Bluebeard (1944) 1:13
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
starring John Carradine, Jean Parker, Ludwig Stossel, Nils Asther, Iris Adrian, Emmett Lynn
I think this is going to be my last Ulmer flick for a while. Since Nov 13, 14 of the last 19 movies I've watched have been Ulmer movies, and I was only motivated to watch this one for completeness' sake. [Though it is good, and remains one of my favorite Ulmers. I was just a little burned out on the guy.]
A puppetmaker (Carradine) falls in love with a girl (Parker) but he turns out to be the famous serial woman strangler of France: Bluebeard. I'm not certain that much else is necessary information... he's a painter, paints the women before he kills them, and sells the works to a greedy art dealer.
I actually tend to think this is one of the better Ulmer pictures. Don't get me wrong, it's got its flaws, no question, but on the whole it's pretty good stuff. It was really atmospheric, perhaps even more so than Club Havana or The Light Ahead, and certainly the most Germanic in its lighting design. Dark and expressionistic and palpably foggy and enshrouded in the exteriors, the movie takes place almost entire in the nighttime, with tall and lanky Carradine looming up out of the murky background to greet Parisian ladies walking home in groups to protect themselves from Bluebeard. Although it's completely unexplained why Carradine, clean shaven, should have come by the nickname 'Bluebeard' at all. Or why Bluebeard has been trasferred from a bigamist and wife-murderer into a street-stalking Jack-the-Ripper type.
Carradine is the only character you actually get to feel for (with the possible exception of Jean Parker), he's genial and really very charming in the role. I found myself siding more with him than with the people he garrotes; especially with the low, coarse woman he'd taken care of, who, in her unconscious/comatose state, was the inspiration for his greatest painting, chosen by the Academie des Beaux Arts to hang in the Louvre, who, in a vertiginously tilted-frame flashback, laughs at him brutishly and throws money at him for having taken care of her. Undoubtedly, that is a flashback of the perceptions of Carradine, and not representative of an objective reality. Sure he's a murderer but what a pleasant, courteous man he seems to be! I can't help it, I like John Carradine, and I really find him likeable in this. He's not evil. Not really. He wants to be nice so badly, but after he paints them, all these women metamorphose into Jeannette (that was the low, coarse broad's name) and he's got to do it again, kill them. It's not really broadcasted well, this pathetic helplessness before one's more demonic urges.
One of Bluebeard's larger flaws: overkill in the use of CUs. When the shots are wide, Carradine plays it polite, very polite, and charming; but also very cold, and I find that believable, but then when it cuts to a CU, he looks positively demented, like a slavering psychotic, and it's pretty jarring when it comes right after a shot where, in MS, his menace is kept much more distant and chilling.
The transitions between scenes are a bit muddy too. Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether or not you're still in the same scene. Is it still NOW now? Or is it LATER now? I guess that's because it sometimes doesn't feel like a scene has properly ended, or ended at all, before another one has begun. I think that might possibly be due to the print I was watching where once or twice it seemed as if there was footage missing.
And Emmett Lynn is in it too! E.L., the actor providing the only shining moments in Girls in Chains, makes a small appearance here, a year later, as Carradine's puppeteering assistant, mouthing the words of Carradine's puppet opera (we're supposed to believe he's actually singing) hilariously out of sync. Not that that matters much, because the singing voice, full, operatic, so obviously could never come out of little old bumbling Emmett Lynn. It's good for kicks, though. Too bad he only has a very small by bewildering part. IT's hard to tell if he knows Carradine is Bluebeard or not. He seems like he may; but I can't tell. It seems as if, like the female puppeteer's assistant who voices her suspicions and gets to take a face-down float in the Seine, Emmett knows something (when Carradine mentions painting a girl's portrait, Lynn says, 'Another one?' with a kind of knowing smirk... maybe he just thinks Carradine is balling all these Parisian artists' models?) but we never find out for sure because he promptly vanishes from the movie, taking all the comic relief with him. Which is okay I guess. It doesn't really need it.
It sure is pretty to look at though. I would say that this movie actually shows off Ulmer's Murnau pedigree more than most of his others.
There are some wonderful pieces. In the beginning, French soldiers in a dinghy are shown pulling a dead girl from the black Seine, a shot which is echoed not long afterwards, after Carradine strangles his assistant. There's a part, in Carradine's studio while he's explaining to Jean Parker the hows and whys of him becoming Bluebeard, when the shadows of all of his puppets dangling in the window falls across him and onto the wall behind, looking like the shadows of dozens of hanged men. And it's a great bit of expressionism that works well with the story but isn't contrived or strained.
And the other visually striking sequence is the one where he has, for one last time, consented to paint a woman's portrait (he of course strangles her, albeit without completing the painting) and to conceal his identity from his subject, he's set up an elaborate set of curtains and mirrors... although, technically, in real life it wouldn't work...if you can see someone's face in a mirror, they can see yours... and the fram is composed of: long, tall Carradine; long, oval mirror with a reflection of the girl sitting; and the square canvas next to that. It's funny when Ulmer's natural feel for composition comes to the fore...because so often in some of his other cheapo productions I guess he didn't have the time or leisure or budget to always set up his shots the way he wanted to. But when he does...wow.