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
| Her Sister's Secret
| 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
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:
Vision and Light:
- Sets, lamps and props made out of geometric shapes, such as
spheres, cylinders, rectangles and triangles. These recall the
geometric, abstract painting and sculpture that was popular in
Russia and later Germany and the United States in the 1910's through
1930's, and which included the Constructivist movement in art.
This art movement lacks a convenient overall name; we will refer
to it in this article as Constructivist, as a simple umbrella
term. (mansion: The Black Cat,
foyer with circles: American Matchmaker,
lab: Goodbye Mr. Germ,
nightclub: Tomorrow We Live,
bridge with triangular sides, restaurant with triangular wall panels: Girls in Chains,
boat: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
psychiatric facility: Strange Illusion,
foyer and staircase, mantel, circular skylight in clothing store: Her Sister's Secret,
spaceship, metal space artifact: The Man From Planet X,
triangular panel walls: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Modernist lamps (American Matchmaker,
cylindrical lamp on warden's desk: Girls in Chains,
boat lamps: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
spherical lamp: Bluebeard,
hero's piano lamp: Detour,
checkerboard lanterns at Mardi Gras: Her Sister's Secret,
stacked ellipsoid lamps on hero's desk: Ruthless,
desk clerk's lamp: Murder Is My Beat)
- Tilted ceilings and walls (trapezoidal cellar walls: The Black Cat,
nightclub: Tomorrow We Live, tilted window at Carradine's: Bluebeard, tilted mirror: Strange Illusion,
angled ceiling of heroine's room, tilted poles in the night club: Carnegie Hall,
lab: The Amazing Transparent Man, futuristic sets: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Repeating architectural modules
(multi-paned windows, corridor with doors: The Black Cat,
two alcove walls, two lamps, repeating squares of quilted wall, telephone circles in dream: American Matchmaker,
booths: Tomorrow We Live,
jail cells: Girls in Chains,
doors in hall, bar, balcony, tablecloth, shelves in oval frame, porch at villain's: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
multi-paned windows: Bluebeard,
lunch counter, motel units, used car lot, drive-in glass brick windows, apartment house mail slots,
telephone switchboard, gas station poles: Detour,
chairs in front of mirror, bar chairs, multi-pane screen behind musicians, candy cane striped poles: Club Havana,
restaurant pillars and balustrade, windows in front of San Verde Ranch: Her Sister's Secret,
bridge, fence, mirror, church pews, wallpaper: The Strange Woman,
balconies, theater boxes, musicians and instruments, nightclub: Carnegie Hall,
mansion rooms, footmen, pier with lights, symmetric dining room, office: Ruthless,
theater balconies, musicians' music stands, window doors in theater, prison cell grids: The Pirates of Capri,
cabin units in motel: Murder Is My Beat, teller windows in bank: The Amazing Transparent Man,
triangular panel walls, multi-paned windows, gas pumps, ladder: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Objects with moving parts recalling Kinetic Art, often involving light
(telephone circles in dream: American Matchmaker,
jukebox, revolving bed: Detour,
stage curtain raises and lowers: Club Havana,
doors with mirrors, floor indicator lights in elevator: Ruthless,
spaceship, metal space artifact: The Man From Planet X,
moving overhead light, radar screen: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Sliding doors (The Black Cat, My Son, the Hero, Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Maze-like paths through furniture in a set, or buildings in
an exterior (music store: Jive Junction,
Rogers enters nightclub: Club Havana,
father's library, living room during big confrontation of sisters: Her Sister's Secret,
docks: The Strange Woman,
heroine's living room: Ruthless,
formal gardens, roofs of Naples: The Pirates of Capri,
motel grounds, apartment, nightclub: Murder Is My Beat)
- Technology lab benches or bench-like areas, often with many segments arranged in a rectilinear grid
