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B-Movie Maestro 

Giving cross-genre filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer his due

Wednesday, Mar 23 2005
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Edgar G. Ulmer was perhaps this country's greatest B-movie director, yet he's all but forgotten in America. Exquisitely marginalized, Ulmer cranked out 120 films in every conceivable genre during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, earning himself the sobriquet "King of Poverty Row." It took the French to recognize him as a master of bleak existential portraits, and even then not until the 1960s. But fear not; this isn't some Jerry Lewis thing. Ulmer was a skilled director and a hero of underfunded filmmaking, though he wasn't above making a quick buck, as evidenced in "Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man From Planet B."

Ulmer's masterpiece is 1945's noir classic Detour, a hard-bitten tale of a terminally unlucky man spiked with B-movie moments and the telltale signs of a nonexistent budget: few sets, few actors, few scenes on location, and a few slow pans across a map to supplant a cross-country road trip. The hero is a good guy so thoroughly screwed that his case would be heartbreaking if he hadn't been preparing for it all his life. "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you," he says at the end, unsurprised. The noir imagery is so thick it's nearly comical -- smudgelike characters on New York's dark and rainy streets, close-ups of the main character's haunted eyes, a tight zoom on a coffee cup until it fills the screen. In a lesson to strike hope (or fear) into indie filmmakers, Ulmer shot the entire movie in three days. At Friday's screening, co-star and femme fatale extraordinaire Ann Savage makes an appearance.

Two highlights of Ulmer's "ethnic period" also run this week -- Moon Over Harlem, with its all-black cast, and Green Fields, a Yiddish classic. And sci-fi fans won't want to miss The Man from Planet X, which features a special low-budget treat: sets left over from Joan of Arc.

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Michael Leaverton

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