“A murderer is in your midst! A criminal who strangles young women.”
After his success with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in 1934’s The Black Cat (Universal), Edgar Ulmer was eager to film “Bluebeard” with Karloff in the lead role. Nothing came of the idea at that time, however, due to Ulmer’s departure from Universal. After Ulmer had begun working at PRC in the early 1940s, he broached the idea to production head Leon Fromkess, but Fromkess was not particularly keen partly because Ulmer was insisting on a Faust opera sequence within the film using puppets. In the end, however, Ulmer got his way and he embarked on his usual six-day production schedule to complete the film. The resulting film, featuring John Carradine in a rare starring role, was one of the second-tier jewels in Ulmer’s collection of low-budget productions for PRC.
All Day Entertainment has now brought Bluebeard to DVD as Volume 2 of its Edgar G. Ulmer Collection.
Gaston Morel, operator of puppet theatre and an artist in Paris, preys on young women who act as models for him. An emotional experience in his past leads him to strangle each model once he has painted them. The paintings are then sold to collectors outside the country by a dealer named Jean Lamarte. Lamarte, however, mistakenly sells the latest painting to a Paris nobleman who proceeds to exhibit it publicly with some of his other paintings. The likeness of the woman in the painting is recognized by a police official, Inspector Lefevre, as coinciding with that of the latest strangulation victim and efforts begin to try to find out from Lamarte where he got the painting. Lamarte resists revealing Morel to be the painter as he is aware of Morel’s background and has been blackmailing him. Meanwhile, Morel has become interested in a young seamstress named Lucille whom he tries to cultivate as his next companion. This leads also to involvement with Lucille’s sister Francine who is actually a police operative. Suspicion eventually settles on Morel as the strangler the police are seeking and an elaborate plan to trap him is devised involving Lamarte, Francine, Lucille and Lefevre.
In Bluebeard, we have a good example of a life out of control — a theme common to many of Ulmer’s best films. Gaston Morel is constantly visited by the image of a young model that he strangled early in his career as an artist. He sees this image in any new model he works with and he is led, almost uncontrollably, to strangle each of them too. As Morel, John Carradine is extremely effective. His career is characterized by many memorable supporting roles, so it is rewarding to see him do so well as the star for a change. Carradine had a wonderful mellow speaking voice which he uses to good effect in Bluebeard as well as a very expressive face. Ulmer concentrates on that face at the occurrence of each strangulation rather than showing us the details of the actual deed, and this provides a number of very interesting shots as Ulmer frames Carradine’s facial reactions using a variety of angles, elevations, and shadings.
Ulmer acted as his own production designer on Bluebeard (as he so often did) and his trademark uses of mattes and miniatures to open and close his films are in evidence. Here, he opens on a series of paintings of Paris behind the credits, follows with an image of Notre Dame and the Seine, and then draws back to focus on a miniature of a bridge over the river before cutting to his first shot of a woman’s body floating in the water. An important part of this film for Ulmer was the puppet opera sequence. He apparently had always loved puppets and put much effort into getting the puppets made just so to fit his conception of the Faust sequence. The puppeteer, a young 19-year old named Bob Baker, was apparently somewhat intimidated by Ulmer and his precise requirements. The puppet opera, which lasts several minutes in the film, is a classy sequence and an excellent example of something that goes well beyond what would normally be expected from a low-budget programmer.
Ulmer had his favourite collaborators who worked with him on many of his films. His cameraman was often Eugen Schufftan. Schufftan had worked for many years in Europe including Ulmer’s early People on Sunday (1929, Germany), but was not allowed to join the cameraman’s union once he came to Hollywood. So for a number of years, he received no on-screen credit as cameraman. This was the case with Bluebeard. As compensation, Ulmer gave Schufftan the credit of production designer, even though he (Ulmer) had actually been responsible for that. Another collaborator was Leo Erdody who was responsible for Bluebeard‘s very evocative and atmospheric score (credited simply as Erdody). Erdody and Ulmer were close friends and Erdody scored most of Ulmer’s PRC films. Unfortunately he died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack in the late 1940s.
All Day Entertainment’s DVD of Bluebeard is a nice package for an interesting but what is, after all, minor film. In addition to the feature which is transferred from a restored 35mm preservation positive supplied by the Cinematheque Francaise, included is an archive of stills and lobby card and poster art along with a 12-minute featurette entitled “Bluebeard Revealed!.” The title suggests a little more than is actually contained, but that’s a minor point. In addition to parts of an interview with Ulmer’s widow concerning her remembrances of the film, it provides some very interesting background on the puppet opera sequence by way of a recent interview with Bob Baker, the puppeteer responsible for the making of and the manipulation of the puppets. He talks about Ulmer’s very definite ideas on how he wanted the puppets to look and operate, and he introduces some colour filming that he (Baker) did of the actual shooting of the sequence. Finally, there is an 8-page booklet which appears to reproduce much of the film’s original pressbook.
I have real concerns with the image transfer of Bluebeard. For a film of this age which not undergone any digital clean-up, there are the usual frequent instances of speckling and scratching. That’s not a problem. There are certainly many sequences that look sharp with clean whites and deep blacks, but I was distracted several times during the darker scenes such as the ones by the river and the chase on the rooftops at the end. During these, there is an excessively grainy look to the image that at times almost obscures the action. It’s an example of where the increased resolution capabilities of DVD actually accentuate a film’s deficiencies. I remember a similar effect with some of the night sequences on Image’s release of Double Indemnity. In addition, my copy froze for short intervals of up to 5 seconds on several occasions at the 20-to-25-minute mark of the film, both on my DVD player and DVD-ROM drive.
Bluebeard is second-tier Edgar Ulmer — an entertaining low budget programmer with a top-notch leading performance by John Carradine. Ulmer’s visual design touches and the novel puppet opera sequence lift the film beyond what’s normally expected from such a production. The film itself is certainly worth viewing. All Day’s DVD package is a very nice one with interesting supplementary material, but unfortunately there are deficiencies in the DVD’s image and playback that prevent one from fully enjoying the film. It is, of course, possible that the film’s tendency to freeze-up is a problem with only the copy I had or with my player, although I have never experienced a similar problem with any other disc.