“It’s prolific actor John Carradine’s first starring role in a horror film and his own favorite performance.”

(director: Edgar G. Ulmer; screenwriters: from a story by Arnold Phillips & Werner H. Furst/Pierre Gendron; cinematographer: Jockey A. Feindel/Eugen Schüfftan; editor: Carl Pierson; music: Leo Erdody/Charles Gounod from “Faust”; cast: John Carradine (Gaston Morrell), Jean Parker (Lucille), Nils Asther (Inspector Lefevre), Ludwig Stossel (Jean Lamarte), Emmett Lynn (Le Soldat), George Pembroke (Inspector Renard), Teala Loring (Francine), Iris Adrian (Mimi), Henry Kolker (Deschamps), Sonia Sorel (Renee); Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Leon Fromkess; Alpha Video; 1944)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Noted “Poverty Row” director Edgar G. Ulmer (“The Black Cat”/”Strange Illusion”/”Detour”) does wonders with his limited budget in making this a treat for the mind as well as the eye, and it serves as one of his better films; it’s arguably the best film ever at PRC, and also was a big moneymaker in France. Edward Dymtryk’s 1972 Bluebeard pales considerably in critical comparison. It’s prolific actor John Carradine’s first starring role in a horror film and his own favorite performance. He plays Bluebeard, a 19th-century painter, puppeteer and homicidal maniac. Ulmer’s Bluebeard differs from the Charles Perrault tale written in 1697 of the married man who murders several wives, as this Bluebeard is a Parisian bachelor who feels compelled to strangle the young women who model for him and then dumps their bodies in the Seine. Parallels can be drawn to Faust, as both men have yielded to evil while tormented by love.

Ulmer designed the elaborate sets. The story is by Arnold Phillips and Werner H. Furst and the crisp screenplay is by Pierre Gendron. Of note, the marvelous shadowy camerawork is by the uncredited great German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, who could not receive screen credit because he was not a member of the cinematographers’ guild (ASC).

The film’s opening shot has a dead model floating on the Seine; its closing shot has the dead body of Gaston Morrell (John Carradine), the serial killer known as Bluebeard, floating on the Seine after slipping to his death when chased from his apartment by the police.

A sign saying “Warning! Citizens of Paris! A murderer is in your midst!” informs us that a strangler of women is on the loose and Paris is terrified as the police investigate. Gaston Morell is a demented puppeteer and painter overwhelmed by impulses to kill the women who model for him, and then dump their bodies into the river below his apartment. The story’s mystery of why he does it is explained later, and the only other mystery is if and how he will get caught.

The lovely and modest seamstress Lucille (Jean Parker) meets the handsome, courtly and manipulative Gaston while walking in the park at night with two other girlfriends. Gaston invites them to see his puppet show the following evening and afterwards asks her to create some new costumes for them. Renee (Sonia Sorel, who became engaged to Carradine during the filming and later married him) works as puppeteer in the show and reacts jealously to the attention her boss shows Lucille and then brazenly questions him about the mysterious disappearance of the women with whom he had relationships with. We see him strangle her with his cravat and dump her body in the Seine. The next day Inspector Lefevre (Nils Asther) gets Gaston to identify Renee’s body. Art dealer Jean Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel) secretly sells Gaston’s portraits and lets him live rent free in a building where he’s the landlord. He knows Gaston is Bluebeard when he witnessed his first murder and bribed him to work out this materially satisfactory painting arrangement. All paintings have been sold to tourists who return to their countries with the paintings, but the last painting was sold to a duke living in Paris. When the police attend an exhibition where that painting is displayed and recognize the model as the dead woman they fished out of the Seine recently, they trace the painting to the gallery of Lamarte. When confronted he claims he bought the painting from someone he does not know, as the police suspect he knows who the painter is but let him go for now. Lucille’s younger sister Francine (Teala Loring), a police operative, volunteers to be a decoy model for the mysterious painter and her male operative poses as her rich father and offers the greedy art dealer a hugh sum of 150,00 francs to paint his daughter’s portrait–which is too tempting for him to refuse. Lamarte gets the reluctant Gaston to paint her portrait in the art dealer’s studio while hidden behind a screen. Ulmer heightens the tension of Bluebeard’s ultimate discovery and demise by allowing in the long sequence leading up to it, a chance for the viewer to view his fragile state of mind and discover what incident from the past brought about his uncontrollable urges.

Though not exactly a horror story, more a psycho serial killer tale that turns out to be a spellbinding chiller that mixes sleaze with thrills in an inventive way that only a great filmmaker such as Ulmer can get away with. There’s one brilliant shot of Bluebeard when confronted at last by a foolhardy Lucille in his studio and in the background there are shadowy figures of puppets that resemble hanged men, spelling out the killer’s doom. Ulmer’s Bluebeard is clearly seen as no different than his puppets whom he controls by strings, as his evil actions are then explained by him as the result of his idealized love shattered by a woman he painted and fell in love with but who turned out to be a whore. He became traumatized by that deception which left him with a compulsion to kill those he paints to purge himself from feelings of disgrace and from insincere women.