BOILING SAND participates in the FOR THE LOVE OF FILM (NOIR) film preservation blogathon this week with its post on Edgar G. Ulmer’s CLUB HAVANA. You can DONATE here to the Film Noir Foundation to contribute for the restoration of Cy Endfield’s 1950 sleeper THE SOUND OF FURY, and have your name put in a drawing for several Noir-related raffle prizes. For full blogathon listings and up-to-date news, see Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren.
Edgar G. Ulmer’s most important movie was DETOUR: a defeatist classic wedded to a meditation on Sartre’s idea that “Hell Is Other People.”
But then there’s CLUB HAVANA.
Peter Bogdanovich wrote that Ulmer “had a humor and passion and a kind of demonic charm” — qualities hard to find in works such as THE NAKED VENUS, ISLE OF FORGOTTEN SINS and THE MAN FROM PLANET X.
But then again, there’s CLUB HAVANA.
On November 23, 1945, sixteen days after DETOUR opened, Ulmer’s multi-character, multi-storied, micro-budget masterpiece CLUB HAVANA was released with the tagline:
RHUMBAS! ROMANCE! RACKETS!
A PRC Mystery With Music.
“I adored making CLUB HAVANA — I loved it!” Ulmer told Bogdanovich. And despite a reputation for broad, unsubstantiated claims about his films and career (more about that later), Ulmer’s rhapsodic affection toward its creation quite possibly was the truth, since this film glowed with a shrewd, masterful passion.
CLUB HAVANA‘s 63 minutes of running time, filmed in six days, took its audience through a single evening of risk and personal uncertainty, where a composite of individuals absorbed betrayals, gambled their futures and questioned established alliances. Ulmer explored the emotional nudity of these moments as his always-moving and always-reframing camera passed through cramped, minimal sets substituting for various corners of an exclusive Miami night spot, from its parking lot to the ladies’ room. It was Ulmer’s GRAND HOTEL, with a candy box of movie characters and situations which allowed other facets of Ulmer’s personality (the charm and humor Bogdanovich wrote about) to emerge.
CLUB HAVANA was not the usual voyage to Ulmer-Land: there’s no defeatism, no bitterness nor jaundiced view of life. That signature worldview worked well in movies like DETOUR with its unblinkingly vision of life as a game of chance rigged against its players. These attitudes of Ulmer didn’t work so well in many of his films, played out through leaden dialog situated in overwrought locales (such as a South Seas whorehouse during a typhoon, or a pit of mutants in a science-fiction future). An unusual collaborator was probably a key to the non-traditional tones and variations injected into the scenes of this Ulmer movie.
Raymond L. Schrock (scriptwriter of a rather huggable Depression Era indie musical about the film industry, SITTING ON THE MOON, and a charming, nil-budgeted black comedy THE MISSING CORPSE) got screenplay credit for CLUB HAVANA. As a film hewn with multiple plot lines (both humorous and dramatic), staged with continuous entrances and exits of characters, this movie’s dynamics were far less of a philosophical monograph than the typical Ulmer fare. Instead, the movie’s script jailbroke the director’s usual parameters, capturing and embracing an expansive, humanistic view. Decades later Ulmer claimed he “did a Rossellini” on this film, meaning the film was totally improvised with no written dialog, working as Roberto Rossellini did in his early neo-realist films like OPEN CITY and PAISAN. However, when listening to Linda Christian, as Club Havana’s cigarette girl, complain to a co-worker that “Every time one of these guys gives me a quarter tip, he thinks it makes him a licensed chiropractor,” or when archetypal underworld tough guy Marc Lawrence spews out classic gangster-speak like “He put the finger on me over the phone — said he wouldn’t sing until they pinched me,” the actors’ lines instead reek of typewriter ribbon, carbon paper and paychecks.
CLUB HAVANA has several musical numbers (one character is a singer, another the pianist) yet the cinema experience it dishes out is totally Noir, lensing a world populated with cold-blooded hoods, betrayed women and desperate characters trapped in tough situations. Cast with a roster of seasoned, at-liberty actors (differentiating it from the painfullly rookie players in many Poverty Row productions), Ulmer coached the actors to deliver finely-tuned levels of rhythm and mood that mated archly with the camera moves, merging so well that sometimes the director’s hand seemed to disappear. Of course, it never disappeared; it prowled. Ulmer always got mileage out of a moving camera, but in a multiple-character setup such as this, the camera rhythms scanned like poetry, uniting disparate plot lines by snaking and shifting through its claustrophobic locale. Allowed enough filmstock for only two takes per shot, he took tremendous risks with complicated setups of camera moves and actor blocking that could have taken other directors dozens of attempts to achieve.
