INVISIBLE INTRUDER: THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN (1960)

August 11, 2015

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In April of 1959 Edgar G. Ulmer was given an impossible task. Toiling in Dallas for Miller Consolidated Pictures, a short-lived B-picture studio, he was assigned to shoot two features in eleven days. These turned into Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) and The Amazing Transparent Man (1960). Most of the limited time and money was spent on Beyond, since its leap into the future required more elaborate set design and a larger cast.  What remained for him to use for The Amazing Transparent Man was a house on a hill, five actors, and an improbable tale of a mad Major experimenting with nuclear radiation to create an army of invisible warriors. From these meager resources Ulmer spun a dark, despairing tale of Atomic Age breakdown. Each character nurses a private tragedy, egged onward to self-annihilation. For most of its life the film has been an object of scorn — it was the subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode — but seeing a 16mm print projected at Anthology Film Archives (in their series on American International Pictures) was something of a revelation.

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Miller Consolidated Pictures, led by John Miller, Mike Miller and Robert Madden, was a fly by night operation targeting the seedier side of the B-picture market, hiring exploitation publicity legend Kroger Babb as Vice President. He likely came up with the prime ballyhoo on the poster about how the Transparent Man will “appear invisibly IN PERSON at every performance.” The Amazing Transparent Man could be included in Anthology’s AIP series because Miller Consolidated Pictures (MCP) went belly up soon after the film was given a limited release in 1960, finishing its run with three films to its name (Date With Death (’59) and the two Ulmers). AIP snapped up the rights to Amazing Transparent Man and gave it a national rollout in 1961 as the top half of a double bill with the British Godzilla knockoff GORGO. In the dual review in the New York Times Howard Thompson raved about GORGO (“the best outright monster shocker since King Kong“), leaving only one withering sentence for the Ulmer film: “The word for The Amazing Transparent Man is pitiful.”

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This “pitiful” production seemed doomed from the start. Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne acted in Beyond the Time Barrier, but bailed before shooting on the Transparent Man was completed (Ulmer was working on both simultaneously). “The reason I left”, she recalled to Tom Weaver (Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks), “was because the two-story motel where the whole crew was living burned to the ground.” Hence the reason each actor seems so hollowed out and exhausted. The pulpy script was by Jack Lewis, a former Marine and founder of Gun World magazine who self-described as a “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo.” Whether he was drunk or vagrant during his creation of the script is unknown, but Lewis was mainly a writer of Westerns, with Transparent Man the only science-fiction yarn he ever filmed.

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Major Paul Krenner (James Griffith) and Laura Matson (Marguerite Chapman (Spy Smasher), in her final film) help ace safecracker Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy) bust out of prison. In return for his freedom, the Major wants Faust to break into a government facility to steal fissile materials. This will allow Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault) to continue his invisibility experiments, which has thus far only successfully been executed on guinea pigs. With no way out, Faust agrees to the deal, becoming Ulof’s first human trial – only a transparent man could break into the vault containing nuclear material. The Major’s goal is to create an entire army of invisible men, but Faust isn’t keen on his crackpot scheme, and instead goes into business on his own, convincing Laura to help him rob a bank and flee Krenner’s control. But the invisibility treatment starts to wear of, he is identified, and everyone’s plans begin to crumble. As everyone scrambles to save their lives, Ulof’s lab becomes a ticking time bomb.

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Invisible man stories are creative opportunities for the budget-minded director (see also: Edward L. Cahn’s Invisible Invaders), because you can shoot an empty room and the viewer’s mind creates the illusion of action. Ulmer takes advantage of this throughout, training his camera on nothing. Bare tables and floors become axes of tension, and the director relies on his actors as reactors, their expressions investing the void with dread. Lewis’s script posits the past as another void, with each character wishing for it to disappear. Dr. Peter Ulof, a European refugee, confesses to Faust that he was forced to become a doctor for the Nazis, performing experiments on hooded prisoners in concentration camps. Each patient was anonymous, so Ulof could not tell that one of his “patients” was his own wife, who died under his hand on the operating table. Ulof has been forced to work for Krenner because his daughter Maria is being held hostage, and if he quits, she dies. Krenner is also manipulating one of his guards, Julian (Red Morgan), by convincing him his son has been jailed in Europe, and that Krenner can set him free (this turns out to be a lie). Laura’s motivation is simply money and power, and she gravitates to Faust’s plan for a quick score at the local bank. Though he is named Faust, the deal he makes with Krenner is not a selling of a soul, for Faust has none. He’s a craven criminal with nothing but the basest self-interest.

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In one of the film’s most elaborate optical effects, Faust’s body starts reappearing during the bank robbery, his head popping back into view, and then his legs, before his whole body reconstitutes itself.  He is disappointed when he gets his body back – the only happiness in the film appears in Faust’s voice when he is invisible, when he can revel in his insubstantiality. But being cured of his visibility is going to kill him – the doc gives him only a few weeks to live. Characters don’t die in The Amazing Transparent Man, though, they just to crumple and dissipate. When Julian is informed that his son was dead, he slumps down onto a chair and simply shuts down. He is never seen or heard from again, as if the illusion of his son’s existence was the only thing tying him to this earthly plane. The ending is suitably apocalyptic, bringing the atom bomb to middle America. This catastrophic event is something the characters seem to yearn for, to have their individual cells fission along with the nuclear material, to wholly disappear into the bright, white light.

