From the DVD case: In the famous art district of Paris, a new evil has taken up residence. A troubled and intense artist seeks out various portrait models to aid in his work. But when the paintings are finished, he strangles his models. Can the authorities catch him before he strikes again? (1944, b&w)
Mark says: I never expect much from a PRC film, so I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Bluebeard.
PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) is one of the Poverty Row studios (Monogram and Republic studios are two other examples). The look and feel of PRC films are usually as cheap as the term “poverty row” suggests. However, with Bluebeard, we notice some striking differences.
First, the sets and matte paintings are of a superior quality. Great care is used regarding light and shadows, giving Bluebeard a distinct atmosphere usually absent from other PRC productions.
John Carradine is also a bigger name than customary for PRC releases. Typically, we would see actors such as George Zucco (The Mad Monster) or J. Carrol Naish (The Monster Maker) in the lead role. Director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, The Man from Planet X) lends further credibility to the film.
Carradine (Invisible Invaders, House of Frankenstein) often stated that his role as Gaston Morrell in Bluebeard was his favorite. It’s not hard to see why. The part required real acting, and for a man who began his career as a Shakespearean dramatic actor, this must have been more satisfying than the over-the-top diabolical characters he was frequently saddled with. He’s still diabolical, of course, but in a more understated way. In Bluebeard, Carradine is allowed to temper his madness with the sensitivity of an artist. Sure, he’s serial killer, but he has some pathos working for him, too.
Bluebeard begins disturbingly enough when a woman is fished from the Seine. We soon learn, through a posted notice, that a killer nicknamed “Bluebeard” is strangling young women and disposing of their bodies in the famous French river. Not surprisingly, this causes a city-wide panic.
Jean Parker (The Ghost Goes West, Dead Man’s Eyes) plays Lucille, who first meets puppeteer, Gaston Morrell (Carradine), during a stroll with two of her friends. Lucille and Morrell hit it off immediately and Morrell promises to perform a puppet show the following night as long as Lucille agrees to attend.
A lot of screen time is spent on the puppet show. Interestingly enough, Morrell, with the help of his two assistants, Renee and Deschamps (Sonia Sorel and Henry Kolker, respectively) perform an operatic version of Goethe’s Faust. In a telling scene, we witness Morrell sing the part of Mephistopheles himself. I should add here, that the puppets are rather creepy and add to the overall atmosphere of uneasiness. Unfortunately, the lip-syncing during this sequence is atrocious. Henry Kolker’s (The Ghost Walks) “singing” is so far off that it is comical.
After the puppet show, Morrell and Lucille go off for a walk alone, and we discover through their conversation that Morrell is also a painter. Morrell seems sincerely smitten by Lucille, and at first, wants her to pose for one of his paintings. However, as the conversation progresses, he suddenly changes his mind and decides it’s time to give up painting altogether (even though this is his primary source of income).
Throughout the conversation, Morrell is completely charming, but we sense that he is tormented by his own demons. Lucille notices this, too, and states, “There’s something in your voice that made me feel you’ve suffered.” Morrell compliments Lucille on being an astute observer.
If we had any doubts that Morrell was the killer, they are soon dispelled when we witness him strangle his assistant, Renee, and dump her body into the Seine. We also learn that Morrell paints the portraits of all his victims before strangling them. An interesting touch, I think, and an important aspect of the story.
The remainder of the film is a cat and mouse game as the local police attempt to close in on the killer. We are introduced to Lamarte, portrayed by Ludwig Stössel (House of Dracula), who serves as Morrell’s art dealer and landlord. Lamarte is well aware of Morrell’s deeds, and uses this knowledge to force Morrell into producing more paintings which, apparently, bring a good price. As you can guess, Lamarte is not pleased with Morrell’s decision to give up his craft.
As a further twist, Lucille’s little sister, Francine (Teala Loring, Return of the Ape Man), is a State police officer assigned to the Bluebeard case. Francine’s boyfriend, Inspector Lefevre, is played by Nils Asther (Night Monster).
Bluebeard, scripted by Pierre Gendron, has strong literary elements: foreshadowing, irony, recurring themes, flashback, plot and subplot, etc. It’s far classier than anything you’d expect from a PRC production, and holds up well even after multiple viewings.
Morrell’s confession and appeal to Lucille at the conclusion of the film put me in mind of Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Unfortunately for Morrell, Lucille does not display the forgiveness that Sofya shows to Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s novel.
The concluding chase scene, and ultimate demise of Morrell, prove to be slightly disappointing. However, it does round out the movie nicely, with the final shot of the Seine matching the opening setting of the film.
Though Bluebeard isn’t a great film, it does feature some powerful elements that make it very good. And, if you’re like me, it will give you a deeper respect for John Carradine.
Scene to watch for: Inspector Lefevre, eliciting laughter from the courtroom, insinuates that artist model, Mimi (Iris Adrian), is a prostitute.
Line to listen for: “That’s the most frightening obsession of yours, Guston!”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.