Archive for Arianne Ulmer

The Cat’s Pajamas

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2010 by dcairns

Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT (previously described here) is notable for being possibly the first Poe adaptation to take the title and nothing else from the source story — it certainly wasn’t the last. It’s also the first film to pair Karloff and Lugosi, Universal’s two great horror stars. And its Bauhaus castle is rightly noted as a triumph of modernist design in the horror movie.

But watching it with Fiona and our friend Mary, we were struck by a little-appreciated aspect of the film that deserves your attention: the wondrous variety and quality of night attire depicted.

Boris Karloff’s snazzy black robe with a cinched waist, dazzles the eye. Bela Lugosi’s slavic/chinese ensemble looks both practical and suave. Leading lady Jacqueline Wells has a whole array of nighties, robes and negligees, and at the film’s climax, as she flees the detonating mansion, her skirt flies off of its own accord, reducing her to boudoir-type attire. Hubby David Manners is, as usual, not so interesting as everyone else.

I seem to recall Lucio Fulci’s fave film was Ulmer’s DETOUR, so he must have liked this one also: he made his own, somewhat more faithful, version of the story in the 70s. And I’m sure Dario Argento has sung the film’s praises. He cites Poe’s “non-cartesian” approach as a major influence on his own storytelling. While Ulmer and his co-writers leave out everything except the titular cat, they certainly take a non-cartesian view of things, weaving an oneiric tapestry of perversity, tragedy and wildly inappropriate humour…

About those co-writers: credited scribe Peter Ruric was in fact George Carol Sims, who contributed to Lewton’s MADEMOISELLE FIFI (not a fright film, alas, but a very good melodrama/propaganda piece). Under the name Paul Cain he wrote thrillers for Black Mask magazine. His collection Seven Slayers features one yarn which, as my friend Comrade K pointed out, compresses the whole plot of Hammet’s Red Harvest into about ten pages. Hammet is famously terse. Cain is terseness personified. But it’s a little hard to detect his precise influence on THE BLACK CAT.

I can uncover little about Tom Kilpatrick, the uncredited additional scenarist, but he did have a hand in one other horror/fantasy classic, DR CYCLOPS. But nobody involved in this film ever made anything like it again. There IS nothing like it.

Another filmmaker who idolizes the movie is Raul Ruiz, and I can see why. Like his version of TREASURE ISLAND, it’s a “house of stories”. I never saw this one as a kid, but later read about it in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, where he points out the abiding strangeness of the film’s “plot” — moving in fits and starts, setting up lines of action and restlessly abandoning them, with blurry backstory branching off in all directions, and expectations spluttering out at every turn. Some of this is probably due to post-code censorship (when pre-code movies were trimmed for re-release, they chopped the original camera negatives, making restoration often impossible) — Ulmer’s daughter Arianne reckons there was more spiciness to the black mass originally. Never mind, what we do get is a lovely upended crucifix, and Boris Karloff mouthing Latin homilies in lieu of satanic verses (“In wine is truth… with a pinch of salt…”)

As good as it all is, nothing is as good as the basement of Hjalmar Poelzig’s castle, a reinforced concrete torture dungeon, where dead women float as ornaments, and Ulmer’s camera floats away from the action to chart the illimitable darkness of the vast, death-haunted bunker (“Even the telephone is dead.”) That place is like the bottom level of dream, the nightmare basement way down in our back brains, the place where sense itself stops functioning and obliterating fog roles in over reason and sanity…

We also watched EDGAR ULMER: THE MAN OFFSCREEN, which I’d held off on for ages because I wanted to like it so much I was afraid of not doing so. I needn’t have worried. We met Arianne Ulmer, the Great Man’s daughter, when she attended Edinburgh Film Fest’s Ulmer retrospective some years ago. She’s a font of movie-world knowledge and gossip, having been around film sets since infancy: naturally, Fiona & I were smitten.  So I was disposed to like this film. Arianne Ulmer’s labour of love charts her father’s career/s, interviewing admirers and collaborators, and skillfully using extracts to evoke the mysterious beauty of the filmmaker’s low-budget masterpieces. Director Michael Palm films most of the interviews in moving cars, which works well, keeping the images moving, situating the interviewees in their various cities, and providing a rolling backdrop of illustrative opportunities: when Wim Wenders talks about being a German in Hollywood, we see a billboard behind him advertising TROY, directed by Wolfgang Petersen. The whole conceit pays off even more when Palm uses a car in front of a rear projection screen to interview the late, great Anne Savage, star of DETOUR (much of which unfolds in front of just such a screen), and Jimmy Lydon, star of the appropriately named STRANGE ILLUSION, who wanders behind the screen to give the film its loveliest image ~

Other talking heads include Joe Dante and John Landis, Roger Corman, and Peter Bogdanovich.

