Moon Over Harlem (Edgar G. Ulmer / U.S., 1939):

"Black Manhattan," its rackets and hopes. It tilts down from the luminous orb of the title to a flickering neon galaxy, the Apollo and the Savoy are glimpsed in the introductory montage before the true theater is revealed at the spirited heart of a wedding party. (The evening's entertainment includes none other than Sidney Bechet and His Clarinet, the celebratory cake nearly gets a switchblade.) The underworld dandy (Buddy Harris) snares the well-off widow (Cora Green), her daughter (Izinetta Wilcox) is dating the hoodlum's opposite number in the earnest reformist (Earl Gough), and there's the dramatic quadrangle. "So if there's anyone afraid of realism, now is the time to back out." Long before The Man with the Golden Arm, a Viennese camera on urban America for Edgar G. Ulmer. Gangland shakedowns are the ongoing concern (the back of a burly white neck summarizes their insidious source), citizens debate while huddled around a burning trash can and suddenly the granular lighting evinces a flash of Welles. The wake sequence times its movements and cuts to the gospel moans filling the room, a Hallelujah effect, Christopher Columbus and his Swing Crew orchestrate the yearning hymn at the Plantation Nightclub. A distinct parallelism with Oscar Micheaux, not to mention with Ulmer's own Yiddish studies, a ragged wonder—four days to shoot using 16mm scraps, supposedly. (Resourcefulness in the face of scarcity is even saluted by a sawed-off goon: "Well, height ain't nothin' to do with lovin'.") William H. Johnson's painting of the same name a few years later is a prime companion piece. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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