Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday, October 9, 1971: Bluebeard (1944) / Before I Hang (1940)

Synopsis: In 19th-century Paris, the body of a young woman is fished out of the river Seine. She has been strangled, another victim of the notorious serial killer Bluebeard.  Women are urged to stay in at night, and not to take unnecessary risks - but it's difficult to take precautions when no one knows what Bluebeard looks like.

One evening young Babette (Patti McCarty) and her two friends Constance (Carrie Devan) and Lucille (Jean Parker), knowing that women aren't safe on the streets after dark, decide to walk home together.  On the gaslit streets they meet Gaston Morel, whom Babette recognizes -- he is "The Puppeteer", a painter well-known in Paris for the elaborate puppet operas he stages in the park.  Morel seems charmed to meet the young women, but is especially interested in Lucille, who claims to be entirely unafraid of Bluebeard.  He invites them all to see his show the following night, but it is clear that Lucille is the one he hopes will attend.

The following evening, Morel scans the crowd as he and his puppeteers perform "Faust".  He sees Lucille and after the show invites her backstage.  He tells her that he wishes to paint her; will she sit for him?

Flattered, she tells him that she will.  Meanwhile, Morel's assistant Renee angrily watches his flirtation with the new woman.

Later, Morel returns home to find Renee waiting for him.  She is angry that he is flirting with another new girl, and hurt that there have been other women who have posed for his pictures, women who have temporarily replaced her.  But, she says, "You always return to me."

Morel is dismissive, telling her to go home, but she presses him further.  What, she asks, has happened to the  women he's had dalliances with?  Where have they gone?  Angered, Morel removes his cravat and strangles her with it .  Later, he dumps her body in the river.

The next day, he goes to the police station, and reports Renee missing.  When her body is pulled out of the river he is asked to identify the body.  He does so, telling the police that Renee left the park before he did, and he is unable to say if she left alone or in someone's company.

But the next time Morel sees Lucille, he tells her that what he really wants is for her to make new costumes for his puppets.  By this time we've figured out an important part of Bluebeard's m.o. -- he only strangles women who have posed for the pictures he's painted.  Does the fact that he no longer wants to paint Lucille mean he is becoming genuinely fond of her?

Apparently so --  and Lucille is growing fond of him too.  She mends one of his torn cravats (which will, of course, prove to be an important plot point) and the two are spending more and more time together.

Meanwhile, police inspector Lefevre (Nils Asther) discovers that a painting on display in a Paris gallery has as its subject one of Bluebeard's victims.  He looks for other paintings by the same hand, and sure enough, all of the victims of Bluebeard appear to have sat for paintings.  But the identity of the artist is shrouded in mystery.

Lefevre locates the dealer of the paintings, who will not divulge the name of the artist.  Lefevre conducts a sting operation, arranging for a wealthy patron of the arts to offer an outrageous sum to the dealer -- if he can get the mysterious painter to take a last-minute job.  Tempted by the money, the dealer talks Morel into doing it.  But what Morel doesn't know is that his studio is now surrounded by the police -- and that the woman he is painting is Lucille's younger sister Francine....

Comments:  Bluebeard is a good example of the kind of movies Edgar G. Ulmer made throughout his career: while it isn't a great film, it is far better than it has any right to be.  Shot in 6 days at PRC, it is as good or better than any of Universal's comparable efforts in the mid 1940s. Ulmer makes good use of stock footage, which allows him to successfully evoke 19th-century Paris on the cramped poverty-row soundstages.  

He  handles his cast well, even coaxing a decent performance out of the incurably hammy John Carradine (in fact, this is probably the best performance of Carradine's career, though that isn't saying much).  The only over-the-top moments come as Carradine garrotes his victims -- we always get an extreme close-up of his bulging  eyes -- but for the most part Carradine is surprisingly low-key.  I have to imagine it was Ulmer who compelled him to dial it down; it's hard to believe that Carradine would deliver a restrained performance of his own volition.

