Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bluebeard (1944)

Lucille, I want to tell you something no other living person knows...

I've heard of this happening on more than one occasion. A movie fan becomes a fan of film noir. They begin collecting and watching all the noir they can find. They start with films starring Bogart or Mitchum. Then they move on to the works of directors Wilder and Siodmak . They rent some DVDs and watch classic Bs like Gun Crazy.

Then they hit Z-grade poverty row film of Edgar G. Ulmer like a car hitting a brick wall at 70 MPH. Detour at first glance is so minimal and dark that a new viewer wouldn't be wrong to wonder how much contempt the director had for his audience. Some would stop their film noir obsession right there. The rest --hypnotized by the demented poetry of Ulmer movies constructed in the lower depths of Poverty Row-- will begin seeing out the cheapies before any gloss put out by Warner Bros or the modest crime thrillers churned out by RKO in the '40s. They'd probably find that most from PRC - dubbed Pretty Rotten Crap by Hollywood - and similar studios are indeed crap. Films directed by Ulmer - who worked for many of those studios - are the exception.

Born in Vienna, Ulmer worked as a designer and and assistant director for F. W. Murnau. He accompanied Murnau to America in the 1920s and worked with him on Sunrise (1927) among others. He stayed in America after Murnau's death - working as a set designer for MGM and the stage. He began directing in the late 1920s. Success as a film director was almost immediate when the best horror pairing of Lugosi and Karloff, The Black Cat, was released in 1934. The Black Cat dealt with the occult and Ulmer's set design and visuals are remarkable - they overshadow the rest of the film which can sometimes come across as just plain corny. This would be the Ulmer's trademark. Film critic Andrew Sarris commented once that most of Ulmer's films “are of interest only to unthinking audiences or specialists in mise-en-scène .”

For the rest of the 30's Ulmer would buck the system and become a specialist in smaller ethnic films.

By the 1940s Ulmer began making the movies he's most remembered for today. He wasn't a “gun-for-hire” director like so many in Poverty Row. He chose to make these films, frequently serving as producer, so he'd have total creative control. Unfortunately, once he was pegged as a Z-grade, subterranean movie maker he would never be able to return to Hollywood-budgeted films.

Ulmer's masterpiece is Detour. Other film noirs include the Hedy Lamarr vehicle The Strange Woman, Barbara Payton in Murder is My Beat, Zachary Scott carving his way to the top - like a mini Citizen Kane - in Ruthless and this week's selection Bluebeard. Released in 1944, this is the first of his films to be considered a noir (and, I know. Some may not consider this one noir just because of the setting.)

In 19th century Paris, part-time puppeteer (who's also a painter and possibly a pathological killer) Gaston Morrell's (John Carradine) models end up strangled when they don't match up with his standards of perfection. The pretty young victims are later found floating in the Seine. Gaston's latest model Lucille (Jean Parker) learns of his secret and becomes determined to bring him to justice. But is he the real killer?

This is one of Ulmer's more respectable (and therefore possibly less distinctive) films. Although the film plays out as a French period piece the film seems to mirror modern 1940s England. There are lots of strong woman characters and an absence of capable men (in the 40's they'd all be off to war). The film is wonderfully atmospheric and, although a bit stagy at times, it captures the Gothic mood required.

The talent of Carradine and strong visuals and set design from Ulmer beats out the budget handed to them by PRC. Bluebeard is a horror/noir that could be enjoyed by any noir fan willing to forgive its somewhat chintzy look.

As prolific as Ulmer was he couldn't compete with the number of films his lead actor John Carradine worked in. Saturnine Carradine showed his long face most often in schlock. Lots of schlock. IMDB lists 340 film appearances -- many with titles like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. The consumptive look of Carradine is always a welcome sight for this movie watcher, and he probably elevated many of the movies he was in just with his presence. It seemed like the actor never turned down a role. In film noir, Carradine's appearance seems to wake up Dana Andrews as they both give life to a pair of soothsayer con men in Fallen Angel. Carradine is credited second in the forgotten mystery Female Jungle with Laurence Tierney and Jayne Mansfield, and he's also wonderfully campy in the unfortunately titled C-Man. You can occasionally find Carradine in great movies like Johnny Guitar, The Grapes of Wrath, and Stagecoach. But that's not what I know him for. It's his presence in countless B-movies (and in this case a bit lower) and being the Shakespeare-spouting patriarch of the Carradine family that I remember him for.


On a side note, I originally was going to write about The Madonna's Secret this week. The Republic film is nearly unwatchable and clearly derived from Ulmer's Bluebeard. Republic films were mostly Z-grade as well. That's not a problem for me. It's the fact that the studio as a whole never seemed to get the tone right when they weren't doing westerns. Best to avoid this imitation when you can watch the real thing.

Written by Steve-O

1 comment:

  1. Muito bom o blog. Parabéns.



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