There is a point in the Seine underneath a bridge where “Bluebeard,” the serial killer who is terrorizing Paris, especially its young women, and whose identity is unknown, drops in darkness the corpses of his strangled victims. The matte-shot—a sketch of the bridge is visually meshed with a studio tank shot—reeks of artificiality and reality, reminding us that the real Seine is an “engineered river,” a conjoining of Nature and man-made construction. Much else also contributes to the confusion/conflation of reality and nonreality, the representation of reality and the thing being represented, subjectivity and objectivity. Ultimately, we are looking at a point in “Paris” that coincides with the killer’s trapped and tormented mind, in which projectively we find ourselves also drowning; the recurrent shot is both exterior and interior, outside and psychological. Like the serial killer of children in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Bluebeard cannot help himself. He is driven to kill by impulses and forces beyond his control.
Edgar G. Ulmer, the brilliant director of Bluebeard, and Eugen Schüfftan, who also contributed (along with Jockey Arthur Feindel) to the film’s eerie black-and-white cinematography, collaborated on the film’s production design, evoking a nineteenth-century Paris of their own mind as well as Bluebeard’s, where the “outdoors” of a puppeteer’s nighttime show plainly is studio-bound, contributing to the overall effect and surrounding us with the killer’s conscious mind and unconscious. “Poverty row” director Ulmer makes his meager means artistically count and thus triumphs over Hollywood.
Soft-spoken John Carradine, replacing Boris Karloff, Ulmer’s first choice for the role a decade earlier, is memorable as Gaston Morrell, the sensitive painter-puppeteer who just cannot stop killing, and who for survival’s sake must even assault Lucille, his beloved whom he had hoped would release him from his mental curse.
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