We never see any home for him throughout the movie.

French critic Luc Moullet wrote in the 1950's about the loneliness of Ulmer's characters. This is certainly true here. His policeman hero is without a partner, performing all his investigations himself. This is very unusual in movies. Similarly, his heroine is entirely unattached. It is not surprising that the two reach out to each other: they have similar deep emotional needs.

Figurines and the Factory

The figurine keeps playing a recurring role in the mystery plot. It reminds one of the earlier figurine grasped by Boris Karloff in The Black Cat. In both films, the figurines occur at sinister moments in the plot. Both figurines are of humans; neither is profoundly beautiful, both are even kitsch like, although the one in The Black Cat is definitely of higher artistic quality.

Ulmer actually takes us to a figurine factory here. There is consciousness in Ulmer of the mass produced, industrial nature of modern society. We see the switchboards in Detour, modernistic architecture associated with the Machine Age in The Black Cat, and an industrially produced architecture in Beyond the Time Barrier.

We also see a caterpillar-tread snow truck here, an oddly futuristic machine I do not recall having seen anywhere else.

Trees

The film opens with beautiful shots of trees. Robert Shayne is driving down a tree lined highway. Soon, he pulls up to a motel, which is at the foot of a tree lined hill. The biggest tree forms a triangle, leading down to a motel cabin. These shots are very beautiful. They convey the feeling of being in a tree filled world, the traditional setting of so many of Grimm's fairy tales. These locations are unusually tree filled for California. One also recalls the shots of the Joshua trees in the desert in Detour.

Later, the snow scenes in the mountain will show Ray wandering through tree filled fields. These are some of the most startling scenes in the movie. They come out of nowhere - the rest of the film is shot in California low lands, which are dry and sunny - but here the mountains are full of snow. They seem to be part of a separate, fairy tale world. They remind one of Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1951), much of which was shot in such snow filled mountain areas.

Mazes and Modular Architecture

Ulmer's style is oriented to architecture, and to set design. He picks outdoor areas to form 3D mazes, areas filled with rectilinear structures, regularly arranged in rectilinear patterns. His interiors are formed on the same design principles.

The motel is composed of separate cabins, all with similar architecture. These cabins are not the casual shacks of some cheap motels, but pretty structures. Each has porches, with stone steps making a beautiful 3D pattern. Each has posts outside their doorways; each has an elaborate rectangular driveway, and rectangular windows. The cabins are repeated over and over. They form a modular architecture, like the geodesic constructions of the futuristic city in Beyond the Time Barrier. Ulmer loves such places. Although these motels are lacking in any apparently futuristic quality - they are homey and friendly looking, and follow traditional architectural design features of small town American houses - they have the same modular, repeating quality. There is a maze like path that wanders among them, a fact that Ulmer underscores by having his actor walk along it. Earlier, the entrance to the motel and its paths was marked off by posts along the highway; these posts continue the theme of rectilinear solids arranged along a maze like path.

The murdered man's apartment involves a similar maze through 3D solids. One has to walk along a spiraling rectilinear path to get to the fireplace. Every nook of the apartment is filled with furniture and wall structures, each of which is another rectilinear solid. This time, hero Ray is the one who follows the wandering rectilinear path through the maze. He both enters the apartment, and leaves it along this path. Ulmer sometimes pans his camera to follow him, just as he used panning shots to depict Robert Shayne moving through the motel's outdoor corridors. The apartment is in 1950's chic - it conveys the impression of a rich man's love nest, just as the plot requires, but it too has the same maze like qualities.

The nightclub set has a similar maze like construction. It has areas receding into the far distance, that we never explore. These can be reached by following a zig-zag path, all straight lines bent at right angles. Once again, our hero flows into and out of this set over a complex maze like path.

Frontal Shooting

Ulmer often shoots frontally, so that his camera frame is parallel to the back wall of the room. The furniture and the people will also be aligned along these same rectilinear coordinates. The effect sounds simple, but actually it often leads to interesting compositions. He often frames the shot so that the hero's head is along the corner of the room. This both underlines the hero's presence, and reminds one that one is viewing a three dimensional area.

