In his nuanced and personable introduction to Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row, editor Gary Rhodes describes the challenge of mapping a critical itinerary for the work of this director: “Journeying through Ulmer’s canon thus means reaching the rich and wonderful destinations of his important, ‘auteurist’ works, while remaining mindful that some of his films are mirages in our path.” (p. x). In speaking about cinema, it is always difficult to tell the destination from the mirage, to distinguish the cinematic endpoint from the cinematic stopover, or the rich images supplied by a director from those hallucinated by his thirsty audience. The startling heterogeneity of Ulmer’s work makes these distinctions even harder to draw. His apprenticeship in cinema begins in the 1920s, under famed German directors Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau, but culminates in a career that includes Girls in Chains (1943) and Goodbye, Mr. Germ (1940). He worked in the studio system (Universal’s The Black Cat  starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff) but for most of his life worked outside it: his most renowned films are the low budget film noirs such as the powerfully scant Detour (1945), made with Producers Releasing Corporation, which earned Ulmer the title “Prince of Poverty Row”. Complicating our picture of Ulmer still further is his work in Yiddish cinema (The Singing Blacksmith in 1938), Ukrainian cinema (Cossacks in Exile in 1939) and the African-American all-black cast production Moon over Harlem (1939). Such a mercurial director almost requires the prismatic approach of a critical anthology rather than the single thesis of a monograph.
The essays in Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row are strongly united in their idiosyncratic love for their subject and an appreciation of the unusual and hypnotic effect of Ulmer’s work. The volume puts the reader into direct contact with what makes Ulmer’s films cult-worthy: their power and their glorious inconsistency. Rhodes divides the contributions into sections on texts and contexts surrounding the director, the film noirs, individual films, and three case studies of The Black Cat. Reading the collection, the reader is definitively reassured that that cinéphilia is alive and well. At times it even seems that Ulmer has liberated his critics from some of the more lugubrious aspects of scholarship; David Hogan puts it informally but effectively when he writes, “So-called major directors brought the broiled salmon; Edgar Ulmer provided the fishsticks.” (p. 251) More significant perhaps is the implicit dialogue the essays seem to take up with one another. Fundamental questions about film history, production, authorship and aesthetics, crisscross their attempts to track down Ulmer’s elusive cinematic signature. In the process of illuminating the far reaches of Ulmer’s career, the collection becomes a dynamic handbook for the film student.
Two essays, for example, are exceptional in the way they explore psychoanalytic theory through Ulmer, rather than merely applying it to him. Tony Williams makes a passionate defense of Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948) as a psychobiography (and a critique of capitalism) more trenchant than Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). His essay is a radioscopic analysis of the forces working within “Woody” Vendig (Zachary Scott), the lead character whose abundant repressions make his inward journey significantly darker, more labyrinthine and more violent, than Kane’s. Reynold Humphries’ “Reconsidering Ulmer’s Detour” explores the insights of psychoanalysis to articulate the particular counterlogic of this film in which, the author claims, “there is no detour at all.” (p. 166) He concedes, however, that there is a temporal and psychic detour; this argument has resonance with Phillip Sipiora’s opening remark of his fascinating study on subjectivity and rhetoric in the film: “Detour’s detours are meant to be taken both literally and figuratively.” (p. 145). Citing Sigmund Freud’s concepts of masochism and the uncanny, Humphries makes a compelling case for the original power of the psychic displacement wrought within Detour. He writes that we cannot even regard the characters on screen as separate biological entities:
We are dealing with symbolic relations where other factors are involved in the various supposedly binary relation s that unfold before us – and often in bizarre ways that cannot be put down to “style” or to the film’s low budget. The stakes are elsewhere. (p. 168)
There’s a gratifying sense of dissatisfaction within Humphries’ essay, which is not content to claim simply that Ulmer takes risks. In his subtle use of Freud and film theorists, Humphries elaborates what is at stake in Ulmer’s film, the various detours, losses and discontinuities that befall not only the characters within the film but its spectators as well. In his quest to figure these stakes of the film, Reynolds opens a new territory for discussing Ulmer’s cinema.
The essays are remarkably receptive to the ways in which Ulmer’s work requires us to rethink the inherited image of not only Ulmer but cinema as a whole. Robert Singer’s chapter on Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) pursues all the offshoot questions of this quirky film. Leave it to Ulmer to explore not only the second generation trauma of Jekyll’s offspring, but to cross breed the film with the werewolf movie, hypnotic states, and pharmacological control. Integrating the last line of dialogue from the movie, Singer writes that the film “mixes literary and film genre and forms to produce a historicized statement on the issue of conflicted female identity in the 1950’s. We may not be sure, but we remain interested.” (p. 248)
The other chapters are equally ingenious in developing ways to think precisely about the terms put aside in Humphries’ essay: the relation between style and budget. In addressing Ulmer’s film noirs, Hugh S. Manon devises the term “parametric style” to describe Ulmer’s uncanny ability to “parlay the seeming hindrances [of a shoestring budget and limited production time] into positive attributes, especially where film form was concerned.” (p. 98) Manon connects Ulmer’s work and the sparse index of the “spot” of the crime in the true crime genre, showing how Ulmer employed the minimal aesthetics to his advantage. The parameters of production, he writes, are “not a temporary adversity, but a perfectly viable and even desirable source of artistic inspiration” and he describes this parametric style as “a stylistic weaponization of the paltry means of production available for any given film, scene, or shot.” (p. 98) Claudia Pummer’s illuminative essay, “At the Border: Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Singing Blacksmith (1938) and Cossacks in Exile (1939)”, is an implicit retort to Manon’s claim. By examining production history and cross-textual references, Pummer reveals the extent to which Cossacks in Exile was a collaborative effort between Ulmer and Vasile Avramenko. Her essay demythologises the legend surrounding Ulmer, “celebrated for his creative sensibility and improvisational skills even under the direst financial and technological restrictions.” (p. 42)
One of the signal achievements of this volume, however, is its demonstration of how difficult it is to let go of this legend, even as we maintain a critical understanding of it. Detour justifiably receives such extensive treatment in Rhodes’ volume because it is a truly inexhaustible work of cinema. The film seems to take up a response to its own meagerness: to the complaint advanced by one critic upon the release of the film that all Detour shows us of Los Angeles is a parking lot, the film seemingly replies, “all we ever see of Los Angeles is a parking lot.” The film is what Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis-clos (No Exit, 1944) wishes it could be. To rephrase Rhodes’ observation about the project of his book, can we really grasp a mirage? How do we keep ourselves from wanting to take up residence there and treating it like one of the “rich destinations”? Several of the authors mention that it took Ulmer only four days to shoot Detour. You look up from the page after reading this simple statement. It is a humbling fact to anyone who has ever agonised over a sentence. If the claim seems implicitly to draw comparison with a biblical act of creation (which took three days longer), it is only because Detour so effectively creates a world, one just as rickety, violent, and damned as the one we inhabit.
Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row, edited by Gary D. Rhodes, Lexington Books, Lanham, 2008.