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The Amazing Transparent Man

The Amazing Transparent Man(1960)

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teaser The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)

Probably the most resourceful director of the American cinema, Edgar G.Ulmer carved out a reputation for making stylish, strange and ofteninnovative films while being shackled to budgets that were, by Hollywoodstandards, microscopic. Working outside the major studio system had itsdrawbacks but Ulmer accepted the lack of production resources in exchangefor a much greater degree of creative freedom. Ulmer used this freedom toexplore his personal interests and to bend, almost to the breaking point,the conventions of genre filmmaking.

Produced for Miller-Consolidated Pictures (MCP), a short-lived concern thathoped to tap into the low-budget drive-in market which thrived on exploitation pictures, TheAmazing Transparent Man (1960) would test the limits of how quickly andcheaply a film could be made. Ulmer was given a small crew in Dallas,Texas, and was afforded only eleven days to shoot not one but twofilms. One of these films, Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), was ascience fiction spectacle and, by its very nature, consumed the lion'sshare of Ulmer's production budget, requiring more sets, costumes, props,actors and perhaps the most precious commodity of all: time. Thefuturistic drama was filmed first, and any remaining time was devoted to thesecond feature.

As if matters could not be worse, The Amazing Transparent Man facedanother obstacle when the hotel which housed the cast and crew burned tothe ground after the first day of shooting. But Ulmer was contracted to deliver two films and two films he delivered. One (Time Barrier) is a tidy little sci-fi thriller, laced withpolitical allegory. The other film is less easily categorized: a remarkable exercise in cinematic thrift and reckless creativity.

"The Amazing Transparent Man got short shrift," remembers Ulmer'sdaughter, Ariann Ulmer Cipes. "It didn't get as many days production asBeyond the Time Barrier and it certainly didn't have as large acast.... People talk about how inexpensively he could shoot... well thecontributing factors were that he would utilize two, three, four, fiveproductions simultaneously in different stages that were cannibalizing fromeach other. Costumes, cast, design, writing, musicians -- you could jugglethem all at one time."

There were no illusions about the fate of The Amazing Transparent Man.The finished film lasts just less than one hour, barely long enough toqualify as a feature, guaranteeing its place on the lower berth of adouble or triple bill. Ulmer was therefore relieved of the burden ofnarrative coherence and deep meaning. He could weave an extemporaneousthriller that was swift, energetic and perfectly fitting the designation of"added attraction."

Douglas Kennedy stars as Joey Faust, a hard-boiled bank robber who issprung from prison by a seedy mob boss, Krenner (James Griffith), who hassecret plans for the gunman. Krenner takes Faust to his criminal lair -- alarge Victorian farmhouse -- and reveals to him a state-of-the-artlaboratory within. There, Dr. Ulof (Ivan Triesault) is experimenting witha radical form of radiation therapy that can render living creaturesinvisible. Krenner's intention, revealed mid-film, almost as anafterthought, is to create an army of invisible, anti-American soldiers totake over the world. The more selfish Faust defies Krenner, teams up witha tough moll (Marguerite Chapman) and instead uses the power of invisibilityto rob bank vaults. Everyone's plans unravel when the experimental processbegins to fail. Faust is identified during a robbery and returns to thecriminal farmhouse to avenge himself upon neo-Nazi Krenner.

Scripted by Jack Lewis, The Amazing Transparent Man compensates forits technical shortcomings by sending itself in a half-dozen thematicdirections. On one level it is a modernized retelling of Goethe'sFaust, as the criminal sells his soul for magical powers thatpromise wealth, power and love. It is also a Cold War thriller (completewith stock-footage A-bomb detonation in the final reel). It is a heistpicture. It is social commentary (a German doctor during WWII, Ulof wasforced to experiment on concentration camp victims). It is an homage tothe classic horror film (specifically James Whale's The InvisibleMan, 1933).

But no single film can be all these things. Eventually, the entire plotexplodes and Ulmer abruptly ends the film with the cinematic equivalent ofa question mark: a character, faced with a moral dilemma of monumentalproportions, turns to the camera and says, "What would you do?" Rollcredits.

There is enough material in The Amazing Transparent Man for threefilms, but Ulmer compacts it all into a single hour. "You have only a short time to tell a story," Ulmer said, "and therefore...you must have two sides, as in the commedia dell'arte, andlater in our great Western successes as: the man with the white hat, theman with the black hat."

Corners were cut not only in narrative structure but in the special effectsas well. Only a handful of optical shots were used to depict the"transparency" of Faust. Instead, Ulmer was satisfied to show doorsopening and closing, objects hanging from wires and, most brilliantlyresourceful of all, to merely focus the camera on empty sets, as if someonewere actually there.

The publicity artists of MCP likewise reaped the value in invisibility, andreleased the film with the following warning: "Joey Faust, escaped convict,The Amazing Transparent Man, has vowed to 'appear' invisibly inperson at every performance of this picture in this theatre.Police officers are expected to be present in force, but themanagement will not be responsible for any unusual or mysterious happeningswhile Faust is in the theatre."

Producer: Lester D. Guthrie
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Jack Lewis
Cinematography: Meredith M. Nicholson
Production Design: Ernst Fegte
Music: Darrell Calker
Cast: Douglas Kennedy (Joey Faust), Marguerite Chapman (Laura Matson),James Griffith (Major Paul Krenner), Ivan Triesault (Dr. Peter Ulof).
BW-58m. Letterboxed.

By Bret Wood

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