Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bluebeard (PRC, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I managed to squeeze in the movie I wanted to watch: Bluebeard, the 1944 PRC film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer from a script by Pierre Gendron (based on an “original story” by Arnold Phillips and Werner H. Furst — though given that Ulmer had wanted to make a Bluebeard film since 1934, when he planned one with Boris Karloff as his follow-up to The Black Cat at Universal before Universal fired him, I suspect “Furst” is a pseudonym for Ulmer himself). It’s not based on the story of Landru, the bigamist and multiple murderer on whom Chaplin based Monsieur Verdoux, but rather is about an artist and puppeteer, Gaston Morel[1] (John Carradine), who under a kindly, gentle, almost courtly exterior is really a serial killer of women. I’ve read critical reaction on this film as varied as it ever gets, from Don Miller’s ardent praise in his 1970’s book “B” Movies to Tom Weaver’s airy dismissal (“it’s one of those alienating films which seems to have been made for the critics instead of the fans”) in his book Poverty Row Horrors! Weaver seems to think it’s a film you’re only going to like if some authoritative writer you’ve read before you see it tells you to — yet the first time I ever saw it, in the early 1970’s, I’d never read a word about it and I thought it was a masterpiece. I’ll grant Weaver one major point: the film as it stands suffers from a flaw that significantly weakens it — a virtually endless, wall-to-wall underscoring by PRC music director Leo Erdody (who seemed to think he’d project a classier image if he dropped his first name and billed himself merely as “Erdody”!), based mostly on classical sources (notably Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” — apparently ex-Leo Erdody thought that was appropriate for a film whose protagonist was an artist — and Gounod’s Faust, parts of which are performed by an off-camera cast of singers in the central character’s puppet show), which at times gets so loud that key lines of dialogue are either hard or impossible to hear over it. (If Ulmer made the decision to have the music this loud and this overbearing— which I rather doubt — that marks him as a progenitor of Michael Cimino’s bizarre audio aesthetic in Heaven’s Gate.)

Aside from that major flaw, though, Bluebeard is a superb film, one of those rare “B” movies (like Ulmer’s Strange Illusion and Detour) that makes a virtue of its ultra-low budget. The visual look of the film is outstanding (even though the extant prints — this version, recently shown on TCM, had a National Film Museum restoration credit at the beginning but still suffered from many washed-out scenes — don’t do justice to it), thanks to Eugen Schuftan, the marvelous German cameraman and special-effects wizard (he invented the process screen for Lang’s Nibelungen and Metropolis) who creates a properly dark, sinister atmosphere throughout the film. (The cinematography credit goes to Jockey A. Feindel, who was usually a camera operator rather than a cinematographer, but the notion often propounded in film histories that the failure of the American Society of Cinematographers to admit Schuftan as a member meant his contributions to key films were uncredited is simply not true; Feindel’s credit is stuck in the middle of a miscellaneous list while Schuftan, though billed as “production designer,” gets a whole card to himself, as he deserved.) Though Bluebeard was shot on a six-day production schedule it is quite creatively directed, full of Caligari-esque distorted sets and camera angles and quite a lot of elaborate editing for a low-budget film; even Weaver, as anxious as he is to debunk the legend behind this film, admits, “For a Poverty Row quickie, the sheer number of camera set-ups is staggering, and one can only marvel at the grueling, breakneck pace which the director must have maintained throughout the shooting.” And the film isn’t just a lot of exciting visual atmospherics slapped onto a silly script, either; Gendron’s script is quite subtle, with finely honed ironies, from the line heroine Lucille (Jean Parker) speaks to Morel after she’s mended his scarf (his murder weapon) — “There we are — all fixed. Now you can use it again!” (the sort of high irony and dark humor Alfred Hitchcock loved to evoke from his writers) to the overall conception of the film’s sense of guilt.