 

BAD GIRL IN BANGOR: HEDY LAMARR IN EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

May 6, 2014

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The name Edgar G. Ulmer elicits images of the dusty roads of Detour and the empty pockets of its Poverty Row producers. He was a prolific purveyor of B-movie jolts, used to finding creative solutions to monetary limitations, but on occasion he was called up by the big studio boys, where the budgets were the least of his concerns. For The Strange Woman, out on a decent-looking DVD from the public domain label Film Chest, it was the leading studio gal Hedy Lamarr who gave him the opportunity. The Strange Woman was a salacious 1941 hit novel by Ben Ames Williams (who later wrote Leave Her to Heaven) about a poor, power hungry small-town beauty. Lamarr thought it provided an opportunity to, “do something other than merely be a clotheshorse or look pretty. I have always wanted to do character parts, and this gives me the chance I have been waiting for so long.” So she formed a production company, Mars Film Corp., with producer Jack Chertok, and secured distribution through United Artists. Lamarr met Ulmer on the set of The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), when she was visiting her then-husband and lead actor John Loder. Ulmer and Lamarr had both trained with Max Reinhardt, and perhaps this slender bond led her to select him as the director. Their collaboration was combative and tense, though The Strange Woman ended up a modest box office success, with a reported $2.8 million in ticket sales. Unusually frank about how Lamarr’s character uses sex to get ahead, The Strange Woman is a nineteenth century variation on the pre-code jaw-dropper Baby Face (1933), in which Barbara Stanwyck climbs the corporate ladder on her back.

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Lamarr plays Jenny Hager, the ill-bred daughter of a drunk who notices she can get away with all kinds of mischief simply by flapping her eyelids. Growing up in an abusive household in Bangor, Maine, she uses her sob story and abundant physical charms to marry the old, rich merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). He is but the first stepping stone on her will to power, as she next swivels her hypno-eyes onto Isaiah’s son Ephraim (Louis Hayward), a shy academic she used to torture as a child. Through her canny business sense and manipulative wiles, she pits Ephraim against Isaiah, in a grab to secure the family business all for herself. The Poster family is just her bank account – for physical pleasure she is set on seducing John Evered (a miscast, aw shucks George Sanders), the strapping manager of the Poster logging operation. He is engaged to Jenny’s best, and only, friend Meg, but it’s of no concern to her. Jenny is only interested in her own immediate pleasure, regardless of the cost to those around her. She is a seductive sociopath.

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Used to week-long schedules and miniscule budgets while at PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), The Strange Woman offered Ulmer a months long shooting schedule, with elaborate sets and an experienced cinematographer in Lucien Andriot (The Big Trail), who had just finished working with Jean Renoir on Diary of a Chambermaid. The movie is centered around Hedy Lamarr’s face, which exudes a feral restlessness. It is a quality Ulmer went to great lengths to elicit. In his new critical study of Ulmer, A Filmmaker at the Margins, Noah Isenberg writes that Ulmer “purportedly used his baton to lash her ankles, whenever she missed a cue, trying as best he could to make her act like a tigress.” Edgar’s wife Shirley simply stated that “He really didn’t like her.” Whatever his personal animus toward Lamarr, it pushed her towards a performance of bold animal aggression, her eyes darting about like a cat distracted by a laser pointer. Occasionally the effort becomes visible, a labored intensity, but for the most part it’s raw and carnal – the kind of “character” acting she hadn’t been allowed to do since she came to Hollywood.

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Most of Ulmer’s effort seems to have gone into Lamarr’s performance, as the rest of the film is an effective but indistinguishable bit of invisible Hollywood craftsmanship. There is a concerted effort to identify Jenny with nature. In her childhood scenes she is shown playfully drowning Ephraim in a creek, her dainty foot pushing his head underwater. Later she urges Ephraim to attack his father during a whitewater rafting trip, while she secures John’s lust during a thunderstorm. These are thoughtfully laid out metaphors of her inhumanity, but they fail to convey the mad energy of her character. Instead they are distanced and coolly objective, a nature doc of a sociopath in the wild. This approach drains the film of energy, as the shoot seemed to do to Ulmer, who did not recall the film fondly, calling it “very difficult”.

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Isenberg reports that there were re-shoots of the childhood Jenny scenes ordered by executive producer Hunt Stromberg, which were directed by Douglas Sirk. At PRC they only cared about the film being on time and under budget, but here he had no control. Lamarr was the driving artistic force in the film, and while The Strange Woman may not be one of Ulmer’s crowning moments, it contains one of Lamarr’s boldest and strangest performances, freed of the demands of being a clotheshorse. She is a man-devouring force of nature, and once you are in her domain, there is no escaping her.