Architecture that looks like sculpture

The outside of the nightclub is one of Ulmer's striking shots. The club facade is full of 3D rectangular protuberances. It is like one of the Planar sculptures from the early 1910's days of Constructivism and Cubism. Two of these are in symmetric balance with each other, with a third vertical sign lining up in the middle. Ulmer shoots this directly frontally, emphasizing its planar effect. There is a wall of glass brick, part way up the facade; it reminds one of the modular glass bricks in the house in The Black Cat.

But this nightclub is only on the left half of the screen. The right of the screen is full of an alley. They shot is at night. While the nightclub facade is a lit up collection of rectangular solids, the alley is merely a dark, gaping hole of pure darkness. It suggests the terrible power of a void, a void that threatens all of the characters. It also suggests the unknown. It is a mysterious brooding presence.

Ulmer shows Los Angeles City Hall thrice in this film. It is the home of the LAPD, and frequently seen in cop movies and TV shows. Ulmer's views are original, and none looks at all like the typical solitary view usually seen in film. The first shot shows the building next to another large office building. Even more original is Ulmer's second view. This is a pan up the structure, from one of its angle corners, and at a very close range. It converts the building into a piece of modern sculpture. Every Art Deco feature of the structure can be seen in great detail from this point of view.

Camera Movement and Close-Ups

Ulmer likes to follow his characters with the camera, in reasonably long takes. During the scene in which Ray enters and searches the room in the Tower Hotel, Ulmer shoots Ray's movements in three long takes. There is a single long take, one for each of the sets through which the actor progresses: the hotel lobby, the upper hall, and finally the room Ray searches. Ulmer employs panning shots to keep Ray in view throughout these takes. Ulmer covers a good deal of ground in each shot. The take in the room shows Ray exploring the closet and the bathroom, as well as the room itself. The room is covered with busy wall paper, giving this shot a good deal of visual complexity.

Similarly, when Ray is in the murdered man's apartment earlier in the film, Ulmer follows his movements with long takes. These shots also employ deep focus, showing the neighbor Miss Sparrow standing motionless in the background. Ulmer interrupts this take for a closer shot of the fingerprint detective. Similarly, Ulmer interrupts his hotel scenes for shots of the desk clerk, and for a close-up of the suitcase. Ulmer seems to have a complex attitude towards the long take. He likes them, especially if he is following a single hero. But he is perfectly happy to interrupt them, if he feels the audience needs a closer view of a second character, or of some physical detail important to the plot.

The close-ups of the other characters tend to be medium shots, not extreme close-ups. They show either all of the actor's body (the fingerprint man) or the upper half (the desk clerk). They also show a great deal of the character's environment, including his activities: the fingerprint man's shot includes the figurine he is dusting for prints, the coach on which he is seated; the desk clerk gets the letter box behind him, the desk in front of him, many objects on the desk. All of this conveys the world of the character. It is very visually informative. It forms a little one-shot portrait of the character. It reminds one of Hans Holbein's portraits, which also typically included many objects portraying the sitter's life.

The Factory

The factory is an unusual set. We mainly see the front offices, a series of connected rooms. They are full of large plate glass windows in their rear walls, which allegedly show us the factory proper. These are presumably back projections, which display factory footage previously shot. As a special effect, it is cheap and not especially realistic looking. As an imaginative device to show us a kind of set we have rarely seen before, it is delightful. It contributes to the fairy tale aspect of the movie. In front of the office sets are long tables, filled with figurines manufactured by the factory. These recall the tables and desks with statuettes on them in The Black Cat. The ability of Ulmer to create a new sort of artificial reality, one based entirely in the properties of the film medium, recalls the aesthetic of his old teacher, silent film director F. W. Murnau.

The exterior of the factory is also nice. It is a modernistic building, reminding us that Ulmer always favored modern architecture. The landscape surrounding the building echoes that of the motel in the early scenes. It has a small set of steps leading up from the road, which otherwise has a high concrete curb. These echo the stone gateposts leading the motel. Both are visually marked entryways into a building's grounds, directly off a main road. These entrances have a rhythmic quality. They are like a pulse, traveling along the direction of the road. Their size, which feels precisely right, shows a visual beat or rhythmic effect, like a piece of music expressed visually. And the landscape of trees and buildings down the road seems to be the same sort as that near the motel. In the movie's plot, the motel and factory are in the same small California town. They have a similar visual appearance in the film.