Jean Parker plays Lucille, the ostensible protagonist and the focus of Morel's obsession.  You may remember her from the Inner Sanctum vehicle Dead Man's Eyes, in which she played Heather Hayden.  Parker never seems to stand out as an actress, and her features are too sharp to be attractive; it's a stretch to think that Morel would single her out as his new obsession.  Nevertheless, she turns in a good, workmanlike performance.

Teala Loring is somewhat more interesting as Lucille's kid sister Francine. Some reviews of Bluebeard speculate that Francine is the love interest of Inspector Lefevre; but I like to think their connection is more professional.  Francine is a sometime police operative, willing to serve as the bait in a series of risky stings.  Inevitably it catches up to her, but it's nice to see a woman in this era get more to do than just look pretty and be supportive of the leading man.  

Lefevre himself is played by Nils Asther, who so ably played the mystic Agor Singh in Night Monster. 

Interestingly, the serial killer is publicly referred to as "Bluebeard"  (the term refers to  a serial killer who preys upon his own discarded  paramours) long before Morel becomes a suspect.  That is the sort of continuity gap that would sink a bigger-budgeted picture.  But because it's a PRC title, we just shrug and go with it.

Entirely absent from this production is a plot point common to Bluebeard plots -- the killer telling his new lover to never open this locked door, no matter what.  I will admit I kept waiting for that moment, but it never came.

Before I Hang

Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death. 

Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging -- a sentence to be carried out in one month's time.

At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth's line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth's execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.

But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn't be allowed, and he takes the prisoner's blood after the execution. 

The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body.  But moments before the scheduled execution, Garth's sentence is commuted to life in prison.

Within 24 hours, Garth's body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark -- he seems in every way 20 years younger.

Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer's nature into his bloodstream....

Comments: There's an interesting moment in Before I Hang that takes place in the prison warden's office.  Dr. Garth is expounding on his theory of old age.  He tells the warden that contrary to popular belief, there's no reason why human beings ought to grow old and die.  Theoretically, the human lifespan should be unlimited. He mentions the work of Dr. Alexis Carrell, who proved that individual cells can reproduce indefinitely.  It's only when those cells are at work in the human body, says Dr. Garth, that the stresses of life build up toxins that cause the body to decay. 

Dr. Garth's name-check is intriguing because Carrel was a real person, a Nobel Prize winner who did groundbreaking work in the areas of vascular and open-heart surgery.

He was also interested in the science of aging. The work Dr. Garth mentions was widely known at the time the screenplay was written.  In 1912, Carrel sealed a culture taken from a chicken's heart inside a flask, giving it regular doses of nutrient.  He reported that the cells continued to divide in the flask for more than twenty years, proving that individual cells can reproduce far beyond the lifespan of the creature from which they were taken. Carrel's findings captured the popular imagination, and for decades the idea that cells can live forever outside the body was commonly believed to be true.

But Carrel's research could never be replicated by other scientists, and his claims eventually lost credibility.  In the end scientists eventually discovered what would be known as the "Hayflick limit" -- a cap on the number of times a cell can divide.  The prevailing view today is that cell division is finite because if it weren't, replication errors would eventually creep into the DNA sequence, and cancer would run wild in the organism.  It turns out that humans aren't meant to live forever - just long enough to transmit their DNA to a new generation.  Then their work is done.

Unfortunately, Carrel's interests extended into some unsavory areas.  He was an outspoken proponent of eugenics, and lavished great praise on the Nazi program of exterminating those whom society believed to be inferior. After the German invasion, Carrel used his connections with the infamous Marshall Petain to secure an important medical post in Vichy France. After the country was liberated, Carrell was arrested and charged with treason, but he died in 1944, before he could stand trial.


kochillt said...

Teala Loring was billed as 'Judith Gibson' in only four titles, chief among them Monogram's RETURN OF THE APE MAN, with Lugosi and Carradine (she also did a Charlie Chan with Sidney Toler, DARK ALIBI). The mention of Dr. Carrell reminds me of a line from THE BENNY HILL SHOW: "seems to me that death is simply nature's way of telling you to slow down."

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