Just as the budgets of B movies covered a wide spectrum, the look and feel of the Bs ran the gamut from the sophisticated to the incompetent. Programmers, and even some Bs made by the majors, could come close to the quality of A films, the only obvious difference being shorter running times. But a B running time could affect the final product. For instance, in Warner Bros.'s Smart Blonde , noted above, the studio attempted to fit a complex mystery into a fifty-nine-minute slot. Wise-cracking reporter Torchy Blane and her police detective boyfriend Steve McBride attempt to solve the murder of the man set to buy the holdings of nightclub owner Fitz Mularkay. A dizzying array of characters with barely sketched motivations are tossed into the trim film, producing so much confusion that in the final scene Torchy and Steve must give an accounting of the characters, their relationships and motives, and the reasoning they used to solve the case. Even with the elaborate explanation, the plot remains maddeningly obscure. With smaller company
Few names are as closely associated with the B movie as Edgar G. Ulmer. After studying architecture and working in the theater and cinema in Europe (notably for F. W. Murnau), Ulmer settled in the United States. He directed films in a variety of low-budget forms, including exploitation movies ( Damaged Lives , 1933), Yiddish films ( Green Fields , 1933), and dozens of Bs.
One of Ulmer's earliest efforts, The Black Cat (1934), is considered one of his best. Although the movie boasted Universal's first teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, it was made quickly, on a B budget. Ulmer gave the bizarre tale of vengeance and necrophilia a sleek modern look that suggested spiritual corruption. He pulled a sympathetic performance from Lugosi and made Karloff, as a devil-worshipping architect, a genuinely malevolent figure. The Black Cat still ranks as an early horror classic.
In 1942 Ulmer began a four-year association with PRC, where he directed Girls in Chains (1942), one of the first women-in-prison films, and Strange Illusion (1945), a low-budget take on Hamlet . Bluebeard (1944) starred John Carradine as a puppeteer and painter in mid-nineteenth century Paris who is driven to strangle women who remind him of the model who helped him achieve his artistic breakthrough. An elaborate costume production, especially by PRC standards, the film featured one of Carradine's most subtle performances and Ulmer's typically baroque visual touches. Detour (1945) is doubtless Ulmer's most enduring production. The fatalistic story of a hapless hitchhiker (Tom Neal) mixed up with murder and a femme fatale (Ann Savage), it ranks as the darkest noir film of the 1940s. Savage's Vera is one of the nastiest creatures ever captured on film, and the whiney Neal seems to wear the weight of the world on his shoulders. His confessional voice-over is filled with metaphysical emptiness. Ulmer excels in capturing the lonely world of roadside diners, cheap motels, and dark streets, which often verge on abstraction. Similar qualities are at work in his 1954 western, The Naked Dawn .
While at PRC, Ulmer also made gangster films ( Tomorrow We Live , 1942), musicals ( Jive Junction , 1943), and costume films ( The Wife of Monte Cristo , 1946). Later Bs for other companies include Ruthless (1948), often referred to as a poor man's Citizen Kane , and The Man from Planet X (1951), both of which were invested with a fine sense of atmosphere.
Ulmer finally achieved some critical attention from auteurist critics during the 1960s and 1970s. Although some individuals made better Bs or more of them, Ulmer is still remembered as one who was able to occasionally rise above the time and budget restrictions of the form to make stylish and thematically compelling films.
The Black Cat (1934), Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusion (1945), Detour (1945), Ruthless (1948), The Man from Planet X (1951), The Naked Dawn (1955)
Belton, John. The Hollywood Professionals, Volume 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G. Ulmer . New York: A. S. Barnes, 1974.
Bogdanovich, Peter. "Edgar G. Ulmer." In Kings of the Bs: Working within the Hollywood System , edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, 377–409. New York: Dutton, 1975.
Bs and Poverty Row quickies, the impact of a low budget and a fast shooting schedule was much more obvious.
Lower budgets meant that exposition tended to be handled in a more overt, at times ham-fisted, manner than in A films, in which it could be delivered more subtly over a longer running time through character behavior. Dialogue was the most expedient way to transmit crucial plot information. In PRC's The Devil Bat (1941), the vengeful mad scientist Bela Lugosi greets the jumbo creation of the title by telling it, "Ahhh, my friend, our teeory ov glandular stimooolation through electrical impulses vas correct! A few days ago you were as small as your companion. And now, look at you!" He reveals his plan to murder the employers who have cheated him by having them wear a bat-baiting shaving lotion he has concocted. He tells the bat, "You hate diss strange oriental fragrance even vile you sleep, just as you did before I made you big and strong. Now if you detect de fragrance in de night when you're fully avake, you vill strike! Yes, you vill strike and kill!" The overwrought dialogue is not, of course, meant for the bat but for the audience, as the film awkwardly establishes its story line. Exposition could also be transmitted overtly in the form of swirling newspaper headlines, radio news broadcasts, and character voice-over. All three techniques are utilized in The Devil Bat , which plays out as a series of repetitive attacks, interspersed with investigation scenes with a big-city newspaper reporter and his photographer, who provides comic relief.
The plots of B movies were generally as thin as the film on which they were shot. As a result, many films required padding of various kinds to bulk them up to feature length. For instance, Arizona Badman , a 1935 B western, clocks in at just under an hour. It uses a song sung at a campfire and footage of cattle meandering over the hills to pad its running time, and more than a third of the film's first sixteen minutes are devoted to interminable scenes of townsfolk hoofing at a square dance. Other cost-saving measures were employed in B movie production to save both time and money, most of which are evident on the screen: day-for-night shooting (day-light shooting employing filters and/or underexposing the film to simulate nighttime), liberal doses of stock shots and repeated shots (e.g., the Devil Bat flying out of its lair to attack), and the use of rear-screen projection in place of location work. Shooting techniques always attempted to maximize efficiency. For example, rather than shooting dialogue as a series of complex shot/reverse shot combinations (shooting over the shoulder of one actor, then the other), which requires multiple set-ups, relighting, and time in the editing room to assemble the footage, B directors would cut corners. Dialogue scenes were often filmed by framing all of the actors together facing each other, but turned slightly toward the camera. The conversation unfolds in a single, extended shot—effectively eliminating the time necessary for additional set-ups and the editing needed to achieve shot/reverse shot combinations. Moving camera shots were usually kept to a minimum because of the expense and time needed to mount them. As a result of these factors, the majority of B movies have a relatively static quality.
That static quality carried over to acting. Because of the brief shooting schedules and desire to avoid retakes, performances in B movies often appear hesitant and wooden when compared to the smoother, more naturalistic performances in A films. Fight scenes in Bs were often poorly choreographed, with pulled punches obvious and falls leaden. While Bs occasionally employed imaginative camerawork and staging (e.g., the opening dream sequence in Fear in the Night , 1947), B movies can best be described as displaying classical Hollywood style in its most stripped-down, unembellished form.