(lab: Goodbye Mr. Germ, boat: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
telephone switchboard, car dashboard: Detour, radio broadcast control panel: Carnegie Hall,
observatory work room: The Man From Planet X)
- Jukeboxes (at lunch counter: Tomorrow We Live, in background at 'The Rendezvous': Girls in Chains, Detour)
- Bells heard (opening: Bluebeard,
midnight time to take off Mardi Gras masks: Her Sister's Secret)
- Still lifes of objects on tables, desks and shelves (Manners eating, heroine's dresser, Karloff's desk: The Black Cat,
cola bottles: My Son, the Hero,
equipment in police science lab: Girls in Chains,
table in front of women's lounge mirror: Club Havana,
soda bottle and glasses on table at San Verde Ranch: Her Sister's Secret,
Greenstreet's dinner table, dresser: Ruthless, factory office desks with figurines: Murder Is My Beat)
- Neon signs ('The Rendezvous': Girls in Chains,
nightclub: Club Havana)
- Long rows of mid-level bookcases (hero's living room: American Matchmaker, Pinza's studio: Carnegie Hall)
- Alcoves (hero's bed: American Matchmaker, office: Isle of Forgotten Sins, heroine's bed: The Pirates of Capri)
- Multi-story arenas with many spaces for people along sides, often shot with camera movement
(restaurant balconies and plaza during Mardi Gras: Her Sister's Secret,
Carnegie Hall and theater boxes: Carnegie Hall)
related (park used for puppet opera with upper outside path: Bluebeard)
- Bridges: usually small (murder car drives over bridge with triangular sides: Girls in Chains,
indoor bridge in nightclub set: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
body found near river bridge: Bluebeard,
over stream at start: The Strange Woman,
The Amazing Transparent Man)
- Exterior shots of buildings in a Modernist or Bauhaus tradition,
with complex, interesting facades (mansion: The Black Cat,
Bronx buildings: American Matchmaker,
white mice house: Goodbye Mr. Germ,
nightclub exterior: Club Havana,
San Verde Ranch: Her Sister's Secret,
nightclub exterior, factory exterior: Murder Is My Beat)
- Gateways on streets (father's house: Her Sister's Secret,
house: The Strange Woman, heroine's house, hero's house as boy: Ruthless,
motel, factory: Murder Is My Beat)
- Outdoor "sets" created through the use of light (fence: Bluebeard, dream: Strange Illusion,
New York City streets: Detour, The Man From Planet X)
- Sets involving back-projection (special effects) on screens,
treated as windows in the set (train: The Black Cat, office window to nightclub: Tomorrow We Live,
window down to asylum grounds: Strange Illusion, factory window: Murder Is My Beat)
related (triangular television screen: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Drawings made a background seen through windows (Carnegie Hall,
spaceship interior: The Man From Planet X) animated paintings (Towers, elevators: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Visionary devices: viewing scenes through binoculars
(Strange Illusion, The Amazing Transparent Man) germ radio (Goodbye Mr. Germ)
- Imaginary worlds created on-screen through joining different
kinds of content through editing and montage (skyscraper finale: Girls in Chains,
Carnegie Hall, Swiss Family Robinson)
- Mirrors (bedroom, train window: The Black Cat, parabola-shaped mirror: Tomorrow We Live,
shaving in porthole as "mirror": Isle of Forgotten Sins, Carradine paints model using mirror: Bluebeard,
mirror used for monitoring: Strange Illusion,
climactic shot: Detour,
elliptical mirror in women's lounge: Club Havana,
upstairs hall with full-length mirror: Her Sister's Secret,
curvilinear mirror: The Strange Woman,
doors with mirrors, heroine's three way mirror, mirror within mirror shot: Ruthless, Murder Is My Beat)
- Dramatic changes of lighting, and use of light to tell the story
(mansion introduction, Boris Karloff's entrance: The Black Cat,
hero lowers lights to conceal identity, highly lit piano: American Matchmaker,
patient moves into darkness: Goodbye Mr. Germ,
door opens letting in light and heroine seen as shadow: Girls in Chains,
fight, underwater light show: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
heroine turns off lamp: Bluebeard,
lights go up and down in nightclub: Club Havana,
sister turns on light before admitting heroine for big confrontation: Her Sister's Secret,
stages of bedroom fight linked to turning on two lamps, father in saloon, hero meets pianist: Ruthless,
flashbacks: Detour, spaceship spotlight, flashing porthole lights: The Man From Planet X)
- Shadows (woman guard silhouette seen on door: Girls in Chains,
puppets: Bluebeard, vision of future, maid's shadow on window: Detour,
dancer silhouetted behind screen: Club Havana,
cowboy and sign's shadow at San Verde Ranch: Her Sister's Secret)
- Underwater photography (Isle of Forgotten Sins, Swiss Family Robinson)
- Characters reflected in the water (Strange Illusion, The Strange Woman)
related (band leader reflected in nightclub floor: Club Havana)
Ulmer's films contain a number of special kinds of shots:
- Long-take camera movement shots, sometimes on stairs
(The Black Cat,
sister admits heroine to home for big final confrontation: Her Sister's Secret,
dialogue scenes, scene introducing the adult son: Carnegie Hall,
Ray in murdered man's apartment, Ray enters and searches room in Tower Hotel: Murder Is My Beat)
- Circular camera movement shots (moves around judge to show jury: Girls in Chains,
music stands: The Pirates of Capri)
- Camera begins in long shot, then moves in on characters for closer view
(Girls in Chains, Club Havana)
- Frontal shooting, so the plane of the screen is parallel with
the back wall of the set, or building wall (grocery store: American Matchmaker, lab: Goodbye Mr. Germ,
lunch counter, night club: Tomorrow We Live,
gangster and heroine talk on sofa: Girls in Chains,
boat: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
dining room: Ruthless,
observatory work room: The Man From Planet X, Murder Is My Beat)
- Tilted camera angles (crowd flees night club: Isle of Forgotten Sins, flashback about model: Bluebeard)
- Overhead shots (band performing at start: Club Havana)
Ulmer: Themes and Subjects
Common subject matter in Ulmer's films:
- Trees (palms in storm: Isle of Forgotten Sins, Jive Junction, Joshua trees: Detour,
Joshua trees: Her Sister's Secret,
opening, trees in snow: Murder Is My Beat) lumberjacks (The Strange Woman)
- Southwest desert locations (roadside places: Tomorrow We Live,
on the road: Detour,
San Verde Ranch: Her Sister's Secret)
- People sleeping and living away from home
(couple: The Black Cat, borrowed mansion: My Son, the Hero,
fleeing women: Isle of Forgotten Sins, Detour,
sisters go to desert San Verde Ranch for birth: Her Sister's Secret,
heroine after beating, Sanders in woods station: The Strange Woman,
hero leaves home and lives with rich family: Ruthless,
fleeing hero: Murder Is My Beat. shipwrecked characters: Swiss Family Robinson)
- Figurines and small statues (The Black Cat,
millionaire who owns home has figurine on desk: My Son, the Hero,
eagle figurine on judge's bench, on principal's desk, eagle on heroine's desk, warden's statuette on file cabinet: Girls in Chains,
on cash register: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
puppets: Bluebeard, Detour,
mechanical figure bought for little boy: Her Sister's Secret,
figurine factory: Murder Is My Beat)
- "Behind the scenes" looks at institutions (tuberculosis prevention: Goodbye Mr. Germ,
reform school for women: Girls in Chains,
Hollywood Bowl: Jive Junction, puppet theater: Bluebeard,
asylum: Strange Illusion,
Mardi Gras: Her Sister's Secret,
church: The Strange Woman, clown troop theater: The Pirates of Capri,
theater: Carnegie Hall, finance: Ruthless, rectory, mission: St. Benny the Dip,
factory: Murder Is My Beat)
- Men who feed other men (The Black Cat, doctor feeds hero after dream: Strange Illusion,
driver feeds hero: Detour,
hero feeds his police boss: Murder Is My Beat, parents feed kids: Swiss Family Robinson)
- Lunch counters (lunch stand: People on Sunday, Tomorrow We Live, Detour)
- Small friendly restaurants ('The Rendezvous': Girls in Chains,
Pepe's small restaurant: Her Sister's Secret)
Science and Technology:
- People who adopt new identities or secret identities (hero as matchmaker: American Matchmaker,
Pop: Tomorrow We Live,
three heroes with hoax: My Son, the Hero, Johnny Pacific: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
Strange Illusion, hero: Detour,
heroine as Marie Antoinette in Mardi Gras, jokes about hero being a general in disguise, discussion of value of masks: Her Sister's Secret,
hero with secret identity as swordsman and champion of the people: The Pirates of Capri,
three heroes with hoax: St. Benny the Dip)
- People on the run from false accusations of crime (Pop: Tomorrow We Live, fleeing women: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
hero: Detour, hero: Murder Is My Beat)
- Killers brought low by witnesses to their crimes (Girls in Chains, Club Havana)
- Societies in which police ask people for identification
(son is asked for his identification papers: My Son, the Hero,
police ask drivers for papers and identification: Detour,
sinister police state demands identification: The Pirates of Capri)
- Identification (gangster with files on people: Tomorrow We Live,
hero identifies body for the police: Bluebeard,
San Verde Ranch staff can identify real mother: Her Sister's Secret,
guard checks invitations for authenticity: Ruthless)
- Highly technological or scientific worlds (scientific investigation of clients, manufacturing: American Matchmaker,
lab: Goodbye Mr. Germ,
police science lab: Girls in Chains,
undersea divers, high tech boats: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
hero worked for TVA before war: Her Sister's Secret,
Louis Hayward's engineering, power companies: Ruthless,
spaceship, observatory: The Man From Planet X, factory, caterpillar-tread snow machine: Murder Is My Beat,
tropical animals and environments: Swiss Family Robinson,
lab, invisibility: The Amazing Transparent Man, future, nuclear testing, fast aircraft: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Gas stations (People on Sunday, Tomorrow We Live, Detour)
- Switchboards (Strange Illusion, Detour, nightclub: Club Havana)
- People rowing in small boats on the water (Isle of Forgotten Sins, looking for murder victim: Bluebeard,
murder sequence: The Strange Woman, opening rescue: Ruthless, The Pirates of Capri)
- Boats with technology (paddle boats run by feet: People on Sunday, Isle of Forgotten Sins)
- Energy and public and private producers (hero worked for TVA before war: Her Sister's Secret,
Louis Hayward's power companies and exploitation, good guy wants to bring cheap energy to the poor: Ruthless)
- Psychiatry (hero uses psychology to modernize matchmaker profession: American Matchmaker,
heroine psychiatrist in woman's reformatory: Girls in Chains,
negative view of psychiatry used for social control: Strange Illusion)
- Dream sequences (Strange Illusion, Detour, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll)
- Mental imagery sequences (vision of uncle: American Matchmaker, Sue's future success: Detour)
- Flashbacks (Bluebeard, Detour, Citizen Kane style construction: Ruthless, Murder Is My Beat)
Minorities, seen positively:
- Kind-hearted, well dressed, charming, sophisticated leading men
(David Manners: The Black Cat, Leo Fuchs: American Matchmaker, Dickie Moore: Jive Junction,
party guest who talks of peace: Ruthless)
- Comic valets full of commentary (American Matchmaker, Carnegie Hall)
- Mother figures who adopt or welcome younger people into their
families or sphere of influence (American Matchmaker, Patsy Kelly and ingenue: My Son, the Hero,
heroine's mother adopts hero: Ruthless, Swiss Family Robinson)
- Mature, responsible teenagers or very young people (son: My Son, the Hero, hero: Jive Junction,
Strange Illusion, Carnegie Hall, hero: Ruthless)
- Young men who are mourning a late father (Jive Junction, Strange Illusion, Carnegie Hall)
related (heroine's father dies: Her Sister's Secret,
hero's adopted father dies estranged: Ruthless)
- Fertility (one sister cannot have children, other has unwanted child: Her Sister's Secret,
heroine cannot have children: The Strange Woman,
many future people are sterile, want hero to father child: Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Sinister men who romance innocent women (Tomorrow We Live, Bluebeard, Strange Illusion, Ruthless)
- Men get rejected by women (hero left many times at altar: American Matchmaker,
hero's offer of marriage turned down by heroine: Her Sister's Secret)