Suits

When we first see the hero, he is lying on a bed, all alone in a room, fully dressed in shirt and tie. This image will recur like a refrain throughout the movie. The hero always seems to be completely dressed in his suit, and to sleep with his shirt and tie on. Partly this is a sign of his profession: he is a police detective, and in the 1950's such men always wore a suit and hat. It was virtually a uniform. The sleep imagery expresses all sorts of subconscious attitudes. His being properly dressed seems virtually a part of his innermost character. It is as if being a cop, and having a role in society symbolized by the suit, is part of his hero's deepest concerns. Seeing someone sleep in a suit seems surrealistic.

This characterization also reflects Ulmer interests. In Detour, the hero's main motivation for stealing the dead man's identity is that it will allow him to wear the dead man's clothes. His own are terribly shabby and poverty stricken. The scene where he gets dressed up in the good suit is one of the most upbeat in the movie. Like the hero of Murder Is My Beat, he is all alone in a motel room. Neither man needs any public audience to want to be dressed in a suit: it comes from a strong inner craving. The hero of Detour says other things on the soundtrack, but the imagery of the film proclaims that being well dressed is his biggest motivation.

In Strange Illusion, we see the young hero first in more casual clothes, then getting dressed up in a suit at his mother's request. He wears suits or at least sport coats for the rest of the picture. He also lends his best friend a tie, so he too can be fully dressed in suit and tie. This is another image of two men sharing clothes, as in Detour.

In Carnegie Hall, the hero is always in a suit. But he goes to a night club, where he is one of the few men not in evening clothes. The band leader (Vaughn Monroe) is in full white tie and tails. The hero soon accepts a job offer from the band leader. When we next see the hero, he too is a conductor of a popular music piece, and also in white tie and tails. It is as if the band leader has transferred his clothes and job to the hero, training him into a new life and career. This scene forms the happy end of the movie.

In The Black Cat, hero David Manners is always beautifully dressed in sharp suits. Manners was a refined gentlemanly hero, whose role was to express the exact opposite of the horror characters he encountered in so many Universal horror pictures. Ulmer stresses this by having Manners always in a suit. Like the hero of Murder Is My Beat, he also has a very correct topcoat to go over his suit, for outdoor wear. Manners is eventually beat up by the villain's henchmen, and becomes unconscious right in his suit, just like the sleeping hero of Murder Is My Beat. This seems to be an image that conveys deep archetypal qualities for Ulmer. Later, we see his suit badly torn and dirtied by the fight: an index of the distress the hero feels. It will stay this way through the rest of the film. Similarly, in Murder Is My Beat, the hero will get bruised from a fight, and the bruise will remain during the last quarter of the picture. His hero carries such battle scars to show visually that he has been through an ordeal and a struggle. He is nowhere as perfect looking at the end, as he was in the beginning, although he still looks good overall.

Is This a Film Noir?

Murder Is My Beat starts out with the typical flashback structure of noir. We see a scene in the present, then the hero narrates how he reached that point. He is accused of corruption in the opening scene, and the film apparently unfolds along the traditional noir approach of how a man went wrong and met his doom. This is the approach followed in Ulmer's own Detour, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, and many other noir works. However, the film surprises us. The cop here is completely honest. He might make mistakes in judgment, but he is never corrupted. This is quite different from noir paradigms. The film also soon turns into a murder mystery. While their are some noir works with mystery in them, this approach is usually left to noir's rival genre, the whodunit. So it is unclear that Murder Is My Beat is a pure film noir, assuming that there is such a thing.

Murder Is My Beat is full of shots of mirrors, a noir favorite. We also see trains, beds, clocks and staircases, also noir imagery. These are especially associated with the work of Fritz Lang. Both Lang and Ulmer are architectural directors, film makers whose visual style is closely centered on the architecture they present on screen.

The deep focus staging of some scenes also seems noir like, with shots seen through windows.


Swiss Family Robinson

Swiss Family Robinson (1958) is a half hour TV pilot, for a series that was never sold. It is now available on DVD, as an extra on the Pirates of Capri disc. My initial feeling is that it is an inoffensive but minor work, without compelling content. However, there is some striking landscape photography.

Characters in Ulmer often tend to wind up living in places other than their home. One cannot get a more extreme example than Swiss Family Robinson, based on a famous children's novel about a family shipwrecked on a tropical island.

