Saturday, June 24, 1972: Bluebeard (1944) / Island of Doomed Men (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 movie that plays better than it sounds, and credit for its success should go to director Edgar G. Ulmer, who does two things that really help the production: he keeps events moving at a fast clip, and makes it look more sumptuous than its budget allowed through smart use of stock footage.

Ulmer also manages to keep a leash on the hammy John Carradine, who plays Morel as a laconic murderer who is ultimately undone by his own obsessions.

One curious thing about Morel is his decision to set aside his career as a well-regarded (and well-compensated) painter in order to launch a puppet theater that puts on (apparently free) performances in the park.  This strikes me as something of a step down, career-wise. I think we’re supposed to read something profound in this; Morel’s paintings are all of his various victims and perhaps this is an indication that he wants to put that behind him.  But the Bluebeard murders occur even after Morel is operating the puppet theater.  The puppet theater subplot seems to be a means for Morel to hook Lucille (he recruits her to design puppet costumes) and also makes it possible to trap Morel by getting his manager to  convince the painter to do one more job.

Carradine carries the movie pretty much on his own; no one else really stands out. Jean Parker has a brittle sort of look that I don’t find at all appealing;’ as you may recall she was  the hatchet-faced fiance to Lon Chaney, Jr. in Dead Man’s Eyes.  She’s not quite as abrasive here as she was in that Inner Sanctum opus, but I fail to see what Morel sees in her.

Island of Doomed Men



Synopsis: Federal agent Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcox) is on his first day on the job as an undercover operative.  He is told that once sent on his assignment, the agency will be unable to assist him if he gets into trouble.  He’s given the code number 64, and sent to a meeting with his counterpart, agent 46.

46 tells him that a man named Stephen Danel is running a slavery operation on the appropriately-named Dead Man’s Island.  The island is owned by Danel but it falls within U.S. jurisdiction.  Up until now Danel’s activities have attracted little notice from the government, because no one who goes there ever returns.  Neverthless, 46 says that Danel is running a slave-labor operation on the island. “Lincoln freed the slaves,” 46 says. “Mr. Danel is back in the trade and doing very well at it.”

It’s clear that 46 wants Sheldon to do something about all this, but before we find out the details, 46’s briefing is cut short by a bullet fired through the window by an unseen assailant.  46 is mortally wounded.  Knowing he will be blamed for the crime, Sheldon runs for it, but he’s caught by the police.  He stoically refuses to answer any questions about the shooting, merely stating that he didn’t commit the crime.  He also gives the obviously phony name of “John Smith” to his interrogators.

Meanwhile, we learn that Stephen Danel (Peter Lorre) was very near the scene of the crime, and it was he who dispatched the gunman that killed 46.

“Smith” is convicted of murder, and the judge — sensing that there is more to the story — expresses sympathy to his plight.  Nevertheless he has no choice but to sentence Smith to life in prison.

There follows a montage of prison life.  Smith spends a year breakin’ up rocks in the hot sun, yet he is still determined to complete his task and find out the secrets of the mysterious Dead Man’s Island.

Help comes to Smith from an unexpected source.  It turns out that Danel gets his slave labor from the ranks of prison parolees; and because he is uncertain as to how much Smith knows, he convinces the parole board to remand Smith to his own custody.  His island, he tells the board, is the perfect place to rehabilitate ex-convicts, what with all the fresh air and honest work.

Soon Smith and a half-dozen other prisoners are being transported to Dead Man’s Island.  The men quickly learn that conditions here are far worse than the prison they just left.  They are forced to work long, grueling days in the open-pit mine, and are chained to their bunks at night.  Men are whipped mercilessly for the slightest offenses, and shot if they should attempt to get through the electrified fences that surround the mining camp.

The men are miserable, but just as unhappy is Danel’s long-suffering wife Lorraine.  It seems that she had been dazzled by Danel’s money and promises of the good life, but has since discovered that she’s now living in a gilded cage – Danel won’t allow her to visit the mainland, and she is just as much a prisoner as the parolees working in the mines.

