Thursday, April 2, 2009


In Edgar G. Ulmer's Bluebeard, the Poverty Row auteur crafted a strange, eerie piece of extreme low-budget horror, centered around the titular murderer, an artist who strangles his models to death after painting them, throwing their corpses into the Seine River. Gaston Morrell (John Carradine) is both a painter and a puppet artist, a performer who puts on elaborate stagings of the tale of Faust with his puppets. His paintings are more of a sinister and deadly hobby, as well as a source of income — his Mephistophelian business manager (Ludwig Stössel) sells the resulting paintings at a great profit. However, Morrell is moved to give up painting — and thus also his sinister sideline — by the appearance in his life of the lovely Lucille (Jean Parker), a dress designer who agrees to create new costumes for Morrell's puppets.

There is little mystery or true horror in this tale, as Ulmer, in his characteristically blunt way, establishes early on that Morrell is without a doubt the killer. He's shown murdering his assistant, Renee (Sonia Sorel), when the girl begins to wonder what has happened to all the women for whom Morrell would leave her for days or weeks at a time. The film is sexually frank for its time, and it is heavily implied that Morrell has been going to bed with his models in addition to simply painting and killing them. One wonders at times if anyone from the censorship boards ever even watched this film, particularly in the early scene where the police fish a woman's corpse out of the Seine and the wet dress clinging to her body reveals the bare flesh beneath — a haunting scene that confirms the sexual component of Morrell's murders.

Morrell is obsessed with ideas about sexuality, about purity and sin. As he reveals in the film's talky conclusion, his murderous rage was first triggered by a woman who he painted while he was helping her recover from an illness — inspired by the purity and beauty he saw in her eyes, he painted her as a saint with a glowing halo on her head. After her recovery, however, he was horrified to learn that she was a prostitute, a crude and impure woman, nothing like the unblemished portrait he'd made of her. The film makes the dichotomy between the Madonna and the whore central to its theme: Morrell goes mad because he cannot handle having his pristine images soiled by the complexities of reality. Preferring art to life, he loses control of himself and becomes a relentless killer. The film also deals with prostitution and vice in a comedic scene in which a police inspector (Nils Asther) interrogates a woman who had served as an artist's model but had, it seems, lately turned to other work. The script dances cleverly around the subject of that "other" occupation, but it's apparent that the whole conversation between the policeman and the girl is about sex, about prostitution. It's funny principally because the girl herself is unperturbed. She's openly flirtatious and says just what she means; it's the inspector who's uncomfortable with the subject and keeps cutting her short, trying to turn the conversation in another direction. He's a censor, not allowing an open and honest discussion of sexuality to take place, stopping the conversation at the surface level of euphemisms.

Here and elsewhere, the film playfully mocks male insecurities about female sexuality. The women in the film are open and charming and assertive, while the men are ineffectual and timid. When Morrell speaks to Lucille, he tries to maintain a cordial coldness that simply comes off clipped and awkward. He's a vicious murderer, but he's also a fairly sad, overly naïve guy who doesn't know how to talk to girls. At one point, he comes to visit Lucille, who is with her sister Francine (Teala Loring). Francine is getting dressed, shielded behind a thin dressing screen, but she urges Morrell to step inside, not to be shy, despite Lucille's statement that her sister is "not decent." Francine's eyes peek coyly over the top of the screen, the only part of her body visible, and Ulmer playfully highlights the sexual tension of the scene by having her step out from behind the screen just at the moment that she's fastening her shirt closed.

In this way, the film is continually calling attention to sexuality and feminine allure. If it is not a mystery or a horror film, it is in its weird way a kind of creepy love story, the tale of a man who falls in love to such an extent that he is moved to give up his profession for the love of a woman. Carradine's performance is exceptional, capturing the layered qualities of this urbane killer: by turns charming and distant, kindly and terrifying, icily murderous and tortured by his deeds. His role requires him to shift fluidly from outward calm to the pop-eyed stare he focuses on his victims, a crazed expression that Ulmer accentuates with closeups. Equally compelling are Parker and Loring as the sisters who cross paths with Morrell: the bold, independent-minded Lucille as the object of his affection, and Francine in her amorphous role as a police assistant of some kind, helping with the investigation of the Bluebeard killings.

As is typical of Ulmer and his minimalist productions, the plot of Bluebeard is almost indifferently handled, with frequent jarring cuts and a generally brisk pace that hurtles from one incident to the next with little connective tissue. The film very much displays its ragged edges: Ulmer shows only that which is absolutely necessary to either the plot or the atmosphere, omitting everything else with brutal economy. The film lasts just over an hour, and hardly a minute is wasted, though at times Ulmer's tendency towards economy sabotages the dramatic tension of the story. The conclusion, in particular, feels oddly rushed and overly talky, packing dense exposition into a few quick minutes, explaining the killer's origins and motivations before the perfunctory final battle that brings the film full circle: its last shot of the buildings along the Seine mirrors exactly its first shot.

Elsewhere, however, Ulmer's Gothic visual sensibility provides plenty of striking images to distract from the minimal, fractured narrative. The sewers beneath Morrell's house, where he dumps the bodies of his victims, are shadowy and gray, and Ulmer's camera follows black cloaked figures creeping through the darkness on sinister errands. In another scene, Morrell stares at the shadows of his puppets reflected on the wall in front of him, suspended in the air, awaiting his control, looking like a line of tiny hanging victims above his head. The film's plot might be simple, and its aesthetics sometimes crude and rough, but it is at the same time a stylish, intelligent treatment of sexuality and violence.


Sam Juliano said...

"If it is not a mystery or a horror film, it is in its weird way a kind of creepy love story, the tale of a man who falls in love to such an extent that he is moved to give up his profession for the love of a woman."

Indeed Ed, I quite agree with that. It's a minor gem of sorts, but Carradine's performance (again as you rightly note) is much more than that. Ulmer's best films are DETOUR and THE BLACK CAT methinks, but certainly this one falls on the next level. The 'Gothic visual sensibilities' you speak of, which were seen in the 1935 Universal horror film with Karloff and Lugosi are again evident here; I do agree that the film has a fascinating context of 'male insecurities about female sexualities' and it's 'ragged around the edges.'

Exhaustive, definitive review of a film that misses the radar of many.

Java Bean Rush said...

How thorough you are. The puppets hang like that mimicking the hanging bodies of the wives of Bluebeard in the Perrault fairytale.