Ulmer's characters often go to new worlds. But these worlds tend to be studio created affairs, made out of light, simple sets, strange kinds of photography, and back projection. Here we have the opposite. The shipwrecked family is shown in realistically filmed exteriors, made along the Mexican coast. Ulmer does intercut many shots of tropical animals, creating an animal-rich environment for his characters through the magic of montage. These include some underwater photography near the shore, recalling Isle of Forgotten Sins, which also involved the undersea world of tropical islands. The Pirates of Capri also took place in the water near an island. One also thinks of the cute lab animals in Goodbye, Mr. Germ. The world in Swiss Family Robinson is a scientific one, like many of Ulmer's worlds, with its tropical animals and environments. But it is not a technological one, unlike so many of Ulmer's worlds.

Some of the shots, showing the isolated family lost in the forest on the island, recall pictures of the man struggling through the mountain snow in Murder Is My Beat. In both cases, one has a sense of people in a lonely part of the natural world.

There are several scenes of people feeding other people, an Ulmer tradition. The kids generate some of the food, something which gives them esteem.

The frightened orphan girl is adopted by the family, during the course of the film - the main plot development of the tale. The hero of American Matchmaker also joins the heroine's family through marriage: much is made about how much his future mother-in-law likes him, a running gag. The hero of Detour also tries to pose as a missing heir - a sinister, dark version of this same story.


The Amazing Transparent Man

Political Comments

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) is a science fiction film, in which radiation makes a crook invisible. He uses this invisibility to commit crimes, while the criminal mastermind behind this dreams of an invisible army, with which he can conquer Earth. This vicious mastermind, known as the Major, shows the evils of the military mind exploiting atomic power. The film links him to the horrors of Fascism, and contains political commentary about the dangers of Fascist politics.

This film is unfortunately much less fun than it sounds. It is mainly a horror film, designed to show the dangers of atomic weapons. The scenes in which the protagonist is doused with radiation made me squirm. These scenes invoke all the unpleasant anxieties of the Atomic Age. Leonard Maltin's 2001 Movie and Video Guide rates this film as a Bomb, even though Maltin normally likes Ulmer's other movies. It is not that bad, but I agree that it can be an unappealing viewing experience. Like its companion film Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), it is designed to preach about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The finale of the film is better than the middle section, and the film also has some serious comments to make on social problems.

Exteriors: Good Visual Style

The Amazing Transparent Man has some good moments of mise-en-scène, especially in its exteriors. The film was shot in Texas, and Ulmer's camera shows inspiration, as it explores various Texas landscapes. An early scene, showing a manhunt in a watery region, has some good shots, especially one dealing with a bridge.

Also visually inspired: the exteriors after the unexpected finale. These show Ulmer's imagination, in staging complex scenes that make striking visual patterns. These scenes are viewed through binoculars; they allow complex visual frames to be put around Ulmer's compositions. In The Man From Planet X , some of the best shots were the result of looking through the spaceship's portal at its complex interior. Here, a look through binoculars also exposes complex compositions. The visionary quality is enhanced, by making these scenes the result of a "viewing experience".

Invisibility and Filming Conventions

Ulmer has fun with visual conventions just before the film's bank robbery sequence. He shoots empty space, where the invisible hero is supposed to be, with the same framing techniques he would use to film a normal, visible actor. In the car, driving to the bank, he cross cuts between normal shots of the heroine driving, with shots showing the empty passenger seat of the car. These are framed exactly as if a man were sitting there. He also cuts to two-shots, showing both the heroine, and the empty seat next to her. These are exactly like the standard two-shots, of a driver and passenger in the front seat of a car. These shots are witty looks at conventional filmmaking. They have a surrealistic, disquieting effect, as film composition and framing grandly focuses on empty space and nothingness. These scenes are part of the film's exteriors, and show the general inspiration Ulmer brings to the exteriors in this film.

Sets

The bank sequence uses a moving camera to explore the bank, from the Point of View of the protagonist. These traveling shots in the bank show a fair amount of visual inspiration. The shot moving past the teller windows display's Ulmer's love of architecture made up of modular, repeating units, here the various teller windows.