- Character actors playing action heroes (John Carradine as sailor:
Isle of Forgotten Sins, George Sanders as lumberjack: The Strange Woman)
People in the Arts:
- Women who run businesses (music store, lunch stand, wine retailer: People on Sunday,
Isle of Forgotten Sins, The Strange Woman, Carnegie Hall)
- Modistes, women who make clothes in shops (reform school inmate learns dressmaking: Girls in Chains,
modiste heroine: Bluebeard,
shop visited: Her Sister's Secret)
- Dignified, non-stereotyped back maids (My Son, the Hero, Her Sister's Secret)
- Immigrants to the USA, often ethnic (American Matchmaker, My Son, the Hero, Carnegie Hall)
- Maine and WASPs (19th Century Maine: The Strange Woman,
hero tells people he's a 'Woodruff from Maine': Ruthless)
- Musical theater and opera (Bluebeard, Carnegie Hall, clown troop theater: The Pirates of Capri)
- Musicians, especially struggling classical musicians
(American Matchmaker, Johnny Pacific: Isle of Forgotten Sins,
Jive Junction, piano player hero: Detour,
piano player hero, Latin American nightclub acts: Club Havana,
street fiddler at Mardi Gras, father has little boy at piano: Her Sister's Secret,
Carnegie Hall, woman pianist: Ruthless)
- Writer and artist characters (mystery writer, architect: The Black Cat,
young man who wants to be architect and improve slums: Girls in Chains,
puppeteer, modiste: Bluebeard,
dancers: The Pirates of Capri,
artist: St. Benny the Dip)
- Pianists who play swing version of Chopin (Detour, Carnegie Hall)
- Whistling (Army hero's friend whistles for him: Tomorrow We Live,
hit man whistles 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home': Club Havana)
People and their Clothes:
- Anti-war commentary about the huge number of war victims
(The Black Cat, Murder Is My Beat)
related (doctor hero condemns violence: Club Havana,
peace foundation: Ruthless)
- Where science is taking us in the present and future (The Man From Planet X,
The Amazing Transparent Man, Beyond the Time Barrier)
- Importance of classical music (Jive Junction, dream: Strange Illusion, Detour, Carnegie Hall)
- Men who find ways of getting dressed up
(The Black Cat, evening clothes by working class characters: My Son, the Hero,
hero gets dressed up at mother's request: Strange Illusion,
hero with stolen suit: Detour,
hero in good suit after leaving Army: Her Sister's Secret,
Sanders after promotion: The Strange Woman,
hero becomes musician: Carnegie Hall,
hero and employees in white tie and tails at party, hero wants money for suit: Ruthless)
related (wine salesman in golf clothes and good suit: People on Sunday)
- Men who fall asleep in suits (hero knocked out: The Black Cat, driver: Detour, Murder Is My Beat)
- Torn clothes (wine salesman's torn shirt: People on Sunday, hero's suit torn by beating: The Black Cat)
- White tie and tails (nightclub manager: Club Havana,
band leader, hero after getting job with band leader: Carnegie Hall,
first view of hero, men at party: Ruthless)
- Uniforms - contemporary (Army Lieutenant: Tomorrow We Live, My Son, the Hero,
women guards in reform school, police: Girls in Chains,
Isle of Forgotten Sins, Jive Junction,
woman messenger in nightclub: Club Havana,
Army sergeant, Navy officer: Her Sister's Secret)
- Fancy historic uniforms of police (Bluebeard, The Pirates of Capri)
- Leather jackets (taxi driver's leather coat: People on Sunday,
Johnny Pacific, villain: Isle of Forgotten Sins, hero: The Man From Planet X)
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 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.
- The modernist architecture of the house here recalls somewhat
the advanced architecture of the city of the future in Metropolis.
- Both have luxurious living quarters for the elite above, in a
modernist style, while sinister areas containing social tragedy
are below underground.
- The steep metal staircase leading to the cellar of the mansion
recalls the staircase leading to the underground workers' quarters
in Metropolis, the one used to rescue the children from the flood.
- The chapel in The Black Cat seems like a bizarre variation on the catacomb where Maria
preaches in Metropolis; both have large, free-standing,
angled crosses, near where the protagonist officiates.