I rarely see movie documentaries which attempt anything interesting, and when they do, it often backfires. I still groan to think of the THIRD MAN doc which projects all its clips on Viennese monuments, a momentarily diverting idea which swiftly becomes irksome as the clips go on and on, and we can’t see what’s happening in them. THE MAN OFFSCREEN is a real success in the way it uses cinematic language without obscuring its informative purpose. And, fascinatingly, it allows doubt to be cast on some of Ulmer’s stories. It could easily have been a hagiographic exercise in hero-worship. Instead, it first tells Ulmer’s story as he told it, and then allows some more cynical voices to question whether he really worked on almost every classic of the German silent cinema, while also working in America at the same time. In the end, the question is left open — I’m certain Ulmer did work on at least some of the Lang or Murnau films he mentioned, but I’m pretty sure not all of them. But we can’t know. Fittingly, the life of the director of THE BLACK CAT branches off into tributaries, separate lifelines which fade out into a fog of mystery, and nothing can be said with certainty.

“We have seen too much of life.”

US buyers:

Edgar G. Ulmer – Archive

The Bela Lugosi Collection (Murders in the Rue Morgue / The Black Cat / The Raven / The Invisible Ray / Black Friday)

UK buyers:

The Black Cat [1934] [DVD]

Eyes in their Stars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2009 by dcairns

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Stephen Murphy (makeup effects); Morag McKinnon (director); Kiyoyuki Murakami (translator/sound recordist); some pie (comestible). 

So, my friend Kiyo, visiting from Japan, left on Wednesday. Last time he visited and left I got bushwhacked by sudden emotion, which would probably have happened again, except for the comedy relief he thoughtfully supplied. “Thank you for your hospitality, and… thank you for everything you did to me,” he said, as he got into the cab, then sat down, missing the seat and landing on his arse on the floor. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” he remarked, cheerfully.

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I always found these space aliens, from the Japanese WARNING FROM SPACE, completely adorable in the movie stills I saw. With Kiyo departed and myself in nostalgic mood, I shoved the disc, a gift from composer Matt Wand, into the Panasonic and let ‘er rip. 

A ready-made Fever Dream Double Feature, the disc consists of both WARNING FROM SPACE and the uncannily similar THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, an Amicus production that likewise features astronomer heroes, meteors that land in formation, extraterrestrials that take human form, and plot twists that shift the invaders from hostile to sympathetic and (sometimes) back again.

The other film BEYOND SPACE (the moon is beyond space? That’s a conservative estimate of the size of the universe, isn’t it?) resembles is another British UFO flick, THE BODY STEALERS. But that one, a Tigon production, is beyond dull. Despite being shot by the talented John Coquillon (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) it contains only one striking shot:

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A body worth stealing.

The Amicus effort is a lot more interesting, thanks to occasional wisps of inventiveness from director Freddie Francis, and excellent production design in the aliens’ lair, and even in the astronomers’ HQ, where a psychedelic floor painting livens things up. Francis was generally a weak director, at least compared to his brilliance as a cinematographer, but he could rise to the challenge when a film offered him something of visual interest to get his teeth into. Oddly, here and in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, it’s the photography that often lets things down, with awkward transitions from day-for-night to night-for-night, something that NEVER works (honourable exception: THE PROFESSIONALS, shot by Conrad Hall). 

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Robert Hutton is our hero, a stiff bit of imported American timber, whose characterisation consists of (a) driving a vintage car, like Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who, and (b) having a metal plate in his skull, which turns out to protect him against alien possession. This results in an endearing bit where Hutton’s pal, Zia Mohyheddin, must fashion a brain-shield out of golf trophies and spend the rest of the film looking hilarious. Things like this keep the film going: most B-movie scifis are painfully lacking in ideas, seeming to equate creativity with expense. This one throws in a new novelty just often enough. A senior security guy from the secret service suddenly contract freckly plague — apparently by telephone. Staggering from the phone booth, he dies in seconds and immediately infects the doctor who rushes to his side. The delirium of the pace is dreamlike, aided by the surreal intensity of the doctor’s performance: we think of dreams as slow and floaty, but this sequence captures the abruption and ellipsis of dream-narrative very well. 

