As director of micro-budgeted cult classics like The Black Cat and the noir masterpiece Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer specialized in making the most out of the limited resources at his disposal. The well-intentioned but underwhelming documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen attempts to follow suit with much less satisfying results. Director Michael Palm spices up the talking-head format by shooting many of his subjects in the back of a car and having the ancient stars of Ulmer's films reenact scenes from his movies, but both devices lose their novelty quickly, and reek of a slightly desperate filmmaker trying too hard. Palm intersperses fuzzy but genial reflections by Ulmer's collaborators with film clips and more penetrating but less intimate observations from directors influenced by Ulmer's work, including such usual suspects as John Landis, Joe Dante, Wim Wenders, and Peter Bogdanovich, whose audio interview with Ulmer proves central to the film, and provides a rare glimpse into Ulmer's tortured psyche and knack for self-promotion. Palm tries to posit Ulmer as "King Of The B's," but the onscreen presence of Roger Corman, an icon with a much stronger claim to that title, undermines his efforts. Ulmer tells an engaging but sketchy tale of squandered genius that only realizes part of its noble ambitions.
If Ulmer's life is a case of unrealized potential, Billy Wilder's career is a case of genius fully and gloriously realized. Jewish immigrants Ulmer and Wilder began their careers in similar places, and even collaborated on 1930's People On Sunday, but Wilder went on to achieve the wide-ranging and historic success Ulmer craved. In contrast to the gimmicky Ulmer doc, Volker Schlöndorff's terrific Billy Wilder Speaks simply plants itself at the master's feet and listens raptly as he tells one terrific anecdote after another—stories about how Paramount tried to make Stalag 17 more German-friendly by making the villains Polish for its German release, or how Some Like It Hot's famous closing line was originally intended only as a place-holder until the writers could think up something better. Though well into his 80s at the time of filming, Wilder is exactly what his films would suggest: a hilarious, irrepressible, salty, candid storyteller full of wisdom but completely unpretentious. Speaks is little more than a flatly filmed interview with clips, but the endlessly delightful Wilder provides all the spectacle, humor, and excitement any film could ask for.
Key features: An entire bonus film (Isle Of Forgotten Sins) highlights the Ulmer doc, while the Wilder includes a surprisingly comprehensive trailer gallery and over an hour of essential bonus interview footage.