After reaching a career peak in the late fifties and mid-sixties as one of Hollywood's top directors with credits like Warlock (1959), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and Mirage (1965), director Edward Dmytryk joined that elite club of veteran directors marginalized by a Hollywood trying to cater to the new youth market, and like veterans John Ford, Michael Curtiz, Otto Preminger, and Howard Hawks, his final works were either pale versions of prior (and better) genre entries, big budget productions saddled with wan scripts lacking focus and characters, or wonky international co-productions that gathered a great collection of casts, sets, and locations to realize a poorly conceived screenplay.
Dmytryk, like his aforementioned (and slightly older) contemporaries, was a victim of the old guard being pushed aside by emerging talent (indie filmmakers and film school brats) and more popular genres (risqué exploitation, youth films, and genre-busting works like Badlands, The Godfather, and Bonnie and Clyde), but due to his background in big-budget epics and the ability to work with egotistical mega-stars, he was the ideal type to helm a slick production larded with international faces for the global market.
At least that's what producers Pierre Spengler and Alexander Salkind may have thought, and they made sure Bluebeard had a name and experienced director on hand (perhaps ignoring Dmytryk's disastrous western Shalako), lush production values, and two elements more typical of the Italian giallo genre: sex, and traumatic, gory violence.
It's probably a coincidence the film has a weird giallo sub-current: the use of stark primary colours for the costumes and sets, Ennio Morricone's bent music score, and beautiful women being murdered in eccentric manors are familiar elements of a genre then in its orgiastic heyday.
It's unsure whether director/co-writer Dmytryk was aware of any thin connections to the violent & fetishist giallo genre, whereas the film's other co-writers, Maria Pia Fusco and Ennio De Concini, were familiar with sexploitation elements, as the pair adapted Salon Kitty for popo-meister Tinto Brass in 1976. (Fusco was also involved in the writing of Emanuelle in Bangkok, the notorious Emanuelle in America, and Emanuelle Around the World for Joe D'Amato.)
Members of the striking female cast are respectively decapitated, impaled, shot, suffocated, drowned, and falconated (throat torn open and innards wrenched out by, uhm, a falcon), and there's no shortage of implied, sheer-veiled, and up-front nudity, filmed in soft, soothing pastel shades by cinematographer Gábor Pogány (lenser of the naughty Kleinhoff Hotel, and Antonio Bido's late-giallo entry, Night Train Murders).
It's a sexed-up variation of the murders implied in the viciously funny 1951 French film, and borrows the same core narrative of Bluebeard's latest wife conversing with her murderous hubby about his past killings before she's to be killed in the morning – a perfect springboard for a play, which the French film essentially is, but when the dialogue is flat, bereft of wit, and delivered by weaker talent (beautiful but dramatically inert Joey Heatherton, playing a heel-kicking dancer wooed by Bluebeard) the results are tedium, cliché, and boredom.
At 128 mins., Dmytryk's Bluebeard is way too long, and the flashbacks to prior wives also tend to drag, mostly because Dmytryk lets elements of scenes play long after the annoying traits which led Bluebeard to expel each successive wife to his private frozen freezer have been well established.
There's also a subplot with Mathieu Carriere (Love Rites, Young Torless) scheming to assassinate Bluebeard for supervising the destruction of his parents' business, and their deaths at the hands of Nazi brown shirts during a Jewish ghetto purge – perhaps the strangest addition to the Bluebeard legend.
Without using the swastika (an oddball “X” replaces the twisted cross), the screenwriters have upgraded Bluebeard from a local seigniorial despot to anti-Semitic fascist in some vague pocket of the German or Austro-Hungarian Empire, and like the real Hermann Goering, he's also a celebrated WWI fighter pilot. Unlike the virile Bluebeard in the French version (gregariously played by Pierre Brasseur), Dmytryk's upgrade is given a dose of odd irony: the exposure to toxic gas during the war didn't just turn his beard blue, but rendered him sexually kaput – an aggravation that certainly destines all of his stunningly beautiful wives to their deaths because he can never satisfy them, nor himself.
Reduced to a fascist fuddy-duddy who spends his free time making Rorschach portraits from the faces of his dead wives, he's certainly more tragic than prior versions, but also dull, and Richard Burton just doesn't have much to play with, although made between Hammersmith is Out and The Assassination of Trotsky, Bluebeard forms part of Burton's most bizarre trio of career choices (all in 1972), and there's a perverted fascination in watching the theatre-trained actor indulging in some signature tirades, and moments of sly subtlety. (A scene in which Bluebeard picks up another conquest at a ‘degenerate art exhibit' is particularly funny.)
Dmytryk also under-uses the gorgeous Hungarian estate used as Bluebeard's castle, and offers only short glimpses of the labyrinthine tunnels and winery hidden under the giant masonry, relying more on retentively colour-coordinated interior sets than the giant building. Dmytryk's prior training as an editor wasn't sufficiently exercised in the film's lethargic scenes and loose narrative threads (Heatherton's bandmate disappears after a dogfight, and reappears in a far-too distant wide shot in the finale scene), but he does construct the death scenes of each wife with a bit of panache.
(Formally credited to Dmytryk, the end credits contain a vague directorial credit in Italian to Luciano Sacripanti, a veteran second unit director who probably coordinated the stirring animal hunt in the film's first third. Shot on location, it's also a shocking sequence that shows various local game being violently shot on film.)
This is the most luxurious version of Bluebeard, and the cast and obvious T&A elements make it more than a passing curio, but one has to admire the vivid characterizations and plotting that was compressed into the 1951 Pierre Brasseur version, showing the horror, the glee, the intrigue, and tragedy of a monster allowed to live in his own special world for way too long.
Whereas producers Spengler and Salkind hit paydirt with their Musketeers and Superman films soon after, Dmytryk disappeared for three years until The Human Factor (1975). Co-stars Sybil Danning and Raquel Welch later appeared in the Musketeers film, whereas Joey Heatherton made one more feature film – The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977) before her film career flatlined.
This new DVD from Lionsgate and Maple brings this guilty pleasure back from out-of-print-oblivion, and seems to contain the same non-anamorphic widescreen transfer present on the prior Anchor Bay [AB] DVD and VHS releases. The AB edition remains unique for adding a theatrical trailer and stills & publicity gallery set to music, but at least fans no longer have to pay steep collector prices to enjoy one of the strangest attempts to reinvent the Bluebeard mythology.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan