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Lost Time: Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (1955) by Daniel Witkin

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Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (1955) is a movie where people say what they mean. It offers complexity without subtext—the story takes place more or less exclusively on the surface, through the constantly shifting dynamics between the three characters, a virginal young couple and the bandito who comes in to corrupt the youth, and is also the film’s clear hero. This is all a credit rather than a demerit to writer Julian Zimet’s script: the long monologues in which the characters express themselves directly are very good—certainly better than they have to be—and it is probably because of this unexpected literary element, as well as for the film’s unorthodox but salient moralism, that The Naked Dawn was the movie that gave François Truffaut the initial belief that a favorite novel of his, Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules and Jim (1953), could be made into a strong film. 

The movie opens with a quick shot of a dollhouse miniature of a small western town, an early indication of its distinctly less than epic scope. What follows is the quick, brutish and unglamorous robbery of a stationary train, during which one of the outlaws is mortally wounded. We’re introduced to our protagonist, Santiago (Arthur Kennedy), as he tends to his dying friend in a drawn-out, bucolic death scene tonally not that far off from the beginning of Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), comforting the man with a quasi-soliloquy that also tell us everything we need to know about his biography: betrayed by the revolution and counter-revolution alike, Santiago and his comrade turned to banditry to, “Take a little bit of what they promised us.” Kennedy’s studied machismo does seem to nod towards the mythic side of Pancho Villa, and Santiago generally acts as what historian Eric Hobsbawm characterized as the social bandit, a criminal figure who lives outside the law but enjoys at least tacit support from the people, particularly the peasantry. Generous with his money to the point of carelessness and expressing a readiness to face jail or death rather before joining the ranks of the padrones, Santiago embraces the role rather overtly, as if actively aware of it. While one can readily imagine how the same material might be handled more ambivalently—casting sympathy more evenly between Santiago and Manuel (Eugene Iglesias), the young smallholder whose life he disrupts—Ulmer and Kennedy make the bandit the film’s fairly unambiguous moral center.

Kennedy gives a particularly risky and surprising against-type performance—a rare “Chad” role for an actor usually cast as the beta straight man. It can be uneasy to accept the white Kennedy as a Mexican bandit, a casting that is difficult to justify by contemporary norms, but he delivers a dedicated and thoughtful performance. Perhaps cognizant of his inauthenticity in the role, Kennedy loads Santiago with charisma and especially pathos, declamatory gestures balanced out by intelligently placed grace notes. The performance often recalls that of another method-trained thespian moonlighting as a desperado: Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), though Kennedy ensures that Santiago maintains a certain dignity even in his “ugly” moments.

If the balance of the film is tilted towards Santiago, this is perhaps because Ulmer saw in the ill-starred outlaw something of a kindred spirit, another man steadfastly given to freedom over comfort. After an auspicious early career in Germany and Hollywood that included assisting Murnau on Sunrise (1927) and directing The Black Cat (1934), one of Hollywood’s finer forays into expressionism, Ulmer cuckolded a bigwig at Universal, resulting in both his effective expulsion from the major studios and his long marriage. Afterwards, his would be a wandering and enterprising career—while his oddly poetic noir Detour (1945) is one of the flagship products of what’s known as Poverty Row, he also made everything from erotica and exploitation to niche ethnic pictures, such as Cossacks in Exile (1939), which was filmed around Winnipeg, in Ukrainian.

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Although The Naked Dawn does contain some effective expressionist touches, particularly during a central scene in a garishly colored saloon, it does more to showcase Ulmer’s aptitude as a plein air filmmaker, harkening less to his Murnau apprenticeship than to his ahead-of its-time semi-documentary People on Sunday (1930, co-directed with Robert Siodmak). He makes ample use of hardly disguised day-for-night photography that gives even the nocturnal scenes a decidedly sunny look—who knows what “naked dawn” actually means, but it would probably look like the uncanny bluish light that hangs over the middle third of the film. Ulmer’s framing is driven more by displaying the dynamics between the characters than any sense of pictorialism, though his strong compositional sense remains present throughout. The cutting is more recessive, doing just enough to keep the focus on performance and characterization.

Kennedy’s technical, virtuosic display contrasts strongly with cherubic Eugene Iglesias’ work as Manuel, whose suggestibility spills into a disturbing malleability, veering wildly between moral extremes. If Santiago’s persona is artfully crafted, Manuel feels as-yet unformed and disconcertingly doughy. After tearfully falling apart while accompanying Santiago on a robbery, his subsequent embrace of its material spoils at the gaudy saloon turns slapstick, with the ostensibly meek farmer whooping and throwing himself cartoonishly into a bar brawl. Driven slightly mad over the course of the film by the weight of taking moral responsibility for his actions, Manuel is the neurotic existentialist to Santiago’s resigned fatalist, the former constantly making plans for the future while the latter’s acceptance of his lot places him irretrievably in the moment-to-moment present. 

Their inevitable love triangle is perhaps less interesting than the woman who inspires it. Having played a recessive role in the earlier part of the film, Betta St. John’s Maria comes to instigate the action of the third act. Her arrival as a decisive figure is signaled rather remarkably: as her husband goes off to lay a trap for his rival, Maria makes preparations of her own and steals off for a quick shower. Ulmer shoots this moment with the low-budget veteran’s resourcefulness, fragmenting the process suggestively, and all but limiting our view of Maria herself to evocative images of her clean feet in the mud of her husband’s land. It’s an effective blend of eroticism and characterization, signaling the character’s embrace of agency with her decisive acknowledgement of her own sexuality. Afterwards, she delivers what is probably the strongest of the film’s wordy speeches—notably, it’s her who propositions Santiago as she forcefully decries her domestic captivity (perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that Santiago’s flirty swagger is cover for his underlying, dedicated monadism, which can accommodate male comrades and little else).  

There’s something about filmmaking at its lower budget extremes that emphasizes the element of chance inherent at all levels of cinema. With such meager resources, there’s little but the unpredictable alchemy of the medium to produce something of value, and this often manifests in strange and uncanny ways—the alignment of circumstances that turns these particular limitations into the right ones, or more precisely, the ones that mean something. Shot over the course of ten days, the film makes havoc of any naturalistic sense of chronology. The action takes place over the course of an improbably long night, a considerable part of which seems to be suspended in the moments surrounding sunrise. The human life cycle, too, seems to be a bit out of whack. One of the consequences of the loquaciously direct writing style is that each of the main characters comes off as somewhat adolescent, even (or especially) the world-weary Santiago. If there’s something in the film that’s reminiscent of the work of Truffaut, its most prominent advocate, it probably consists in the characters’ refusal to accept the conditions of the adult world, even at the expense of their own putative maturity. Likewise, the film’s decidedly minor scale, set apart from the best practices of the studios, affords real freedom to major talents like Kennedy and Ulmer. From here, a delicate line can be drawn between the exiled refusenik Ulmer and the new waves to come.

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