The lab is one of Ulmer's strange interiors. It reminds one of other, non-standard interiors in Ulmer's films. Especially interesting: the metallic roof, full of regularly repeating lines. This lab is not as creative as the strange interiors in The Black Cat, The Man From Planet X or Beyond the Time Barrier, but it comes from their same tradition. The tilting, angled roof here recalls the tilted cellar walls in The Black Cat, and the angled ceiling of the heroine's room at the start of Carnegie Hall.


Beyond the Time Barrier

Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) takes its characters to a far future, rebuilt after a plague destroyed much of Earth. The plague was enabled by nuclear testing of atomic weapons. This was before the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963) banned many such tests.

In both The Black Cat and Beyond the Time Barrier, modernistic edifices are built after the ruins of previous destruction: a symbolic image that seems to haunt Ulmer. It allegorically suggests moral rottenness underlying society, in which gleaming new edifices are built literally atop of a legacy of horror. It also suggests that the characters have few options: after the mass destruction of war, there are few untouched or clean places in society in which to build.

The hero of Murder Is My Beat expresses similar humanistic, anti-killing concerns, during his voice over in the snow scenes. He is appalled at the mass killing in the South Pacific during World War II.

Sets: Triangles

The future society in this science fiction film lives in buildings made up of triangular panels and openings. Their architecture is perhaps inspired by the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, although it is distinctly different. The set design is by Ernst Fegté, best known today for his 1930's and 1940's work at Paramount with such directors as Mitchell Leisen and Preston Sturges. The buildings thrilled me as a child when I saw this film, at a drive in - they are absolutely fascinating.

The doors slide open and shut, just like those in The Black Cat (1934). That earlier film also had big trapezoidal panels and corridors, and several tilted lines, anticipating the many triangles of this later work. In both films, we move along long, regularly designed corridors. In The Black Cat, we moved along the upstairs hallway. At regular intervals, identically designed doors were placed, each containing the same complex geometric pattern of lines. In Beyond the Time Barrier, the buildings are a maze of corridors, each full of triangular panels and other corridors. The sensation of moving down a long, geometrically designed corridor is strongly conveyed in both works. Ulmer's fondness for train scenes also seems to be related to this imagery: passenger train cars are made up of long corridors with regularly repeating rooms.

Several of the triangular walls are tilted: tilted walls and ceilings being a regular part of Ulmer's work.

The title of the film uses triangular lettering, probably in reference to the triangular architecture. The trailer employs triangular-shaped wipes.

The elevators have vertical, ladder-like designs. These give strong verticals. They echo the actual ladder on the deserted air base, earlier.

Modules

The two gas pumps at the deserted base are repeating modules. Ulmer gets some striking compositions, showing his hero posed between them.

Early on, we see a glass wall, of repeating units. This is similar to the window walls in The Black Cat.

Light

The radar screens involve circular whirling lines of light. Ulmer photographs these in a darkened room, to add to their drama.

The painted towers emit light, in a dramatic animation.

The sets include rotating, complexly moving spot lights. These can be seen as those Ulmer favorites, Kinetic Art involving light.

Television

The triangular television screen, is another of Ulmer's artificial windows onto views.

Film Traditions

This film is in the tradition of writer-director Edward Bernds' World Without End (1956). Both films take place in a future Earth, trying to recover after a disaster: atomic war in World Without End. Both include people from our 20th Century as visitors to this world. Both films feature futuristic buildings with unusual, geometry based architecture. In World Without End, the doors and corridors are trapezoidal. There are also large triangular decorations on the wall. The doors in both films slide open and shut; similar doors will appear in Star Trek (1966-1969). Ulmer had already included sliding doors as far back as The Black Cat (1934).

Before Star Trek, relatively few films showed either a far future Earth, or another planet with an advanced civilization. By contrast, countless comic books and strips had depicted such a world - please see my Index to comic tales that include "advanced civilization". Such films tended to be Events, around which cults have grown. These include Jacob Protazanov's Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), David Butler's Just Imagine (1930), Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason's Phantom Empire (1935), William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come (1936), the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials (1936-1940), Joseph M. Newman's This Island Earth (1955), Fred Wilcox' Forbidden Planet (1956). Such films were so few and far between that they hardly constituted a genre. Despite Hollywood's vaunted skill at creating imaginary worlds on screen, filmmakers only rarely attempted to depict futuristic worlds. There are probably more pre-1965 films about 19th Century Mississippi river boat gamblers, for example, than about such worlds.