Home Video Reviews
The disc comes from the independent company Allday and its owner David Kalat has included a score of extras that offer teasing glimpses of Ulmer's unique genius. The lamentable condition of most of Ulmer's work makes appreciating him sometimes resemble a search for artifacts, and Kalat's presentations are better than can be seen anywhere else. The most impressive film in the group improves the quality of an earlier disc and comes with one of the disc producer's exemplary audio commentaries.
Starting chronologically, Moon over Harlem is one of Ulmer's adventures in ethnic filmmaking. Blackballed from studio work after filming his The Black Cat at Universal, Ulmer made all kinds of features and documentaries, eventually directing a number of Yiddish and Russian 'old country' musicals in New Jersey -- according to one source, the farm leased for the filming of one Fiddler on the Roof-style show about Russian Jews was right next door to property often used for meetings of the German Bund. This story of vice and virtue in the rackets and nightclubs of New York's Harlem was filmed in 16mm for almost nothing yet features a large cast. In an interview videotaped shortly before she passed away, Ulmer's wife and co-producer Shirley Ulmer recounts that she rewrote the entire script, and the lively, all-black cast creates some vivid characters.
In perhaps the first true representation of how rackets really worked, a gangster thinks he can outwit the white crime organization that runs vice in Harlem. He marries a woman to be near her beautiful daughter, who for her part wants to become a singer. The daughter is attracted to a political reformer and sparks fly. Much of the acting is stilted but the film has a general honesty missing in later Blaxploitation pix. Moon over Harlem comes with two added films, a 1940s public service short called Goodbye Mr. Germ and an unsold 1958 TV pilot filmed in color in Mexico, Swiss Family Robinson.
Bluebeard is one of Ulmer's best known pictures, a well-liked horror item that makes a sympathetic character of its mad killer, a talented painter and puppeteer in 19th century Paris. John Carradine has his best starring film role as Gaston Morrell, a civilized maniac compelled to strangle the models he paints. Jean Parker is the spirited girl he admires; he attempts to get free of his crimes but cannot erase the telltale paintings that chronicle his succession of victims.
Using fog, bits of sets and a cooperative cast, Ulmer creates a convincing period picture out of almost nothing, while moving the horror film closer to a more psychologically valid assessment of murderous evil. It's one of his more artistically successful efforts.
Allday's extras include a featurette about the Barlow and Baker marionettes that star as Morrell's puppet actors. Some striking Kodachrome movies of the marionettes in action are included that show that Bluebeard could have looked terrific as a color movie.
Strange Illusion is an awkward but artistically adventurous contemporary mystery lifted almost entirely from Hamlet. Jimmy Lydon is discouraged from investigating his father's death and is suspicious of the new man in his mother's life; he eventually becomes the victim of a conspiracy and is committed to an asylum. Weird dream sequences work their way through this Ulmer fan favorite. This disc comes with several Ulmer trailers including the elusive Beyond the Time Barrier, an MGM title for which 35mm printing elements are currently missing.
Daughter of Dr. Jekyll is a late-50s Allied Artists film made on the cheap in Los Angeles but set on a foggy moor. Gloria Talbott is afraid to marry John Agar afer being advised that she may have inherited her father's curse of lycanthropy. Several slow-motion dream sequences later, Gloria finds out she's being set up by a relative, the true guilty party.
Known almost exclusively as a joke title in Andrew Sarris' auteurist book The American Film, this tame monster romp does wonders with minimal sets but flubs a key interior when 1957 auto traffic peeks through the blinds during a breakfast scene. Of all the pictures in the collection, this is the sloppiest.
This disc has an interview with Ulmer's Daughter Arrianné explaining her non-profit foundation to preserve her father's films, many of which have fallen into the limbo of unresolved legal rights. She apparently recovered the original elements for Daughter of Dr. Jekyll at the last possible moment, by asking the original producer to reassign her the rights only a few weeks before he died.
The final title in the disc, not in chronological order, is 1946's The Strange Woman, a mini-masterpiece done on a reasonable budget that almost raised Edgar Ulmer out of poverty row. Instead, its success made him impatient with his deal at Producer's Releasing Corporation and he left to do even wilder independent projects in Europe.
The movie is an intelligent drama about a headstrong woman who eventually falls victim to her own negative karma. Hedy Lamarr plays the ambitious Jenny and the story is set in Maine in the early 1800s when land swindles were cornering the lumber market. The daughter of the town drunk, Jenny uses her beauty to maneuver herself into a marriage with the richest man in town and then has trouble getting his handsome son (Louis Hayward) to do the old man in. The irony builds as Jenny establishes a reputation of charity and personal integrity - only she knows what a fraud she is. When jealousy over the handsome George Sanders comes into the picture, her conscience gets the better of her.
This Ulmer film has no need of excuses or explanations; it's just plain superior and is easily Lamarr's best vehicle. The Ill-fated Jenny is as complicated as Scarlett O'Hara (whom Lamarr resembles in the role) and much more believable than Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven.
To top it off, David Kalat provides one of his highly entertaining commentaries, packed with fact, analysis and intelligent conclusions about Ulmer, Lamarr and the entire moviemaking process. It's a great listen.
The quality of Ulmer DVDs is always an issue as few decent prints of the movies survive. Many PRC pictures now lack anything but worn 16mm television negatives, and Ulmer's entire 40s output exists in spotty condition. Happily, The Strange Woman has been improved with new elements from French archives. Allday's encoding and digitizing improved over the years but some of the transfers are not as good looking as they might be. Dr. Jekyll and Strange Illusion suffer from strange pincushion graininess in their frequent dark foggy scenes.
Still, the Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive three-disc collection is a bargain and a great introduction to Ulmer's prodigious output. With extras included it adds up to over six hours of entertainment.
For more information about Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive, visit Image Entertainment. To order Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson