Edgar G. Ulmer was born in 1904 in Olmütz, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic). Like a number of talented German and Austrian directors, he moved to the United States in the ’20s and began working in Hollywood. Unlike better-known directors like Billy Wilder or Fritz Lang, however, Ulmer toiled in obscurity for most of his career, cranking out no-budget films. At least part of this was due to the fact that he was blackballed after he had an affair with Shirley Castle, who was the wife of B-picture producer Max Alexander, a nephew of powerful Universal president Carl Laemmle. Castle divorced Alexander and married Ulmer (becoming Shirley Ulmer), but the damage to Ulmer’s career was done. He spent most of the rest of his career churning out product for P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) Studios, one of the financially strapped Hollywood studios collectively referred to as “Poverty Row.”
Today, Ulmer is best known for two films, The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). I’ve seen the former, but not the latter. The Black Cat stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and is one of the more memorable and strange Universal horror pictures. It was a big box-office success, too. I haven’t seen Detour yet, but it has a reputation as one of the best low-budget noirs.
Strange Illusion, which Ulmer made for P.R.C. early in 1945, is a mixed bag. Ulmer’s ideas are clearly larger than the short shooting schedule, low budget, and B-grade actors can support. James “Jimmy” Lydon (on loan from Paramount) plays a young man named Paul Cartwright, whose late father was once the governor of California. The film opens with a stunning, Freudian dream sequence in which Paul walks with his young, attractive mother through clouds of smoke. A menacing, dark man whose face cannot be seen walks with them. He seems to have designs on Paul’s mother. Then the mysterious automobile accident in which Paul’s father died is replayed. It’s a fantastic sequence, and grabs the viewer right away. Much of what follows is prosaic, but not bad. There are a lot of great shots of Paul and other characters that incorporate an enormous portrait of the late Mr. Cartwright, towering over his survivors as though he is passing judgment on them from the afterlife. Warren William is very good as Paul’s mother’s fiancé, and he brings the right balance of charm and menace to his role. Lydon, on the other hand, really irritated me, and some of the youthful “jive” talk he has with his girlfriend is pretty stilted and painful. There’s also a little too much plot for the film’s brief running time. If by the end of this picture you haven’t figured out that this is Ulmer’s teen-oriented take on “Hamlet,” then, brother, you never took a comp lit class. Overall, Strange Illusion isn’t bad, but it’s recommended only if you really enjoy B movies from the ’40s.
Horror fans are encouraged to check out The Black Cat, as well as Bluebeard, a dreamy and beautiful horror movie Ulmer made for P.R.C. in 1944. It stars John Carradine as a homicidal puppeteer in 19th century Paris.