Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard

“John Carradine was a person, like Arthur Kennedy, I could hang onto.  He knew what we were trying to do.  Yah, it (Bluebeard) was a very lovely picture.”-Edgar G. Ulmer to Peter Bogdanovich, February 1970.


Edgar G. Ulmer represents a singular phenomenon in the history of American filmmaking.  In the twenties, Ulmer worked in numerous capacities on the films of such renowned German filmmakers as Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, F.W. Murnau and Paul Wegener.  And like these filmmakers, Ulmer immigrated to Hollywood when the Nazis began their climb for power.  The primary difference between Ulmer and his contemporaries is his position within the American studio system.  Where Siodmak and Wilder found both critical and commercial success in Hollywood genre films, Ulmer was relegated to making quick low-budget features.  The reason for Ulmer’s B-Movie exile has to do with the affair he had with a Universal Studio’s executive’s wife on the set of The Black Cat (1934).  By breaking up the marriage, Ulmer in essence had expelled himself from A-List features.

Ten years later, while making films for the Producers Releasing Corporation, Ulmer created a work of personal film art unprecedented when one considers the budgetary and creative restraints that were imposed upon him.  The film in question is Bluebeard, a film about a painter turned puppeteer when he begins killing the models that sit for him.  The script, penned by Arnold Phillips, Werner H. Furst, and Pierre Gendron is barely passable fare.  Yet, Ulmer is able to lift the film out of the realm of B-Movie mediocrity with the collaboration of his cinematographers Jockey Arthur Feindel and Eugen Schufftan (the cinematographer Ulmer always used on his more personal pictures).

For Ulmer, working in these conditions forced him to innovate elsewhere in the film, focusing on the image rather than the narrative content.  Bluebeard represents the most dramatic alternative in his approach, drawing on such diverse influences as German Expressionism, Eric Von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith, G.W. Pabst, and Carl Dreyer.  In essence, Bluebeard functions, on a visual level, as if the thirties had never occurred in American films.  The clumsy staging and flat lighting that were a technical necessity and still the relative norm in 1944 are totally absent in Ulmer’s film.  For Bluebeard, Ulmer designed all of the sets himself; he also manages to create and manipulate shadow to create not only depth and contrast in his compositions, but to add a level of psychological reflection, recalling his German roots in the industry.  In fact, two of the most compelling sequences in Bluebeard adopt the perverted landscapes of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) as their setting, distinguishing the flashbacks in Ulmer’s film from the rest of the narrative.  Likewise, Ulmer baths John Carradine’s character in shadows and puppet silhouette’s at the film’s climax, making a distinct reference to Murnau’s epic Faust (1926).

The most intriguing quotation in Bluebeard does not, however, have its origin in the German cinema of the twenties.  Instead Ulmer looks to Jean Cocteau’s Blood Of The Poet (1930).  In The Blood Of A Poet a man falls into a mirror as if the mirror were a pool of water.  This special effect is achieved by Cocteau through cross cutting two versions of the same shot in slow motion.  The image of a man falling into a black pool of water in slow motion is the last shot in Ulmer’s Bluebeard, when John Carradine falls off of a Parisian rooftop while being pursued by the police.  Logic suggests that through this quotation Ulmer is not only suggesting physical death, but spiritual death for the serial killing Bluebeard character John Carradine plays.

The myriad of silent film techniques Ulmer employs are all designed to illuminate the psychosis of the serial killer in the film.  These sequences of Expressionism are juxtaposed by long and sometimes languishing scenes of the police hard at work hunting down the killer.  The dramatic polarization that occurs visually between these two parts is a concept adapted from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931), a film on which Ulmer had worked.  But unlike Lang, Ulmer is more interested in the Expressionistic possibilities of his anti-hero than in the procedural details of justice.

Ulmer directing

Still, placing Bluebeard in a contemporary vernacular proves difficult.  Stylisticly it adheres to neither the popular blueprint provided by Citizen Kane (1941) or that of The Maltese Falcon (1941).  Ulmer’s approach and the odd nature of the film’s script defy any classification.  To approximate its standing in the context of cinema in the forties one has to innovate a new term, revisionist expressionism.  In other words, Bluebeard is a silent German film with sound.  Oddly enough, Bluebeard ends up having more in common with the films of Guy Maddin than with any of Ulmer’s then living contemporaries.

-Robert Curry


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