Bluebeard, 1944. 7/10

Very atmospheric crime thriller. Bluebeard has plenty going for it: a legendary serial killer story, a great John Carradine performance as Bluebeard/Gaston Morrell, and some cool expressionistic sets (both interiors and exteriors). This movie’s kind of hard to classify; there’s definitely the horror element, a straight mystery, the 19th century Parisian historical drama, and, depending on how you take the creepy lighting and acting, a noir/gothic element. On top of all that, there’s not one, but two art elements (puppetry and painting) that mask Bluebeard’s nefarious deeds.

Carradine appears vampiric–gaunt, domineering–but oddly passive. Until he kills, that is; the closeups right before the murders are reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West’s diamond-shaped face. And not in a campy, amusing sense. When he appears at Francine’s funeral (kind of odd, considering that he’s just killed her) he literally seems to emanate from the curtains like a ghost. Only slightly less scary-looking, Morrell’s art dealer/blackmailer Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel) has an aghast bug-eyed visage. Sort of a Peter Lorre with a Van Dyke beard. Inspector Lefevre (Nils Asther) has a sharp and bemused diligence about him; the apt counterpart to his antagonist.

Sisters Lucille (Jean Parker) and Francine (Teala Loring) are taken by Morrell’s puppetry. Which is to say they find him interesting. Bravely, if somewhat naively, Francine agrees to pose for him as well. Pose in a double sense, as she cooperates in a sting engineered by Lefevre, with Lamarte’s help, to catch Morrell before he morphs into Bluebeard. I can’t figure out how Morrell doesn’t recognize her right away–despite her South American persona. Also, since he has to try to do something to get arrested, she’s doomed unless the police are right there; but they’re two busted-in doors away.

Anyway, Morrell’s escape attempt recalls the lurid sewers-and-rooftops chase from Phantom of the Opera. That follows on his ‘coming clean’ bit with Lucille; a vignette that works amazingly well, by telescoping his story of becoming Bluebeard. He can’t take rejection, so he’s continually avenging his humiliation by killing Jeanette (his original betrayer). It’s tragic that, just when he’s doesn’t want to kill anymore–Lamarte intervenes, promising easy money and giving the phony story that painting the ‘South American’ girl is safe because she’s leaving Paris. It’s somewhat the opposite situation that the Phantom has; Morrell wants to stop luring women to his lair, whereas the Phantom basically kidnaps ‘his’ woman. What is similar though, is that both demented anti-heroes use a form of art to express their tragic natures. I suppose any murderer intends some kind of statement by their acts; but the artist-as-murderer presumably leaves some trace of their motivation in the ‘window into the soul’ that their art allows.

I find puppetry almost at the level of ventriloquism as a somewhat absurd, but nonetheless magical, even spooky device. The line between merely goofy and cute and actually macabre can be hazy. In both media there’s an element of control that the handler exerts. Morrell, with his added device of portraiture, has another sort of control; and over a real person–the one posing–not just the representation of one.

Although I was definitely entertained by this version of Bluebeard, and a few plot holes don’t hurt it much, I’ve got to absolutely agree with the very common complaint that the music was off-putting. In fact, there was such a din right off the bat, and no dialogue until a little ways in, I at first thought that it was silent. The graininess of the DVD shaped my initial impression that it was from the ’20s or early ’30s. A smaller point–which only period-correct nuts like me get stirred up by–why do the gendarmes have Napoleonic garb (bicorn hats, sabres) but the other (civilian) guys look like they’re from a few generations later with homburgs and bowlers? They should have top hats for the earlier period. The character Le Soldat (strangely, a sort of groupie of Morrell’s, not a real soldier–or, maybe he’s retired) has the Second Empire/Third Republic gear from the mid-to-later 19th century. One hint that narrows down the time-period is that only gas or candlelight is used, no electricity; so it can’t be too close to 1900…

Good stuff overall: worth watching for Carradine creeping about the haunting Parisian nights. 7/10.

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