director Edgar G. Ulmer
In working my way through the films of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, I happened upon a side theme, that of Bluebeard movies. I had/have this vague memory of watching a movie about Bluebeard, the fairy tale serial killer of wives, when I was a kid. And for some reason, I thought the film was an old one. The memory is most vague. So, this film, starring John Carradine, made on the cheap at PRC studio in 1944 seemed like it could well be the thing. And with the only two other Bluebeard films that I could find, from 1972 and 2009, I figured it had to be it. Since the latter film was directed by Catherine Breillat, I also had it in my queue, so I thought to pair them up as a double feature. Since the 1972 version didn’t seem as relevant to my interests, I didn’t bother with it.
Well, now I don’t know. I can easily suppose that I never saw Ulmer’s Bluebeard before. It certainly wasn’t the Bluebeard that I thought I had seen. For one thing, this Bluebeard doesn’t even have a beard. So, I have since gone and queued up the 1972 version.
This Bluebeard is a period film, shot on sets, seemingly with more budget than films like Ulmer’s Detour (1945) or Strange Illusion (1945). There is a serial killer in Paris, but it’s a Victorian era Paris, not some more long ago pastoral time. Girls are being found in the Seine. And John Carradine, not entirely sinister here, a vaguely tragic villain, is the unknown murderer, to whom people refer as “Bluebeard”.
What’s most amusing about this film is its extremely convoluted plot. Carradine is a puppeteer, who puts on a show of Faust, apparently one of Ulmer’s most cherished elements of the film (he was famous for his sets and miniatures). He has been a painter. In fact, his devilish landlord, who is also his art dealer, blackmails him into painting. So when he meets the charming Lucille, he quashes his desire to paint her. You see, he kills all the women who sit for his painting.
This all gets explained toward the end in a long flashback narrative. As a poor young painter, he found a collapsed woman on the street, brought her home to help her, and fell in love and painted her. She then disappeared. His painting was accepted at the Louvre and his career was on his way. When he went to find this woman, upon whom he had projected the finest of qualities while she slept, he finds her a coarse harlot who throws money in his face. His illusion shattered, he strangles her and throws her body in the Seine. Now every model he sits to paint inspires this awkwardly Freudian toxicity.
It’s just a little convoluted, right? His landlord knows his secret but keeps getting him to paint (and kill) for money while he goes on to be revered for his work? Well, if that wasn’t enough convolution for you, Lucille’s sister Francine is an undercover agent for her boyfriend the Inspector who is hunting Bluebeard the serial killer. And when they think they have identified the murderer as a painter, she gets to sit a session with him, while he tries vainly to not be inspired to murder. Though in the end, he does do her in.
The film is strange, though hackneyed, not my favorite of Ulmer’s so far. But John Carradine gives a very sympathetic performance as the troubled serial murderer. There is indeed a classic tragedy amid the odd psychological quirk of the villain. Carradine, who was also great in Stagecoach (1939), shows himself to have been a very adept, unusual character actor.
While not a great film, it is good fun. And it has its moments, most significantly when Carradine’s eyes bug out in a masked close-up as he turns to kill.
Still, a Bluebeard without a beard is an odd thing.