We’re pretty excited to be showing Edgar G. Ulmer’s fantastic film about a painter who murders his muses, Bluebeard, this Thursday (February 20) as part of our Art Seen series. Besides being able to present this often forgotten bit of cinematic greatness in a 35mm print from the Academy Film Archive, the evening is extra special because it includes an introduction by Noah Isenberg whose new book on Ulmer, Edgar G. Ulmer: a Filmmaker at the Margins, is set to become the definitive look at this man of film mystery. (Books will be on sale during the screening, naturally). Noah was also kind enough to answer a few of our questions about Ulmer on the occasion of this very special screening…
Question 1: Your new book explores the mystery surrounding Ulmer’s background in the film industry and how some of the truth is impossible to prove definitively. In your opinion, how much do you think of what he says was truth and does it really matter now that these claims are so much a part of his legacy?
It’s impossible to know, in many instances, the full extent of the truth or the colorful embellishments. There simply isn’t enough hard documentation to know one way or the other. In the absence of that, one has to speculate and to develop a certain comfort level with respect to the murkiness and ambiguity that characterize much of Ulmer’s life. After a while, after stories are told again and again — as Sarah Polley’s last film so brilliantly showed — they begin to function as the truth.
Question 2: Ulmer’s anger and resistance towards the Hollywood system seemed to fuel his creativity. Do you think that Ulmer could have thrived if he had remained within that system?
Both temperamentally and aesthetically, Ulmer wasn’t cut out for a studio career. He never was much of a company man, never a joiner of any kind, and he rarely masked his contempt for the studio bosses and moneymen who, in his view, worked against the very artistic aims that he pursued as an independent filmmaker.
Question 3: In terms of BLUEBEARD, what are your thoughts as to why it often gets overlooked or not discussed as much as his other films?
Of the eleven feature-length films Ulmer directed for Producers Releasing Corporation, between 1942 and 1946, BLUEBEARD has always been overshadowed by DETOUR (1945) and STRANGE ILLUSION (1945). Visually speaking, BLUEBEARD is every bit as ambitious, if not more so, than those two other pictures. But somehow it’s been neglected, almost like the magnificent weepie HER SISTER’S SECRET (1946) that Ulmer directed as his last picture for PRC. It may have something to do with friction between Ulmer and studio head Leon Fromkess on the production or, perhaps, with the fact that it was initially slated, in 1934, to be made for Universal, before Ulmer got the boot.
Question 4: How has the reception to your book been and do you think more people are aware of Ulmer than ever before?
It’s hard to gauge at this point, less than two months after its official publication date, but the enthusiasm expressed at the bookstore events in New York and on the West Coast, and at the two weekends of Ulmer screenings at Film Society of Lincoln Center last month, has been quite wonderful. Likewise, the initial reviews have been largely encouraging. I think that many more people are excited about Ulmer’s films than I’d initially anticipated, and of course I hope the book, once it has a chance to reach a wide audience, will only increase that excitement.
Question 5: And finally, what is your favorite Edgar G. Ulmer film and why?
It’s too hard to single out just one film, though I do have an inordinate fondness for some half a dozen or so (from PEOPLE ON SUNDAY and THE BLACK CAT through BLUEBEARD, DETOUR, RUTHLESS, THE NAKED DAWN among others). While writing the book, I learned to appreciate the films that I’d previously not been so taken with, and to see my favorites neutralized somewhat by the sum achievement of his work as a filmmaker.
Post by Caryn Coleman, @caryn_coleman