A definitive docu on the elusive Edgar G. Ulmer is a practical impossibility, which is why Michael Palm chooses to highlight questions rather than facts. But “Edgar G. Ulmer — the Man Off-Screen” neither fully illuminates the tales nor finely sifts through the evidence to discover the truths behind the myth-making. Despite some excellent talking heads, Palm’s good-natured attempt to stuff Ulmer’s life into a B-movie mold of its own ultimately lacks the lean crackerjack narrative stylization that marked the emigre helmer’s best works. Fest and TV presentation followed by a DVD pairing with an Ulmer release is docu’s natural destination.
Ulmer was nothing if not a self-inventor — by his own fantastic account, he created the first dolly and worked on every major film to come out of Weimar Germany, handily listing himself as an uncredited assistant for which no paper trail exists.
But Ulmer’s moviemaking influence is incontrovertable. Using Peter Bogdanovich’s 1970 taped interview as the connecting thread, Palm taps contempo helmers such as Joe Dante and Wim Wenders for their takes on Ulmer’s style and influence, although it’s his daughter Arianne’s affecting comments that speak most of the frustrated artist trapped in the cul-de-sac of Poverty Row.
As with too many Hollywood docus, gaps loom large: Ulmer’s inventive Yiddish films get short shrift, although they are some of the best of the genre. Pic’s most thorough discussion is of the Expressionist masterpiece “The Black Cat” and Ulmer’s PRC days, when he churned out such noir classics as “Bluebeard” and “Detour.” Latter’s star Ann Savage, spry and a lot warmer than her venomous character Vera, discusses her favorite helmer’s working methods, speaking with appreciative amazement of his speed and improvisatory skills.
Palm shoots his interviewees either in moving vehicles or studio-set convertibles complete with rear projection in imitation of quota quickie shots, but the gimmick doesn’t cast any more light on the subject. In the end, Palm seems to side with Bogdanovich’s cavalier regard for his own role as a documenter of the truth: “If it doesn’t always jive, that’s not my department.”