As with all of Ulmer’s six-day quickies in the 1940s, the film was produced and released by PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), a studio whose product was so consistently bad theater owners joked that PRC stood for “Pretty Rotten Crap.” Yet the studio’s musicals seemed to have more money thrown their way. (It was a familiar, unexplainable phenomenon in studio-era Hollywood: musicals loosened the purse strings of producers, while horror movies seemed to bring out the skinflint.) CLUB HAVANA had a healthy shot count, and the usual Ulmer shortcuts were nowhere in sight.
In his PRC films, the visual richness on the screen were due to the (uncredited) lighting by Ulmer’s friend and fellow career-stalled artist Eugen Shuftan. Using shadows to mask the paucity of set decor, Shuftan gave PRC’s cramped soundstage the look of a deep, seductive cavern in the nightclub shots while evoking an Edward Hopper anomie of blackness in the club’s parking lot. (See top photo.)
Due to its budget no original music was penned for the floor show numbers; instead popular Latin-rhythm hits of the day (Besame Mucho, Tico Tico, etc.) were staged. [Another evidence of Ulmer's reputation for unsubstantiated claims: in interviews with Peter Bogdanovich Ulmer described CLUB HAVANA as a "musical success" because the popular song Tico Tico "was used for the first time." Actually this 1917 Brazilian tune had been previously incorporated in two M-G-M musicals (THOUSANDS CHEER and Esther Williams' BATHING BEAUTY), Disney's animated feature SALUDOS AMIGOS and several musical shorts, both for independent producers and major studios.]
Some are worshipfully mystified by the fact that Ulmer created interesting films on miniscule budgets and short production schedules. I’m mystified by their mystification: just ask any film school student what it’s like working under those conditions. Another maverick director, Roger Corman, worked within almost identical time-and-money constraints and made as good (or sometimes better) works, such as A BUCKET OF BLOOD. Yet Corman was more of a hustling, satyric trickster in his method of making a film in a week, while Ulmer seemed to play the unsung genius as martyr. (Corman made cheap films as a means to establish himself and make lots of money while Ulmer surrendered to a near-poverty existence because of studio blacklisting, having seduced the wife of a well-connected exec at Universal in the 1930s.)
Yet Ulmer had unique talent and vision which CLUB HAVANA amply displayed: the resigned insight of the weary traveler’s wisdom with the detailed observation of a cinematic Ishmael. Ulmer told Bogdanovich that Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene (who scored a major hit much later with the Doris Day / Rock Hudson sex comedy, PILLOW TALK) were originally slated to make it, which may explain its shift from Ulmer’s usual concerns, while retaining a pageant of existential archetypes that populated the usual Ulmer universe. While DETOUR worked because of its simplicity, CLUB HAVANA worked because Ulmer focused on what he did best (perhaps because of a developed script and pre-staged musical numbers): bringing out hypnotic performances from actors that annihilated the tawdry surroundings, while devising lengthy, gestural camera movements that absorbed the viewer into the shot.
As Noir tended be most articulate in its commentary on Post-War America, the lives of CLUB HAVANA‘s actresses after this film spoke volumes on the social change and adjustment of the U.S. after the war. For three key actresses, careers took a backseat to marriage. Dorothy Morris, who played Tom Neal’s date, after half a decade as an M-G-M starlet and B-Movie actress, married a math teacher and left the screen. Linda Christian, the unbilled cigarette girl, married Tyrone Power and sporadically acted during the rest of their marriage. Sonia Sorel, who played the switchboard operator, worked earlier with Ulmer on BLUEBEARD opposite John Carradine. Soon after CLUB HAVANA she left film work to marry Carradine, becoming the mother of Keith Carradine and grandmother of Martha Plimpton. In tempo with the times, by the 1960s, all three actresses had divorced and resumed their careers. (The top-billed female lead, Margaret Lindsay, never married and is now surmised to have been a member of Hollywood’s Sewing Circle.)
As I wrote earlier, CLUB HAVANA is a masterpiece, in that it is one of the most intensely gratifying low budget features of all time. Most Poverty Row fare leaves you wishing for more: better visuals, smoother performances, etc. CLUB HAVANA leaves you with a sense of abundance. It’s a sixty-three minute mashup of half a dozen plot lines with pauses for Latin music performed by a big band and a hip-swaying singer.
But within this near-chaos, like all good film work, the movie sustains and completes itself inside the universe it manufactured: rhumbas, rackets and all.