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The Strange Woman/Moon Over Harlem (1939)

Cast: Carl Hough, Bud Harris, Sidney Bechet, more...
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
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Studio: All Day Entertainment
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 167 min.
Languages: English
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This title is currently out of print.

German immigrant Edgar G. Ulmer directed this melodrama with an all-black cast (including jazz legend Sidney Bechet), and shot the film in just four days. The story concerns a rich widow seduced by a gangster, and the man's attempts to get her money. ~ John Bush, All Movie Guide

This DVD is currently out of print.

GreenCine Member Reviews

Edgar Ulmer's Midnight Run by mdraine March 2, 2003 - 5:25 PM PST
4 out of 4 members found this review helpful
B-movie auteur Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972) touched on nearly every genre imaginable in his career, from horror (THE BLACK CAT; DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL), women in prison (GIRLS IN CHAINS ), noir (DETOUR), science fiction (BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER), even the nudie ( NAKED VENUS). The first volume in All Day Entertainment's Ulmer DVD series pairs the United Artists "A" feature, THE STRANGE WOMAN with Ulmer's only African American-cast picture, MOON OVER HARLEM (1939).
In THE STRANGE WOMAN, Ulmer laces a routine historical costume drama with a dark, psychological streak. Lamarr plays Jennie Hager, a dispossessed young woman who leaves a wake of murder and suicide in her rise from rags to riches in nineteenth century Maine. Eager for a break from decorative parts, Lamarr obviously relishes the complexity of the title character. Unfortunately, Lamarr isn't equal to the role a guilt-ridden, upwardly mobile seductress. As Lamarr's Austrian accent rings false for a Bangor belle, she's only convincing in scenes with little or no dialogue. In the film's most powerful sequences, Ulmer swathes the actress in darkness, intensifying the expressive qualities of her alabaster features.
The studio hierarchy at United Artists precluded Ulmer's exercising control over production design--the very area in which Ulmer excelled, regardless of budget restrictions. Hence, little room was left for Ulmer's signature visual invention.
Prior to his Forties tenure at PRC, where he made BLUEBEARD (1944), STRANGE ILLUSION (1945), and DETOUR, Edgar Ulmer directed a handful of "ethnic" films in New York, aimed at Yiddish, Hungarian or Ukrainian audiences. During this period, Ulmer directed a 16mm African American-cast melodrama, MOON OVER HARLEM (1939). Segregated theaters in the South and late-night shows (called "midnight runs") in urban areas guaranteed an audience for "race movies."
The plot concerns the trials of Sue (Ozinetta Wilcox), who lives in Harlem with her widowed mother. Trouble begins when Sue's mother, Cora, marries the strutting badass Dollar Bill (Percy "Bud" Harris), an officer of the local protection racket. When Cora catches Dollar Bill making a pass at Sue, she blames her daughter and throws her out. Sue has to quit secretarial school and take up singing in a nightclub. Bad begets worse when Dollar Bill's embezzling brings the wrath of the mob down on the family. Drawing from the humanism of the Yiddish dramatic tradition, Ulmer sympathetically portrays the pain of lives with few options.
THE STRANGE WOMAN and MOON OVER HARLEM both depict disenfranchised individuals making their way in the world on the backs of others, only to be undone by their own immorality. A common Oedipal thread (later developed by Ulmer in STRANGE ILLUSION) can be drawn between Dollar Bill's predatory stance toward Sue, and Jennies seduction of a stepson her own age.
With the exception of Bud Harris as Dollar Bill, the largely nonprofessional cast yields flat, inexpressive readings. Ulmer scholar Bret Wood has attributed MOON OVER HARLEM 's dull staging to Ulmer's lack of commitment to the project; it's equally possible that the four-day shoot and $8,000 budget are to blame for the immobile camera and preponderance of medium shots. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1970, Ulmer described MOON OVER HARLEM as " of the most pitiful things I ever did. It was done on nothing."
Both films are exceedingly rare, and would have continued to languish in obscurity if not for this DVD release. Transferred from a 35mm Cinémathèque Francaise print, THE STRANGE WOMAN is sharp and richly shaded, if weak on black detail. Soundtrack deterioration proves the greatest obstacle to enjoying MOON OVER HARLEM. A high noise level renders the jaunty dialog barely intelligible, making the absence of subtitles a grievous omission.
Lacking the dreamlike narrative, angular set design, and Expressionistic shadowplay that earned Edgar Ulmer cult status, even Ulmer completists will find THE STRANGE WOMAN and MOON OVER HARLEM of little more than historic interest. -- Michael Draine

This title is currently unavailable on disc or is no longer in-print.

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