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Edgar G. Ulmer Movies: 'The Black Cat' & 'Detour'

Edgar G. Ulmer movies on TCM: 'The Black Cat' & 'Detour'

Turner Classic Movies' June 2017 Star of the Month is Audrey Hepburn, but Edgar G. Ulmer is its film personality of the evening on June 6. TCM will be presenting seven Ulmer movies from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, including his two best-known efforts: The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945).

The Black Cat was released shortly before the officialization of the Christian-inspired Production Code, which would castrate American filmmaking – with a few clever exceptions – for the next quarter of a century. Hence, audiences in spring 1934 were able to witness satanism in action, in addition to other bizarre happenings in an art deco mansion located in an isolated area of Hungary.

Sporting a David Bowie hairdo, Boris Karloff is at his sinister best in The Black Cat (“Do you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead”), ailurophobic (a.k.a. cat-a-phobic) Bela Lugosi is at his sinisterly righteous best, and David Manners (“one of America's greatest writers of unimportant books”) is at his most handsome. Unfortunately, like most leading ladies in horror movies of that era (e.g., Helen Chandler in Dracula, Gloria Stuart in The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House, Sidney Fox in Murders in the Rue Morgue), pretty Jacqueline Wells (later – and better – known as Julie Bishop), has little to do but faint, scream, sleep, look dazed.

Despite its poorly developed lead female character and the near complete absence of suspense or thrills, The Black Cat is a must even if only for its two central performances and its fantastic visuals (black-and-white cinematography by John J. Mescall; art direction by Charles D. Hall; Ulmer reportedly created the set design).

Note: The Black Cat has precious little in common with Edgar Allan Poe's short story.

Detour is probably the cult classic film noir of the 1940s, more so than My Name Is Julia Ross, The Chase, or Ulmer's own Hedy Lamarr star vehicle The Strange Woman. It's easy to see why: Ann Savage and Tom Neal make Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (in Double Indemnity), Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea (in Scarlet Street), Lana Turner and John Garfield (in The Postman Always Rings Twice), and Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum (in Out of the Past) look like “well-adjusted” social types and exemplars of ethical behavior.

Savage, in fact, would likely have scared the hell out of Boris Karloff and fellow Black Cat satanists. Too bad she never became a bona fide film star.

Neal wasn't any luckier. The former boxer's best-known post-Detour “work” was getting involved in a bone-breaking brawl with Best Actor Oscar nominee Franchot Tone (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935) over Tone's eventual wife (for a little while), troubled actress Barbara Payton.

For the record, Ann Savage and Tom Neal had previously worked together in three other B movies: Klondike Kate (1943), Two-Man Submarine (1944), and The Unwritten Code (1944). They would pair up again in the TV series Gang Busters episode “The Red Dress Case” in 1955.

Tom Neal and Edgar G. Ulmer, for their part, would pair up again in Club Havana (1946), which TCM is not showing.

A few more Edgar G. Ulmer titles:

  • The Man from Planet X (1951) is a curiosity featuring what ads – long before Trump's hair-raising Circus of Freaks – heralded as “the WEIRDEST visitor the Earth has ever seen!” Besides the alien weirdo (apparently played by an unnamed – and to this day unknown – actor) stirring up trouble in a Scottish town, the horror sci-fier also features Margaret Field, mother of two-time Oscar winner Sally Field (Norma Rae, 1979; Places in the Heart, 1984).
  • Her Sister's Secret (1946) sounds like a variation of the 1939 Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins melodrama The Old Maid, with two sisters and an “illegitimate” child at its core (the twist: the child's father returns). Nancy Coleman (The Gay Sisters, Devotion) and frequent Bette Davis co-player Margaret Lindsay (Fog Over Frisco, Dangerous, Jezebel) co-star.
  • The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) – invisible gangster on the lam – feels like a weak retread of numerous other (mostly B) movies, from The Invisible Man and The Invisible Woman to Invisible Agent and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.

This Edgar G. Ulmer post is being revised and expanded. Please check back later.

8:00 PM THE BLACK CAT (1934). Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer Cast: Karloff. Bela Lugosi. David Manners. Julie Bishop (as Jacqueline Wells). B&W. 65 mins.

9:15 PM THE CAVERN (1964). Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer Cast: John Saxon. Rosanna Schiaffino. Larry Hagman. B&W. 94 mins.

11:00 PM THE NAKED DAWN (1955). Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer Cast: Arthur Kennedy. Betta St. John. Eugene Iglesias. Color. 82 mins.

12:45 AM THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951). Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer Cast: Robert Clarke. Margaret Field. Raymond Bond. B&W. 71 mins.

2:15 AM DETOUR (1945). Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer Cast: Tom Neal. Ann Savage. Claudia Drake. B&W. 68 mins.

3:45 AM HER SISTER'S SECRET (1946). Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer Cast: Nancy Coleman. Margaret Lindsay. Philip Reed. B&W. 84 mins.

5:15 AM THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN (1960). Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer Cast: Marguerite Chapman. Douglas Kennedy. James Griffith. B&W. 58 mins. Letterbox Format.

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