Low-Budget Masterpiece

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

Although I’m supposed to reply “Detour,” if anyone asks what my favorite Edgar G. Ulmer film might be, I respond “The Black Cat,” and when pressed for a second favorite–now “Detour” must surely be named–I respond “Bluebeard.”

In a sense “Bluebeard” is slightly more impressive than “The Black Cat.” For that film Ulmer had the services of Universal Pictures behind him–including the presence of their two top horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in the lead roles. But “Bluebeard” was made for lowly Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.) on a ridiculously small budget and a tight shooting schedule. But consider what Ulmer accomplished with what he had. He secured the services of the great German cinematographer Eugen Schufftan, although they had to disguise his contribution as he, a wartime refugee, had no official standing as a cinematographer in Hollywood, and Schufftan gave the film a dream-like look, reminiscent of 19th century prints of Paris, but with a distinctly Expressionist slant to them. Then he had his music director Leo Erdody adapt Mussorgsky’s famous composition “Pictures at an Exhibition” for his score–and most appropriately since his bluebeard, Gaston Morrell, is indeed a painter. I’m always impressed by how much of Mussorgsky’s music Erdody was able to make intelligent use of. It always fits and sometimes even comments on the action. It’s never just there because it was Public Domain and therefore a bargain. Even the frantic music of the finale in which Morrell attempts to flee the police is not an Erdody original, but comes from the original composition. His lead John Carradine, was no Karloff, but he had a fine baritone voice which Ulmer made use of by having Morrell stage “puppet operas” to raise pocket money. This detail too is not wasted. The opera they stage is Gounod’s “Faust,” and Morrell takes the part of Mephistopheles–again an appropriate choice for an artist who is also a serial-killer. He gets a jab in at the allure of Art by having the handsome Faust puppet voiced by a disgusting old beggar who poses as a crippled veteran. Ulmer apparently wanted to film in color but was unable to. I’m not so sure that this was a misfortune. While color would undoubtedly have given an extra added dimension to the puppet-opera scenes, for the bulk of the film, I think the shadowy black-and-white worked better.

The film itself is a bit of a emotional chameleon. Seen in one light it is the tragedy of a man locked into a compulsion to kill the beautiful models he paints before they can become repellent to him by revealing their true natures–and here Ulmer made splendid use of Carradine’s ability to make his eyes grow larger with madness, signaling impending violence. Seen in a slightly different frame of mind, Morrell himself becomes a shabby and repellent creature–a seducer and a cad who takes heartless advantage of his faithful would-be muse Renee, and kills her when she becomes an inconvenience. He convinces himself that it will be different with the modiste Lucille, a woman who does not come from the deceptive world of Art, but when she turns on him, he attempts to strangle her as well. Morrell was sufficiently egotistical to believe that even after he has murdered Lucille’s younger sister Francine, an undercover police agent who has uncovered his secret, Lucille will find it in her heart to forgive him. But Lucille is not as forbearing as Renee was, and she completes the work of her sister by leading the Surete to Morrell’s door. For a low-budget film, “Bluebeard” is quite an achievement!

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