When Lorraine learns that Sheldon might be a federal agent, she is determined to meet with him — even though a meeting may come at the cost of her own life ….

Comments: Agent Mark Sheldon is ostensibly the protagonist of this modest Columbia thriller, but everyone knows this movie really belongs to Peter Lorre.  He’s so deliciously evil in this picture that the only other actor you could imagine playing the part would be Vincent Price, who in 1940 would still have been too callow for the role.  The script would have to be tailored to fit Price’s oily, ironic charm anyway – and could Price have so effectively strolled around a tropical island in a pith helmet and a white linen suit, gently ordering 20 lashes for insubordination?  It’s hard to imagine. What we have in Island of Doomed Men is the laconic Danel behaving like a coiled snake, seeing everything and striking quickly when the moment is right, taking everyone around him off guard.

That’s the sort of thing Lorre excelled at, and it’s delightful to watch him work.  Lorre’s Danel is tightly wound, quiet and controlled right up until the moment his volcanic temper gets the better of him.  It works for the most part, though Lorre’s bulgy-eyed outbursts sometimes veer toward self-parody (“Keep that monkey away from me!” he shrieks at one point) and he is not physically large enough to be imposing — he seems quite small even in comparison with his wife Lorraine, a thinly-written part thinly played by Rochelle Hudson.

In spite of  Lorre’s brilliant performance, Island of Doomed Men is another example of Columbia’s squeamishness as a studio.  The exploitative intent of the material is clear (WOMEN SHUDDERING AT HIS CRUEL CARESS! the one-sheet screams. MEN DYING UNDER HIS TORTURING LASH!) yet there isn’t a lot of exploitation to be found; the camera doesn’t linger on the scenes of torture or on Danel’s psychological domination of Lorraine.  It all seems quite tame and perfunctory, even by the standards of 1940. One can only imagine how eagerly Universal would have seized the more lurid aspects of this material, as they did with Tower of London. 

Director Charles Barton soft-pedals the privations — both physical and psychological — that men in such a place suffer, and he seems reluctant to demonstrate the sadism that is ascribed to Danel himself.   Sadism, after all, is what we’re led to believe motivates him – but his actions don’t really suggest a sadist.  In fact he doesn’t even stick around for the punishments he orders his subordinates to carry out.  By the end of the picture it seems more like a control freak with an eye toward enhanced productivity from his staff.  He just wants more of what he’s already got, hardly a novel motivation for any villain. “Everything on this island belongs to me,” he mutters during his (inevitable) death scene

It wasn’t until the end of World War II that Americans first saw the films brought back from  liberated death camps, and perhaps for the first time in history civilians got a good hard look at the drepavity that had been heretofore witnessed only by soldiers at the front lines. If Island of Doomed Men seems timid, perhaps it’s only because Barton wouldn’t — or couldn’t — imagine the true potential of human cruelty.  He wouldn’t be  the first to have failed in that department.

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2 comments

  1. BLUEBEARD was John Carradine's personal favorite of all his genre roles, made at a time when he could bring all of his Shakespearean aspirations to the fore in a screen performance of careful shading and nuance. It's certainly an eye opener for those only familiar with his overdone characterizations where he had little or no direction, while here his good friend Edgar G. Ulmer finally brings to fruition a project first mooted for Boris Karloff in the wake of 1934's THE BLACK CAT. ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN was one of the few Columbia titles included in the 1958 television package SON OF SHOCK, along with two others starring Peter Lorre, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU. As Hollywood couldn't show the more lurid aspects of their 40s thrillers, we have to make do with other characters' reactions to Lorre's Stephen Danel, particularly whenever he needs to light a cigarette. His quiet, soft spoken presence is more unnerving than the bombastic, overripe performance that could have resulted, making those moments when he does lose control that much more effective; just what was it about that monkey anyway? BLUEBEARD made 2 appearances on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater (during the 1970s), ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN only once, in 1966.

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