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The Edgar G. Ulmer Collection Volume 1 (DVD)


The Edgar G. Ulmer Collection Volume 1 (DVD)

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Though far from a household name, director Edgar G. Ulmer is revered in some circles. One of the most prolific, consistently interesting low-budget filmmakers of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, Ulmer possessed a visual flair and independent career path that became his trademarks. That he was not independent by choice is part of what makes his career so colorful. After serving as a set designer for some of the most important films of the early days of German cinema—including Metropolis, The Golem, and M—Ulmer, like many European filmmakers, left Hitler for America. With only three films to his credit, he directed a minor masterpiece, 1934's The Black Cat, one of the best of the Universal horror cycle. He might have had a bright career at that studio were it not for an ill-considered affair with the wife of Carl Laemmle's nephew. Essentially blacklisted from Hollywood, Ulmer found work in New York, working for the Poverty Row studios on minuscule budgets and often creating films for ethnic niche markets, including several in Yiddish. This DVD, the first of what should be a fascinating series, collects two of Ulmer's films. From 1946 comes The Strange Woman, which finds Ulmer with a sizable budget and a well-known cast, his services having been lent to United Artists. Hedy Lamarr, who handpicked the director, stars as the title character, a woman who's not so much strange as complicated. The daughter of a drunken lout in early-19th-century Maine, Lamarr marries into money. Committing good deeds while entertaining dark thoughts, she becomes the object of desire for three men (including George Sanders) whom she manipulates almost against her own will. A morally complex, sexually charged melodrama highlighted by Lamarr's performance and Ulmer's evocative direction—particularly his careful application of lighting techniques—The Strange Woman gives a glimpse of what he might have been able to do more often had he been given the chance. More typical of his output is Moon Over Harlem (1939), the disc's second feature. Boasting "an all-colored cast," Harlem stars Cora Green as an honest young woman whose life takes a turn for the worse when her mother makes the mistake of marrying a gangster. (That he calls himself "Dollar Bill" should have been a tip-off.) Working with only $8,000, Ulmer does the best he can with a film that's stiff as often as it reveals the street politics of '30s Harlem. But even with its flaws, Harlem's revival provides an important glimpse at early black-oriented filmmaking, a poorly preserved chapter in film history. (Jazz fans should take note that it also features rare footage of legendary musician Sidney Bechet.) Overall, the disc is a fine first entry in what ought to be a long-running series.