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
Classic Film and Television Home Page
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Lights go on and off in the lab as well, in the form of radio tubes.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
The divers with their lines, are like giant versions of the puppets on the strings in Bluebeard.
"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.
This visual similarity is despite Jive Junction being a musical, and Murder Is My Beat being a whodunit mystery.
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.
The wagon wheels turned into chandeliers in the barn, are pure geometric figures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
At the end, Sanders flees and hides out in one of the woods camp buildings. He too becomes a character sleeping away from home.
The scene does contain a striking camera movement, down the board members.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The pier at the end has repeated street lamps, all along its length.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 also pop up in Detour, as part of a fairly conventional montage sequence showing the hero traveling cross-country.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
Early on, we see a glass wall, of repeating units. This is similar to the window walls in The Black Cat.
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.
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.