"I really am looking for absolution for all the things I had to do for money's sake."
Edgar G. Ulmer said that, to Peter Bogdanovich.
Everything about Ulmer's last film, The Cavern (1965), speaks of hope battling despair. Ulmer, known informally as "King of the Bs," was a man who toiled in the darkness of the underfunded, unregarded B-movie, Z-list, exploitation world for practically all of his career. After making the surreal death-dream that is the Karloff-Lugosi horror The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer found himself informally blacklisted and worked on the margins of the film industry, going wherever the money could be scraped together to make something... anything.
Of course, the reason he's remembered is that within the impossible limits of micro-budget genre film-making (two-week schedules, one-week schedules), he kept producing films, or at least moments, that aspired to our achieved greatness. He didn't wait for the right project. He couldn't afford to. So sometimes these moments were dropped, almost carelessly, into unworthy movies, where they shone dimly like pearls in the darkness.
But for what was to be his last movie, Ulmer wanted things to be different. This was a project he really cared about, and three years passed between his crazy version of L'Atlantide (another subterranean romance) and the film he really wanted to make. And then everything went wrong.
"Sometimes I lose hope." "So do I, Mario. But it comes back."
—Nino Castelnuovo and Peter Marshall in The Cavern.
Ulmer had been attracted to the idea of a group of soldiers, of varying nationalities and allegiances, entombed in a bunker and unable to escape, for some time. He had wanted to make this version for fifteen years, but a story of this kind had actually been at the root of The Black Cat (which owes nothing concrete to Poe but much to the phantasmagoric imagination of Gustav Meyrink) back in 1934. Taking World War Two as his setting, Ulmer developed a script with two British writers normally associated with comedy, Jack Davies and Michael Pertwee. (The British contribution presumably explains why the film's RAF officer is named Peter Carter, after David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death: but this airman is caught between life and an ancient underworld, not a glowing heaven.) A budget was raised in Italy, more generous than Ulmer usually enjoyed, but still very tight. (But to get the financing, Ulmer had to accept personal fiscal responsibility for any overspend, something he was in no position to do.) A relatively distinguished, and very able cast was assembled.
Filming began, and Ulmer seemed to become disorientated. Shooting, in an icy Yugoslavian cave, descended into a fractious nightmare. It became clear that the director's health was collapsing: what may have been a series of mini-strokes wrecked him physically and mentally. Once, he called "Action!" while the camera was still being set up. One day, he woke up blind.
The film was finished, somehow. It dropped like a stone into consuming darkness. For all the attention it has received, it might as well have premiered five miles down in a hermetically sealed chamber, to an audience of ghosts.
A cavern worthy of Plato
But The Cavern is a great film, somehow. Does this prove the value of good preparation, the ultimate insignificance of the director's role, or the ability of talent to shine through obliterating darkness? It's not clear. But in this film, Ulmer manages to complete the circle of his career. As the alcoholic retired general (Brian Aherne) reads the opening passages of The Book of Genesis, Ulmer shows us empty frames, cavern walls, icy subterranean streams and decalcomaniac arrays of dripping stalactites. And there's the clear sense that if we drift deeper into this dream, we will meet Karloff and Lugosi, still wandering at the heart of their own mountain, thirty years earlier.
Sette contro la morte was the Italian title, and Ulmer was fortunate in his choice of seven. John Saxon's sculptural skull is perfectly designed for modeling by low lamplight, and he brings intensity and authority to the anti-heroic demoted American officer. Larry Hagman has always been a great, under-utilized resource of American film (the 1930s would have known how to use his fast-talking shiftiness) and Hans Von Borsody plays a German whose nationality is ultimately irrelevant, until rescue becomes a prospect. Nino Castelnuovo is very fine, but Rosanna Schiaffino, as his girlfriend, who ditches him for Saxon's character, really excels. In a sense, this is Ulmer's answer to Sternberg's Anatahan, where again an all-male conclave of stranded soldiers is thrown into discord by the presence of a single woman. Schiaffino is defiant, feisty, unexpectedly tender, and resists any bracketing as a token woman.
The weakest performance may be Brian Aherne's, which is a shame, since everyone likes Brian Aherne, and rightly so: he stored up a lot of goodwill in a long Hollywood career. Cast as a boozy old General, he falls prey to the weakest writing in the film (oddly, the British writers only lapse into stereotype when writing a Brit: "Oh I say, most irregular," is the General's response to a fainting fit). While the involuntary spelunkers apparently have access to shaving facilities, which spares us the embarrassment of most Robinson Crusoe movies with their succession of lengthening false beards, the sixty-three-year-old Aherne apparently felt the need of old age makeup, and so sports disturbing cotton wool eyebrows. But his collapse into senile confusion is nonetheless affecting.
My favorite of this crowd (one bonds quickly with these guys, sharing their sense of claustrophobic entrapment with them) was Peter Marshall, giving the most easy-going and contemporary performance. In the excellent documentary Edgar Ulmer: The Man Offscreen, he looks back with perplexity and sympathy at his embattled director. "The Cavern was probably one of his most expensive films. And it certainly wasn't one of his good films." Marshall is a much better actor than film critic, but it's natural that anyone who suffered through such a shoot would undervalue the resulting film. Saxon got the impression that his director was a con artist: if you named a classic German silent film, Ulmer would claim to have worked on it. That's one sign of a mythomaniac: but it's also one sign of a guy who worked on a lot of German silent classics. Who's to know?
Available only in gray-market VHS form, Gabor Pogany's cinematography pruned from cinemascope to the boxy proportions of a 1.33:1 TV, with all the contrast washed out, the movie still exerts a sombre pull. Like a voice calling from a black pit, it summons us towards a darkness we're afraid to enter.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.