In the plot, Morel once rescued a girl he found at night, collapsed, seriously ill; he took her in, fell in love with her, and used her as the model for a painting of Joan of Arc — only when she recovered she left him and, after the painting was accepted for exhibit by the Louvre, he tracked her down to give her the good news and found she was a low-class prostitute. This gave him the compulsion to kill any subsequent woman he attempted to paint — only the real villain of the piece is not Morel but his business manager and dealer, Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel), who keeps commissioning women’s portraits from Morel and keeps selling them (and pocketing most of the money) even though he knows that each portrait will result in the death of its model. (Morel kills out of psychological compulsion; Lamarte suborns the murders out of sheer greed.) Bluebeard is also noteworthy for the contrast between Morel’s ordinarily kindly, gentle disposition and the mental illness that drives him to murder; it’s true this is hardly a fresh dramatic device (can you say Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?), but Ulmer and Gendron push it farther than just about anyone ever has — and they have the actor to do it. It’s Carradine’s finest leading role in a film (perhaps his finest role ever), possibly because it enabled him to portray gentility and sweetness, showing off his range as an actor even while giving his fans what they wanted when the mask comes off and the “real” nature of the character is revealed — or is it the real nature? Morel is depicted here not as a savage killer (not even as an aristocratic savage killer in the Hannibal Lecter mold) but rather as a fundamentally good individual whose nature was sadly and irrevocably twisted by one traumatic incident — in that respect he’s closer to the wolf-man character than to a standard-issue movie psychopathic killer, though since the explanation for Morel’s homicidal madness is pathological rather than supernatural and the situations are handled far more subtly by both director and star than they were in the Universal Wolf-Man films, this movie ends up much more emotionally insightful and moving. It’s this aspect that led Ulmer himself, years later, to call Bluebeard “a very lovely picture” — which Weaver dismisses as “a strange adjective to use to describe a movie about a serial killer.”

Weaver also trots out a comparison to The Lodger — the 1944 20th Century-Fox version, which shared with Bluebeard a serial killer, a woman strangely drawn to him, a German expatriate director (The Lodger was helmed by John Brahm, whose style was essentially Fritz Lang lite — he even did a virtual remake of Lang’s You Only Live Once in 1939, two years after the Lang film, with a similar title — Let Us Live — and the same male star, Henry Fonda; only Brahm’s ended happily, with the character alive, well and fully pardoned in this life rather than dying and then being pardoned in the next as happened in Lang’s film) and an overall mood of gloom and doom. Certainly there are parallels here not only to Brahm’s Lodger but Hitchcock’s as well (notably a very similar early scene in which a group of young women, forced to go home at night because of their work schedules, debate how they can avoid getting killed by the mysterious murderer who’s terrorizing their city) — and certainly Brahm’s Lodger has the advantages of full-fledged major-studio production values and a superior supporting cast (Merle Oberon and George Sanders — in a rare hero’s role — versus Jean Parker and Nils Asther as the damsel in distress and the sympathetic cop who cracks the case), but as finely acted and staged as it is The Lodger simply doesn’t have quite the hallucinatory power that Bluebeard does. Now, if only Edgar G. Ulmer had been able to cut down Erdody’s score and deploy it only when it would actually have helped the mood of his film, Bluebeard might have ended up the masterpiece I thought it was when I first saw it. — 5/17/04


After The Two Mrs. Carrolls I downloaded the 1944 film Bluebeard, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer from a script by Pierre Gendron and made at the ultra-cheap PRC studio — and one of the five best films PRC ever made. (The others are two more Ulmer movies, Strange Illusion and Detour, along with Steve Sekely’s Lady in the Death House and Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp — all by non-American directors.) I wanted to remind myself that a year before Warner Bros. so screwed up a premise of promise — a psycho painter compelled to murder his models — PRC had triumphed with it. Bluebeard is an extraordinary movie, vividly directed and photographed (the noir atmospherics of Ulmer, production designer Eugen Schufftan — who, like Ulmer, had come through the ranks at Ufa Studios in Germany before fleeing when the Nazis took over[2], and had done the still-spectacular effects work on Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis), beautifully written and with an excellent actor in the lead, John Carradine. One reviewer, referencing the entire Carradine acting family, wrote, “The boys were okay, but dad was great!” Incidentally, Carradine’s then-wife, Sonia Sorel (Keith Carradine’s mother — David Carradine’s mom was John Carradine’s previous wife, Ardanelle McCool), is in Bluebeard in a bit part, and though this was her first film she made others, many with Ulmer as director.

