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  Bluebeard Life Irritating Art
Year: 1944
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Stars: John Carradine, Jean Parker, Nils Asther, Ludwig Stossel, George Pembroke, Teala Loring, Sonja Sorel, Henry Kolker, Emmett Lynn, Iris Adrian, Patti McCarty, Carrie Devan, Anne Sterling
Genre: Horror, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: There has been another body found in the Seine, and the citizens of Paris are warned to be on the lookout for a "Bluebeard", that is, a killer of young women who may well be known to them. Lucille (Jean Parker) is not so worried, however, as she goes out with her friends for protection, as she does tonight, and although they bump into a tall, dark figure and are initially scared, he turns out to be Gaston Morell (John Carradine), the puppeteer who works nearby. He assures them they have nothing to be afraid of and takes their suggestion about putting on another show on board, but is he hiding something?

Bluebeard was probably the best thought of amongst all the tiny budget B-movies released by PRC, one of the so-called Poverty Row studios of the first half of the twentieth century. Certainly Carradine liked this performance he gave more than any of his others, possibly because it offered him a rare lead, not to mention a wealth of noble yet tragic speeches to deliver as the haunted title character. Add to that the presence of cult auteur Edgar G. Ulmer behind the camera and offering his expressionism on the cheap stylings, and the stage was set for a minor classic.

Yet it doesn't quite turn out that way, as although this has a very good reputation, its problems could be summed up by the fact that there's a five minute puppet opera, complete with real opera singers dubbed over the actors, shortly after the film begins, which kills the tension stone dead, and the at first promising atmospherics into the bargain. Ulmer doesn't give in to his artier side quite to such an extent during the rest of the story, but it does announce his intentions to create something deeply serious and soulful, when what you might want is a fun thriller.

That isn't what is on offer here, though, and the pretensions tend to sabotage any enjoyment, indeed it's as if Ulmer is telling us, hey, you're here to learn, not to be amused, so we get a masterclass in off-kilter camera angles, the correct use of shadows and a background in the art world. Gaston may be a failed artist who has turned to puppetry to pay the bills (this has little connection to the Bluebeard legend), but his heart remains that of a tortured genius, and this disparity in the way his creativity is realised has sent him round the bend. It would have been nice if the film had pricked his pomposity, but it prefers to indulge him, as if to look down on the other characters as shallow in comparison.

In effect, this is a less enjoyable verison of Mystery of the Wax Museum, with a murderer who doesn't use wax as a medium, but his puppets and paintings. While Carradine presents a performance of true conviction, and there's no doubting Ulmer's sincerity, there's a sense of them believing they were casting pearls before swine by ruminating on the troubles a compunction to artistry can bring; obviously nobody involved in this became a serial killer, but you get the impression they find Gaston the most sympathetic character (even though his paintings are nothing to write home about, and don't fit the period setting either). It is possible to appreciate the moody, near-stylised look of Bluebeard, and you have to respect Carradine's opinion of his own talents, but this has been overrated otherwise. Music by Leo Erdody.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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