John Carradine spent nearly a decade making a name for himself as character actor in A pictures, mainly as a contract player for Twentieth Century-Fox, but threw his reputation away to pursue a dream of classical showmanship. To raise money for a touring acting company, Carradine made himself available to Poverty Row, where he might at least get the satisfaction of occasional top billing. One early foray into this territory, Hitler's Madman, even got picked up for distribution by a major, M-G-M. Ultimately, Carradine didn't seem to care what roles he took, hitting an early career low as Bela Lugosi's stooge in Voodoo Man. Still, his name probably gave some prestige to these cheap pictures, and Edgar G. Ulmer's Bluebeard was clearly PRC's idea of a prestige picture. PRC was a company best known for Buster Crabbe westerns. Its best known films today are Ulmer's. The German-born director had a knack of making the most of very little, as Bluebeard illustrates.
Ulmer's picture aims for the psychological-horror niche established by the Spencer Tracy version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1941) and occupied by contemporary pictures like The Lodger and The Picture of Dorian Gray. The title character isn't one of the historical recipients of the "Bluebeard" title but a fictional character, the painter/puppeteer Gaston Morrell. With Carradine's identity as a serial killer, established early, the film quickly becomes a cat-and-mouse game as the French authorities try to lure the suspect into compromising himself. The early hints of a procedural format and the killer's resort to sewers as an escape route seem to anticipate He Walked By Night, but Bluebeard is eventually as much interested in the why of the killings as it is in the how of stopping them. The analysis isn't exactly sophisticated: Morrell idealized and fell in love with an early model, strangled her when he learned her true nature, then saw every future model as the first returned to torment him. The idea is nothing special, but its illustration in a flashback sequence is Ulmer's stylistic highlight, allowing him to resort to odd camera angles and other tricks both to establish the scene as not-the-present and to suggest the off-kilter perspective of the mad narrator. Apart from that, Ulmer's team works overtime as usual to make the cramped sets (now obscured by muddy prints) look as well-dressed and atmospheric as possible. The really interesting thing about the story to me wasn't the killer's psychology -- Carradine and others have done basically the same thing many times over -- but the idea that Morrell is exploited and enabled by another man, an art dealer (Ludwig Stossel) who knows of the killings and their cause but insists that Morrell paint because the murderous impulse allegedly results in fine art. While the movie may write off Morrell as a sick man, the art dealer looms as a genuinely evil figure, playing both sides (killer and police) against the middle to get one more painting out of his protege, even if it means one more victim for the killer. The type Carradine plays may still have been a novelty in 1944, but it's so commonplace now that Stossel nearly steals the picture from the star. But in the end there's no way Stossel can compete with Carradine's extraordinary presence, amplified by period costume and makeup, and his arguable empathy with the ruthlessness of art and its costs.