Edgar G. Ulmer  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Edgar G. Ulmer (September 17, 1904September 30, 1972) was an Austrian-American film director. He is best remembered for the movies The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). These stylish and eccentric works have achieved cult status, but Ulmer's other films remain relatively unknown.

Film career

Ulmer was born in Olomouc, in today's Czech Republic. As a young man he lived in Vienna, where he worked as a stage actor and set designer while studying architecture and philosophy. He did set design for Max Reinhardt's theater, served his apprenticeship with F. W. Murnau, and worked with directors including Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Eugen Schüfftan, inventor of the Schüfftan process. He also claimed to have worked on Der Golem (1920), Metropolis (1927), and M (1931), but there is no evidence to support this. Ulmer came to Hollywood with Murnau in 1926 to assist with the art direction on Sunrise (1927). In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he also recalled making two-reel westerns in Hollywood around this time.

The first feature he directed in North America, Damaged Lives (1933), is a low-budget exploitation film, exposing the horrors of venereal disease. It was shot in Hollywood, with a medical reel provided by the American Social Hygiene Association, for the Canadian Social Health Council and premiered in Toronto. His next film, The Black Cat (1934), starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, was made for the major Universal studio. Demonstrating the striking visual style that would be Ulmer's hallmark, the film was Universal's biggest hit of the season. Ulmer, however, had begun an affair with the wife of independent producer Max Alexander, nephew of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. Shirley Alexander's divorce and subsequent marriage to Ulmer led to his being exiled from the major Hollywood studios. Ulmer would spend most of his directorial career making B movies at Poverty Row production houses. His wife, now Shirley Ulmer, would act as script supervisor on nearly all of his films, and she wrote the screeenplays for several. Their daughter, Arianne, appeared as an extra in several of his films.

Consigned to the fringes of the U.S. motion picture industry, Ulmer specialized first in "ethnic films," notably in Ukrainian—Natalka Poltavka (1937), Cossacks in Exile (1939)—and Yiddish—The Light Ahead (1939), Americaner Shadchen (1940). The best-known of these ethnic films is the Yiddish Green Fields (1937), codirected with Jacob Ben-Ami. Ulmer eventually found a niche making melodramas on tiny budgets and with often unpromising scripts and actors for Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). His PRC thriller Detour (1945) has won considerable acclaim as a prime example of low-budget film noir, and it was selected by the Library of Congress among the first group of 100 American films worthy of special preservation efforts. In 1947, Ulmer made Carnegie Hall with the help of conductor Fritz Reiner, godfather of the Ulmers' daughter, Arianné. The film features performances by many leading figures in classical music, including Reiner, Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Lily Pons. Ulmer did get a chance to direct two films with substantial budgets, The Strange Woman (1946) and Ruthless (1948). The former, featuring a strong performance by Hedy Lamarr, is regarded by critics as one of Ulmer's best. He directed his last film, The Cavern (1964), in Italy.

Ulmer died in 1972 in Woodland Hills, California, after a crippling stroke. In 2005, researcher Bernd Herzogenrath uncovered the address where Ulmer was born in Olomouc. A memorial plaque commemorating Ulmer's birth home was unveiled on September 17, 2006, on the occasion of Ulmerfest 2006—the first academic conference devoted to Ulmer's work.

Selected films

as set designer:

as producer:

as director:

Personal quotes

"I really am looking for absolution for all the things I had to do for money's sake."



Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Edgar G. Ulmer" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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