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The biggest mistake is probably the casting of Michael Gough as “the Master of the Moon”. Stressing every other word and thrusting his head about like a querulous chicken, Gough is very much on form, but when he has to convert back to being the human being possessed by the M of the M, he plays “Arthur Grey” in exactly the same manner, which leaves the ending in a terrifying limbo. Does this mean that all the humans possessed by the invaders are permanently strange? Are we doomed to become a race of Michael Goughs? Look around you! Can you be sure it isn’t already happening?

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WARNING FROM SPACE isn’t quite as full of surprises, but does switch genres in midstream, from invasion film to disaster movie. The starfish eyeball people from beyond infinity turn out to be warning mankind of a terrible threat, a comet (resembling a sun, in fact) on collision course with Earth. Cue lots of shots of screaming civilians evacuating Tokyo, apparently unaware that the surrounding countryside is still technically Earth. 

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It’s all decent entertainment if you’re as mentally twelve as I am, although maybe the film could have actually gotten by with fewer ideas. I would have been quite happy to just watch the starfish guys wandering about Tokyo, trying to buy beer or chat up the locals. When you have aliens as delightful as this, plot just gets in the way. Instead, the alien leader transmogrifies herself into a celebrity lookalike, travels to Earth, is washed up in a lake, and is quickly suspected of being what she is — her tendency to leap six feet in the air while playing tennis, and to teleport through plate glass, as well as the fact that she’s the doppelganger of a famous cabaret performer, tending to promote suspicion.

Also, because of the period it was made in, the colour process and the settings irresistibly recall Ozu’s late work, although director Koji Shima throws in the odd Dutch tilt, which is surely enough to disbar him from the transcendental style lodge.

The film was pan-and-scanned, the colour was faded, and the dialogue was dubbed (English dub by Jay Cipes, who married Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne — and I think that might be Arianne’s voice playing the alien leader). So arguably I haven’t actually seen this film at all. But if I’m about to mutate into Michael Gough I don’t suppose it matters.

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Pin-up of the Day: Barbarella Psychedella

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2008 by dcairns

BARBARELLA was, as I recall, the only film my mum refused to let me watch as a kid. I mean, there were lots of films which were on too late, like the second half of the monster movie double bills, which meant that I saw DRACULA at age ten but didn’t see FRANKENSTEIN until years later. But BARBARELLA was banned purely on grounds of content, or imagined content, since I don’t think anybody in my family had seen it.

A while later, the prospect of my watching DRACULA AD 1972 provoked an earnest discussion, with my Dad agreeing to sit up and watch the film with me and my brother to make sure there was nothing too unsuitable. There wasn’t — a wrist-slitting black mass, lots of vampirism, a stake through the heart — but no nipples. So that’s OK.

It seems kind of foolish of Roger Vadim to begin the movie with a striptease which is more fleetingly revealing than anything else in the film, starting it on an erotic high that it can’t quite live up to. Still, it’s an iconic, much-swiped moment, and it’s eventually followed by THIS:

The Excessive Machine, which should really have been called the Orgasmatron, only nobody thought of it. (Woody Allen did, later, in SLEEPER.) Here is my own Orgasmatron:

It’s for scalp massage, which is either a disappointment or a relief depending on how weird you are.

Jane Fonda’s erotic ordeal is a perversly innocent bit of sadism in a film which flirts with the sick (Barb getting nibbled by clockwork dolls in front of an audience of feral children sounds worse than it plays) but doesn’t seem to cross any lines of taste, somehow. Apart from casting Marcel Marceau in a role that requires him to do nothing but talk. That really shows up Vadim’s particular brand of anti-talent.

What holds the fragmented, inept shambles together is the design and casting — Vadim may have not known what to do with the talents on display, but he attracted enough of them so that some entertainment almost inevitably results. And Fonda’s Alice-in-Wonderland line readings — “A lot of dramatic situations begin with screaming!” — are crucial to preserving the air of innocence that stops the thing getting mired in pervy Euro-misogyny. What Robert “will this do?” Rodriguez’s proposed version would be like is anybody’s guess, although I predict lacklustre CGI banality might form approximately 99.9% of the experience, but it seems at least conceivable that Rose McGowan could contribute some Fonda-esque charm. She’s got something, that girl.

Vadim story: Arianne Ulmer-Cipes, daughter of the great Edgar Ulmer, worked as a voice artist in Europe: she was the Italian voice of Elke Sommer, which sounds like a splendid job to have. She once auditioned for Vadim, and ofound him sat upon a magnificent THRONE, weaing a short bathrobe, and splaying, physically. “I just ignored it. I knew it was some kind of test — he wanted to see if I’d be shocked. I mean, he wasn’t fiddling with himself or anything.”