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Edgar G. Ulmer

People on Sunday

In 1929, a loose collective of young German filmmakers working their way up the ladder of the German studio system took the reigns of a low budget production about a group of attractive young Berliners who meet up for a Sunday outing to lakes. They shot on the streets of Berlin and the parks and beaches of Wannsee on a minimal budget with non-actors (all playing variations of their real selves, right down to their names and occupations) and whatever equipment they could scrounge together, from rough script from which they improvised freely on location. People on Sunday is, in its own words, “a film without actors.” More than that, it was a film without a studio, a production without studio backing or distribution in place, shot on weekends with volunteer cast and crew: the very definition of independent filmmaking. But if the actors were all amateurs, the filmmakers were, to greater or lesser extent, professionals toiling at the lower levels of the film industry. This film was their chance to show the industry, and themselves, just what they could do.

Released in 1930, People on Sunday–one of the final expressions of the silent era in an industry giving over to sound cinema–became a surprise hit, a highly influential film and, over the years, something of a legend, as it was almost impossible to see in the United States for decades. And reputation aside, the collective that made it include some pretty significant names: Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer shared director credit, Billy (listed here as Billie) Wilder is credited with the script, “from a reportage by” Robert Siomak’s brother Curt (credited here as Kurt) Siodmak, with the legendary cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan behind the camera and Fred Zinneman assisting. That line-up alone (which includes more than one future Oscar winner) made the film a kind of grail for fans of classic movies and film history. The inventive filmmaking, breezy pace, light touch, luscious images and gentle, appreciative spirit of the film makes it a classic.

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Detour: Closing Down the Open Road

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Detour is a masterpiece of wry perversity, a film virtually constructed on irony and paradox: an incredibly claustrophobic film about hitchhiking on the “open road”; the bleakest of films noirs, with the bulk of the action taking place during the day and away from the city. But perhaps the supreme ironies relate to the film itself. Despite acting that ranges from incompetent to bizarre, a storyline bordering on the absurd—alternately trashy and fanciful—and a minimum of sets or characters, Detour somehow speaks directly and compellingly to the dark side of several pervasive American myths, forcefully expresses a coherent vision of the way the world operates.

But if Detour can reward the receptive filmgoer, it does, by its very nature, demand a little more than the ordinary film. After all, there is no denying that a film shot in a very short time (rumored to have been four days, more likely five or six), on a budget of—it almost seems—something in the neighborhood of 45 cents, may lack some of the slickness and polish we ordinarily expect. But if we focus on what the film offers rather than what it lacks, we can begin to appreciate what is, on reflection, an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.

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