Ulmer was known as a production designer who rose to become a director at Ufa, and in 1934 he got a contract with Universal and drew what would have seemed like a dream assignment — to direct Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their first film together, The Black Cat — but Ulmer blew it by falling in love with his continuity person, Shirley Castle (whom he married and stayed with until his death in 1972), who had also attracted the attentions of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. He got fired from Universal (doubtless the envelope-pushing nature of The Black Cat didn’t help — it got butchered by U.S. censors and even further butchered by British censors until it made virtually no sense — it’s possible Ulmer could have survived Laemmle’s jealousy if he’d made a blockbuster hit instead of a cult film) and for virtually the rest of his career had to work for “B” outfits like PRC. Many of his assignments there were nothing movies like Girls in Chains and Jive Junction, but in the mid-1940’s he got to make three great films for the Little Studio That Could: Bluebeard, Strange Illusion (also called Out of the Night and a quirky modern-dress rewrite of Hamlet in which a young man, played by James Lydon, discovers through receiving a delayed letter from his deceased father than the man who killed his dad is now romancing and about to marry his mom), and Detour. I first saw Bluebeard in the early 1970’s on TV Channel 36 from San José, which by a quirk of UHF signals came through strongly to our home in Marin County even though stations located closer to us came in only with a huge background of snow, and never having heard of it before I thought it was a masterpiece. It still holds up beautifully, despite a somewhat oppressive musical score by someone credited simply as “Erdody” (his name was Leo Erdody but for his more prestigious — at least by PRC standards — assignments he dropped his first name) drawing heavily on Gounod’s Faust (the opera puppeteer Gaston Morel is putting on in an early scene) and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (obviously Erdody considered that appropriate for a film whose central character was an artist); for Erdody to claim credit for an “original” score was really pushing it!

Bluebeard features John Carradine as Gaston Morel (some sources spell the last name as “Morell” but the version with just one “l” is more convincingly French), a Parisian puppeteer in the late 19th century who puts on street shows with his puppets (in the Faust opera he sings the male parts and a woman assistant does Marguerite). He was formerly a painter but pulled back from that career for reasons that don’t get explained until the end of the film. While all this is going on, Paris is being terrorized by a serial killer who corners young women and strangles them, and whom the newspapers call “Bluebeard.” There’s a curious scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger 18 years earlier in which three women forced to work late at a fashion shop debate how they can avoid becoming Bluebeard’s latest victims. Among them are Lucille Lutien (Jean Parker) and her sister Francine (Teala Loring). Lucille has met Gaston Morel on the street and asks him to put on his puppet show for her — she’s obviously taken an interest in him and Carradine gets to play a romantic lover, a rare opportunity for him. He explains that attendance at all outdoor events has fallen off since the Bluebeard scare, but for her he will put on a show — and it takes place before an ample audience and is quite convincingly done (the film credits “Barlow & Baker” with supplying the puppets), but afterwards Morel murders the annoyingly amorous soprano who supplied Marguerite’s voice and dumps her body in the Seine, thereby letting us know he is Bluebeard. Much of the rest of the movie deals with Lucille’s increasing attraction to Morel — in one marvelous scene she mends a cravat he’s supposedly been using to strangle his victims (though the two times we actually see him strangle anybody he does so with gloved hands) and presents it to him with the line, “There — now you can use it again” (the sort of irony Hitchcock liked to get from his writers) — as well as the real villain of the piece, corrupt art dealer Jean Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel), who continues to commission portraits from Morel (who’s forced to paint them because Lamarte is also his landlord and he owes the dealer a great deal of money) even though he knows that whenever Morel paints a woman’s picture he is then psychologically compelled to murder her. Morel has insisted that Lamarte sell these portraits only outside France so no one will recognize the victims, but Lamarte breaks the rule and sells one to the Duke of Carineaux (George Irving), who publicly exhibits it with the rest of his collection. Surété inspectors Jacques Lefevre (Nils Asther) and Renard (George Pembroke) see the Duke’s exhibit and Lefevre recognizes the girl in the portrait as one of Bluebeard’s victims.

