Filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972)
Back in the day that the big Hollywood studios ran the film market, there were two categories that were offered to movie exhibitors. There were the A films and the B films. The idea was to offer two films to exhibitors for the price of one. The A film was the big draw and almost always the more expensive to produce. Then there were the B films, which were run second on the double features. Sometimes, the big studios produced them, but they also offered products from various small studios that were collectively known as “poverty row.” These studios included:
- Republic Pictures
- Monogram Pictures
- Eagle-Lion Pictures
- Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC)
The leading director for PRC was Austrian-born Edgar G. Ulmer who, despite the fact that he rarely worked for the majors, made several dozen films, some of which are masterpieces. My favorite of the lot is a horror film that starred both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, The Black Cat (1934), which he made for Universal. Although the film made money, studio chief Carl Laemmle fired Ulmer for having an affair with one of his married execs. Ever after, Ulmer skirted the edges of the industry.
Incidentally, although the film poster claims that the story for the film was from Edgar Allan Poe, I challenge anyone to explain to me which scenes were from the story. There is a black cat that occasionally appears, but the tale is not Poe’s.
Poster for The Black Cat (1934)
Another great is Detour (1945), a film noir starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. It’s an amazing film that stands up to repeated viewings. I also liked Bluebeard (1944) with John Carradine. Both films were made for PRC.
I recently saw a film about Ulmer which included an interview with the director. Again and again, when asked how long it took to shoot a named film, he uniformly answered “six days.” This is a man who knew how to produce a creditable work quickly and with a down-to-bone budget.
Poster for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)
The poster is a mess, but the film isn’t. It was released by the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) “studio” and starred Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Some forty years ago, I re-used the PRC abbreviation to stand for a film series I ran at UCLA which I called the Poverty Row Cinemathèque, whose highlight was a quadruple feature directed by that most maudit of film directors, Edgar G. Ulmer. In addition to Detour, we screened Girls in Chains (1943), Club Havana (1946), and (I think) The Pirates of Capri (1949).
Ulmer did direct two masterpieces. One was The Black Cat (1934), starring both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The other was Detour, the story of a down at heels New York pianist played by Tom Neal as Al Roberts who hitchhikes to California to be re-united with his girlfriend. Fate intervenes: In Arizona, he is picked up by Charles Haskell, who is a bit of a con man, and who tells of a woman he had picked nup named Vera who scratched his wrist when he put some moves on her. While Al takes over the driving responsibilities, the rain begins to fall and—while putting up the canvas top on the convertible—he discovers that the guy who picked him up had suddenly died.
Rather than try to flag down the police, Al drags the body into the bushes and covers it loosely. He then takes his wallet and the car. The 68-minute film is half over when Al meets a young woman hitching a ride a a gas station. The woman turns out to be the same Vera who scratched up Haskell, and she begins to try to blackmail and sexually dominate Al. She knows the car and knows that Al is not Haskell.
Ann Savage and Tom Neal
Vera turns out to be the center of the film. She is both relentless and ferocious. Never have I seen a female role that was so intense. By comparison, Al is passive and helpless. Rather than allowing him to part company, she tries to enlist him in a scheme to bilk Haskell’s dying rich father by passing himself off as the son. In the process, he accidentally kills Vera and, now thinking himself responsible for two deaths, hits the road.
If you’re interested in seeing this film, you should have no trouble. It is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. It is well worth your time.