- Lang also frequently painted his screen with light in Metropolis.
- Both films have mad members of the intelligentsia as major characters,
the architect in The Black Cat, the mad scientist in Metropolis.
- Both films end with the destruction of their major sets.
- The refined young hero here recalls the refined, well dressed heroes of Lang
films. Both are sensitive, polished young aristocrats, wandering
around in a harsh world run by brutal older men.
- Both films have
machines controlled by clock dial-like structures: the small dial
that seems to control the music in the living room in The Black
Cat, the large dial used by the son in Metropolis with
his arms and entire body.
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 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 (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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Like Detour, it has a character on the run from a murder charge (Pop),
who is sure no one will believe him. The man takes on a new identity in both films.
- Like Detour, it has a Southern California desert setting, with a
"road movie" feel. We see a gas station, a roadside cafe, and motorcycle cops on patrol,
in both films.
- Like Detour, there is a jukebox at the cafe.
- Like American Matchmaker, it contrasts an elegant room
with people in evening clothes (the hero's apartment in
American Matchmaker, the gangster's office in Tomorrow We Live),
with a working class place of business (the grocery store in
American Matchmaker, Pop's cafe in Tomorrow We Live). The lunch
counter in Pop's cafe is first seen from head-on, so that it is parallel to the screen frame, like the
grocery store in American Matchmaker.
- Like The Black Cat, it brings a good-looking pair of "normal"
young lovers, into an abnormal, modernist building run by a powerful, menacing figure
(the gangster known as The Ghost, and his night club). The building gets destroyed
at the end of both films.
- Like The Man From Planet X, we see The Ghost wandering around a rocky outdoor
landscape after dark.
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.
Tomorrow We Live has a little of the architecture constructed out of repeating modules,
often found in Ulmer:
- Pop's cafe is introduced with a moving camera shot, that tracks by three similar booths.
- Later, an echoing lateral track in the nightclub, moves past rows of tables filled with patrons
in the foreground.
- A glass shelf on the cafe lunch counter contains three pies in a row.
- The gas station has more than one pump.
- The Ghost's office has three large lintels on the wall, of similar design, one in each wall.
- There are two matching bookcases on the Ghost's office walls, and each case is in turn
made up of repeating shelves.
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.
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.
- The Ghost's power over the heroine seems to be just good old-fashioned sex appeal.
This is another movie about a sexy gangster who has a romantic hold on an otherwise decent woman.
- And The Ghost's hold on Pop involves blackmail over Pop's criminal past.
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, 1933). 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:
- Like St. Benny the Dip, it is about three broke low
lifes, who find redemption by posing as something they are not.
Early scenes in both films are in cheap hotels, and both have
sinister early scenes of gambling, depicted as a bad idea.
- Like American Matchmaker, it is a drawing room comedy
with people in evening clothes and upper crust sets.
- The characters are in a long line of Ulmer heroes who assume
- The heroes borrow a society mansion, and live there, as part
of their impersonation. Like many Ulmer heroes, they are living
away from home.
- The men wind up dressed in evening clothes, apparently for
the first time in their lives. Becoming well-dressed is an Ulmer
- The son is a highly responsible, intelligent young man, one
of many idealized young people in Ulmer.
- The Italian is another of Ulmer's sympathetic immigrants to
- The black maid is treated with dignity.
- Patsy Kelly becomes a mother figure to the ingenue, welcoming
her into her (imaginary) family.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Isle of Forgotten Sins contains the modular architecture that runs
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.
- The doors on which Sondergaard knocks at the film's beginning - a
striking figure of style.
- The bar in the night club, which has repeated curtains in front. There is a memorable
track past these, from behind the bar.
- The balcony at the night club has repeated posts.
- The balcony is supported below, by a region with repeated pillars.
- A tablecloth at the night club is decorated with repeated black semi-circles,
forming huge scallops.
- The strange shelves at the office, are in an oval black frame.
- The repeated porch doors and screens at Toler's villa.
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.
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 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.
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.
- The villain and Johnny Pacific are first seen in white naval uniforms with white caps.
- The hero is in a striped sailor's shirt and white naval cap; his buddy and rival (Frank Fenton)
is in a similar black shirt and black naval cap.
- Other men in the night club are in that visually pleasant cliché of
tropical adventure movies, white suits.
- Later, Johnny Pacific shows up in a white sailor's shirt and white pants.
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 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.
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 "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 (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
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.
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
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.
We first see a body floating in the water: anticipating the murder
in The Strange Woman.
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 (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.
An Intellectual Teenage Hero
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 bad guys in Strange Illusion 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 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 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.
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 (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'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
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 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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Her Sister's Secret
Her Sister's Secret (1946) is a look at unwed motherhood.
The Mardi Gras set at the opening is built up of modules. Sections of the balcony with diners
are repeated units, each consisting of a table. Each unit is marked off by pillars.
Between the pillars, smaller units of grill work repeat themselves along the balustrade.
These form "modules within modules".
Later, the windows of the San Verde Ranch are modular, massing together to form larger windows,
facades full of corners and right-angled turns, etc.
Both the Mardi Gras and the San Verde Ranch scenes are visually excellent.
The father's library is so full of books, that one makes one's way through it like a maze.
Later, the big long-take camera movement between the sisters has them moving around in the living room.
The layout of the room is quite conventional. But the sisters move in complex paths through it,
as if they were in a maze.
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.
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.
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.
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 (1947) is Ulmer's richest celebration of
classical music, something that runs through many of his films.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (1948) is a drama about the rise of a millionaire.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- They are more "built". There are fewer sets constructed out of back-projection,
or drawings, or just a few props, or of light.
- Modernism is far less common. Instead, we often get a "traditional American"
look - which is perhaps appropriate to the upper crust American milieu of the film.
- The sets do not seem as Constructivist, with fewer purely geometric props.
- Laboratories or scientific settings are absent.
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
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.
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.
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
Later, both of the hero's business offices have repeating units in their panelling.
- The many identically dressed footmen, standing in a striking geometric array,
can seem like repeating modules.
- The paneling and pictures in the main ballroom can also seem modular, as do the pillars and chandeliers.
- The doors in the hallway leading to the study, are another Ulmer corridor
with repeating door modules. There are also repeating wall decorations in this hall.
The pier at the end has repeated street lamps, all along its length.
Some of the sets are deeply symmetric:
Such symmetric architecture is a special case of the modular architecture that
runs through Ulmer.
- The gate at the heroine's home, with twin posts.
- Greenstreet's dining room has two axes of symmetry. We enter it through
double doors, and soon see that nearly everything in the set is left-right symmetric
(the far left and right extremes are actually different).
But later, we also see that the front and back of the room are also symmetric.
- The doors with mirrors leading out of Greenstreet's bedroom are double.
- The heroine's bedroom has a symmetric, curtained entrance from her boudoir.
- The hero's last office has double doors and twin elevators.
- The inside of the office is symmetric, and has twin lamps on his desk.
These are an example of the Modernist or Constructivist lamps often found in Ulmer.
Each one consists of repeated ellipsoid modules, stacked up.
- The pier is symmetric, with both railings and street lights on both sides.
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.
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.
- Hayward and his date at the party, are separated by a
deep focus view of the hero entering the room between them, in the far background.
- The boy hero and his mother are similarly separated by a deep focus view
of one of her piano pupils in the far background.
- When the hero meets Aunt Judy at the party, she similarly comes between
the hero and his friend. She is not quite as deep focus as the previous examples.
- Greenstreet's wife's bedroom is far down a corridor from his.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
The theater at the end is full of "repeating architectural
units": an Ulmer tradition. These include:
- The colonnaded balconies that surround the theater.
- The musicians' stands. Ulmer twice makes a circular tracking shot, around the area that
contains the musicians' music stands.
- The repeating window doors at the front of the theater are also repeating modular architecture.
- These windows themselves contain repeating panes, which echo the earlier grids on the prison cells.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
We also see a caterpillar-tread snow truck here,
an oddly futuristic machine I do not recall having seen anywhere
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.
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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
The Amazing Transparent Man
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The triangular television screen, is another of Ulmer's artificial windows onto views.
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.