DVD Review of Bluebeard
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/10/10
Film director Edgar Ulmer was, in some ways, a pre-Sam Fuller Sam Fuller. Most of his career was spent toiling for B film production companies and producers. Yet, he has a reputation, like Fuller, of producing, if not great films, films that are certainly better than they should be, given the little money spent on them. Case in point is 1944’s Bluebeard (a film whose producer Leon Fromkess would later work with Fuller), made by PRC, a ‘poverty row’ studio. As evidence, watch the really well wrought puppet show scene, wherein an engaging opera scene is shown. This 72 minute, black and white film is filled with such moments, including a very good performance by John Carradine, an actor second to only the great Vincent Price in B film excellence in his art form.
Unfortunately, the film also has many moments that truly define it as a B film, in the sense that it is a second rate film- this includes some poor acting from many of the female characters that end up being murdered by Carradine’s character. There are also the sort of nonsensical things that make up films not so well thought out. Given that Bluebeard was a character from a classic 17th Century French short story about a wife killer, it makes little sense that the residents of Paris, France (where the film was set) would so self-consciously refer to the killer by that term, since his crimes connect more closely to those of Jack The Ripper (the film is set during the Victorian Era). Also, while the film is ostensibly set in Paris, a poster is put up about town that is written in English, not French.
The tale, itself, is rather direct: Gaston Morrell (Carradine) is a painter-cum-puppeteer with a bloodlust, due to his getting spurned by a woman he once painted. He murders her via strangulation, and begins a rampage. His art dealer, Jean Lamarte (Ludwig Stössel), knows of Morrell’s crimes, but blackmails him to paint a final portrait for a huge commission. Problem is, it’s a police sting. The girl, Francine (Teala Loring), working with the police in the sting is the sister of the woman, Lucille (Jean Parker), Morell has fallen in love with, thus refuses to paint. The cops found out of the killer’s being a painter due to a portrait of one of the dead girls being sold to a Duke who exhibits it. Lamarte ends up dead when he tries double-crossing Morrell. After Morell confesses all to Lucille, when she recognizes the cravat of Morell’s she fixed as the murder weapon, after he hired her to costume a puppet of his, the cops bust in, Morrell flees, but ends up falling to his death in the Seine, where he had dumped his victims.
Ok, so the motivation is cookie-cutter, and the scoring (aside from the puppet opera scene), by Leo Erdody, is not good (too often telegraphing what it intends to do, and going on far too long- like a bad silent film organist’s score), but, since this is a B film, it’s the good things that stand out. There is, as example, an excellent performance by Nils Asther, as Inspector Lefevre, best seen in the courtroom scene where models and prostitutes are brought in to see if they recognize the painting style of the Duke’s painting. None do, but Asther’s suavity and wit make the scene work. Also, despite being filmed entirely on sets that do not resemble Paris, and having mostly mediocre actors, Ulmer does a very good job of creating an effective German Expressionistic type mood, resembling mostly The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. Credit can go to unbilled cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan.
The film is part of a 5 film DVD package from Image Entertainment, called Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive. The film, which is in public domain, has not been culled from the best of prints. The image is muddied, in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and the sound often distorted. Other films in the package include The Strange Woman- a Hedy Lamarr vehicle, Strange Illusion, Daughter Of Dr. Jeckyll, and Moon Over Harlem. Features in the set include a 1958 color television pilot on the Swiss Family Robinson, an educational short, trailers, interviews with Ulmer’s wife and daughter, as well as co-workers. On the Bluebeard disk is a 12-minute featurette called Bluebeard Revealed!, with interviews with Ulmer’s widow and puppeteer for the film.
But, three things, especially, set this film apart from most B films of its day (excepting the terrific Val Lewton produced films of the 1940s). The first is the puppet opera. One has to go almost a quarter century, to Ingmar Bergman’s Hour Of The Wolf for a scene of similar power that features puppets. Another, as stated, is Carradine. In a sense, like Vincent Price, he is, at first blush, not an actor of seeming De Niro-like chameleon abilities. But, like Price, his eyes tell all. In a moment, he can veer from contained rage to pathos to humor, than back to a slightly less contained rage. He has a similar angularity that also makes his body seem puppet-like, which makes the depth of his face all the more effective, as it often stands in counterpoint to his body’s stiffness. The third excellent element, also mentioned, is Nils Asther as Inspector Lefevre. Aside from his court scene, there is a scene where he is bantering with the two sisters tied to Morell. Asther really walks the line between improper lusting and clever roué wit. In another scene, with Lamarte, he plays his art interest even with his detective skills, and shows multiple levels in his character. In looking up the actor, it seems he had a brief career. Too bad, because he has a quality, at least in this role, that few actors exhibit: the ability to both inhabit and transcend a character.
For these three reasons, Bluebeard is a film that, while not great, and, really, not even a classic B film in the sense that schlock like Robot Monster is, is still a film that cineastes should watch, and Edgar Ulmer is a film director whose canon I will definitely be exploring in the future. Join me.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]
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