A review of an obscure indie film (courtesy of HuluPlus’ choice selection of films from the Criterion Collection), some film history & Eric Michael Kochmer. Read on to find out why indie filmmakers should care. Every #TBT.
Strange Illusion (1945) directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (87 minutes)
And then there was Edgar G. Ulmer, infamously under-known auteur whose prolific career stretched over the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, while making over fifty films. A native to Eastern Europe of Austrian decent, he first started in the film industry working in the art department first on stage with legendary theater director Max Reinhardt and then quickly moving on to work on German Expressionist films for Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau as a Production Designer. After directing a few low budget pieces, Ulmer came to Hollywood and directed the tremendously successful “Black Cat” (1933) starring Bela Lagosi and Boris Karloff (the A-listers of their time). But unfortunately, for Ulmer, an untimely love affair (which turned into a life long marriage) with the niece-in-law of Universal Production Chief Carl Leammle, he was banished from the major studios.
He immediately fled to New York making, ethnic films for the African American and Yiddish communities as well as industrial and educational endeavors. But no matter what project he touched he put his expressionist touch on it, whether it be a B-Horror script or a story about the contraction of Syphilis.
After building up a large array of work in independent productions, Ulmer came back to Hollywood for one of his most productive periods working under contract with The Producers Releasing Corporation, one of the many so called poverty row studios of that time, pumping out B-films. In all, he directed 16 films in a six year period. In this time frame, Ulmer made probably his most influential and maybe his most important works: “Detour” (1945) Bluebeard (1944) and Ruthless (1948). Besides making B-films at a fast pace (usually 1-2 week shoots), he was also hired several times to make more highly budgeted independent productions like “The Strange Woman” (1947). Ulmer left Hollywood for Europe in 1949 due to the Red Scare and his possible Communist sympathies. He worked abroad for several years never returning to work in Hollywood, but working steadily until his last film The Cavern (1965).
Strange Illusion (1945) came in the middle of his second stay in Hollywood and is certainly one of his moodiest works. The story is a modern
adaptation of Hamlet. And Hamlet it is. In place of the ghost of his father providing him with his motivation, Paul Cartwright (played by Jimmy Lydon) has a dream in which his mother’s fiancee (who he hasn’t met) confronts and wickedly informs him that he murdered his father. The dream, like in Shakespeare, is a real hallucination that the protagonist has. Whether it is true or not is subjective to on-lookers for the duration of the play, in this interpretation all but Paul’s immediate family agree and condone what he is attempting to uncover. Paul, assisted by the families psychiatrist, Dr. Vincent (Regis Toomey), lets himself into his mother’s future husband (the great character actor Warren William in a menacing turn) who suspects the young man from the beginning. Ulmer paces the story with a high paced hallucinogenic tension. The whole film could very well be a vision from Paul’s dead memory. The film is filled with dream sequences from the beginning, a true emergence of film noir and German expressionism.
The weakness of the film as a whole is the acting. For the most part the performances are wooden and rushed, except of course for Warren William who don’s a Claude Raine’s presence with a Henry Fonda honesty, he brought his best in this part. The two reasons for the weak showings are because of the most impressive part of the film: it was shot in less than ten days! This was one of Ulmer’s noir’s that were chucked
through the 2nd reeler sound stages. He fills those shoddy stages with smoke and surrealism, carving his ascetic with the limited means in front of him. As far as the ingredients around him they are pretty basic: upper-middle class New England type houses, roads with the black of night behind Paul Cartwright as he walks in a smoke filled dream repeating his premonitions. The atmosphere is so overpowering that he catapults the story past any of the shortcomings that the actors may throw in to gum up the works.
The thing is is that Ulmer is such a craftsman that as long as he was able to execute a high concept vision even with sub-par means and that is what separates work like this compared against the other B-films of the same era. Even against the dramas of the 1940’s, coming out of the major studios, Strange Illusion is a gem among some masterworks but mostly overdone pro-allied propaganda pieces.
Ulmer died from a stroke in 1972 in Woodland Hills, CA. He was known to be a bit of an embellisher, but towards the end he mentioned over and over that he hoped that his films weren’t destroyed. He always wanted a certain recognition from the Hollywood industry that he never really received. Of course, Peter Bogdonavich discovered him late in life (a book and documentary which are hard to find are developments from the meetings) as well as other film connoisseurs that have intimated that Ulmer was one of the masters of the 20th Century.
I agree with that sentiment. After he died, because of the preservation efforts of his widow and daughter (who were also employees of his during many of his later productions) the majority of his films exist today in the archives of Universal, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and the Library of Congress.