Deducing that the mystery artist who painted the picture must also be Bluebeard, Lefevre goes to Lamarte and arranges an elaborate sting; he will get Francine, whom he’s been dating, to pose as Renard’s daughter. They will present themselves as a father and daughter anxious to get a portrait of her painted before they return to their home in South America, and for a fee of 150,000 francs (of which he will pay Morel just 30,000) Lamarte will get the mystery artist to paint her. As a precaution, Morel asks that the sitting take place in Lamarte’s studio and he will paint Francine from a mirror reflecting her image rather than looking at her directly, which would trigger his murderous impulse (an interesting off-take of the Medusa myth I’d just seen dramatized in the 1981 Clash of the Titans), but Francine is unable to hold the pose to Morel’s satisfaction, he turns and looks at her to get her to pose properly, and this sets him off and he kills both Francine and Lamarte. Morel and Lucille then have their final meeting, in which he explains the origin of his psychological compulsion to kill: he once took in a street woman, decided she looked spiritual, and used her as the model for a painting of Joan of Arc. The painting won him a place in the Royal Academy and was to be hung in the Louvre, and Morel sought out his model and muse to tell her the good news that her picture would hang in the Louvre — only he found her working as a prostitute (Gendron’s dialogue uses the usual Code-era euphemisms but we get the point) and Morel savagely turns on her, kills her, and then is compelled to kill every other woman he paints because they turn into her in his mind. In a rather kinky twist in Gendron’s script, Lucille is willing to forgive Morel killing the unrelated women but is pissed off at him for knocking off her sister, and she screams for the police, they break down Morel’s door, and he flees across the rooftops of Paris, but a loose brick on the side of one building causes him to fall off the roof and into the Seine, where he disposed of his victims. The film ends with the same vista with which it began: a side view of Nôtre-Dame Cathedral as we pull back and ponder the irony that Morel met a fate similar to that of the people he killed. Oddly, though Don Miller’s book “B” Movies embraced Bluebeard and hailed it as a masterpiece, Tom Weaver’s Poverty Row Horrors! was openly scornful of it and the cult that’s formed around it — even though among the people he’s interviewed for his various projects about 1930’s and 1940’s “B” movies are Ulmer’s widow Shirley and their daughter Arianne — he mocked Ulmer for calling Bluebeard “a very beautiful picture” (it is a very beautiful picture!) and disliked the irony of Jean Parker’s line, “There — now you can use it again!” after she mends Carradine’s killer cravat.

Charles came home from work as Bluebeard was just starting; he hadn’t remembered us watching it together before but his one-word reaction was, “Wow!” He said the only element that keeps him from rating Bluebeard a masterpiece of film noir was the stiff performance by Nils Asther, heavier and beefier than he’d been in his brief fling at almost-stardom at MGM in the early 1930’s, as the Surété inspector who finally brings Morel to justice, and he wished PRC had hired an edgier actor (like Ulmer’s Detour star, Tom Neal, maybe?) for the part. But Bluebeard remains a surprisingly fine picture — acknowledged as such by the trade papers in 1944, who recognized it as a work any studio could have justly been proud of — and even Weaver acknowledged the hard work Ulmer must have done to create so many camera setups on a six-day shooting schedule. A lot of “B” directors skimped on close-ups and kept their cameras static to make sure they got their movies in on time; not Ulmer — Bluebeard is full of close-ups and tracking shots. He also got first-rate performances out of Carradine (Bluebeard is easily his finest film as star and the only one of his Poverty Row quickies to showcase him as well as his great supporting roles in major films for John Ford like The Prisoner of Shark Island, Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath) and the usually barely animate Jean Parker — the fact that Parker is a more convincing “pigeon” than the great Barbara Stanwyck in The Two Mrs. Carrolls tells all you need to know about the comparison between the two films! — and Stossel, usually a lovable character actor, is marvelously sinister as the piece’s real villain (Morel is compelled to kill but Lamarte commissions portraits from him knowing full well each one will result in the death of its model). I could have done without the sheer quantity of Erdody’s music (and the rather cheesy PRC sound recording doesn’t help — the dialogue sounds O.K. but the music is unnervingly tinny) and I find myself pretty much agreeing with Charles about Asther, but on the whole Bluebeard is a great film by any standard and a rare accomplishment for PRC. — 12/15/16

[1] — Tom Weaver’s entry on Bluebeard in his book Poverty Row Horrors! spells the character’s last name as “Morell,” but the spelling with a single “l” would be more appropriate for the film’s French setting.

[2] — Actually, according to, Ulmer left Germany and emigrated to the U.S. in 1930, three years before the Nazi takeover.