It was only a matter of time before we got around again to Richard Burton. (The actor, not the explorer.) Burton, after all, was chosen by Harry and Michael Medved as being The Worst Actor of All Time in their seminal The Golden Turkey Awards. Writ brief, their reasoning was as follows: Burton’s ‘instrument,’ as it were, was extraordinarily powerful. Focused correctly, it provided some of the finest portrayals to grace the silver screen. Allow it to run amok, however, andâ€¦ The Medveds summed up by quoting the old child’s rhyme:
There was a little girl, who had a little curl,
right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good,
but when she was bad she was horrid.
History has been kind to Burton, choosing to remember his triumphal cinematic appearances over his rather more numerous awful ones. Even so, the roll call is hardly what you’d hope for from the man once heralded to be Laurence Olivier’s heir to the British Stage. Of course, Lord Larry’s roster of awful big screen endeavors very nearly matches that of his erstwhile successor. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Olivier himself in the not too distant future.
Limiting ourselves to very good or great movies, Burton starred in the following: Look Back in Anger, Becket, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Equus and Nineteen Eighty-Four. In addition, he provided a bit of narration for the classic war drama Zulu. (I’m also rather partial to his voice acting on that neat-o War of the Worlds musical adaptation, available on audiocassette and CD.)
In contrast, here’s a list restricted solely to his all-out, Grade-A cinematic turkeys: The V.I.P.s. The Sandpiper. Doctor Faustus. Boom! Candy. Bluebeard. The Assassination of Trotsky. Hammersmith is Out. The Klansman. The Medusa Touch. And, of course, Exorcist II: The Heretic. Notice that I’m not including marginal losers like Circle of Two or Cleopatra.
Let’s more closely examine those lists. First, not only is the latter roughly twice as long as the former, but it’s of a consistently higher grade. None of the pictures in the first line-up, impressive as some of them are, are going to make many Greatest Films Ever lists. Yet you can make a credible case for at least four of the second group as being amongst the Worst Films Ever. In fact, Exorcist II: The Heretic was chosen by voters to be the Second Worst Film of All Time in, again, The Golden Turkey Awards. Only the fabled Plan Nine from Outer Space nudged it out. It’s also generally conceded to be the worst sequel ever made.
Another issue is the extent to which Burton himself can be fairly blamed for the ruinous cinematic flops he acted in. Let’s compare him with, say, Michael Caine. As loyal Jabootuites know, Mr. Caine has graced this site with some regularity. Certainly amongst lead actors or actresses he has yet to meet his match in number of appearances here. (Although Cameron Mitchell, as a supporting actor, might have edged him out by now.) Even so, Mr. Caine often breezes through his copious turkeys whilst remaining personally unscathed. As an analogy, consider that short where Buster Keaton walks through a violent windstorm. Suddenly, the entire front faÃ§ade of a house begins to pitch forward, threatening to mash Mr. Keaton to death. Instead, when all is done, he finds himself standing safely in the exact space provided by the faÃ§ade’s sole open window.
This roughly represents Mr. Caine’s circumstances. Often he is good in a bad movie. (Jaws 4: The Revenge, anyone?) Even when his performance is part of the problem, as is The Swarm or The Holcroft Covenant, it’s such a small part that few fingers get pointed in his direction. He just nonchalantly brushes the dust off his shoulders and waltzes on to his next movie, whistling a happy tune.
Not so, however, for Mr. Burton. When one of his films implodes, he’s at the very gravitational heart of it. His immense personal magnetism, gone awry, creates an artistic black hole that can suck a movie right in on top of himself. No other actor, no script, no, not even light itself can escape from it.
Historical figures rise to dominance through a mix of talent, happenstance, personality and timing. So it was with Burton. God gave him talent. The rigors of the British stage brought it to full power. Happenstance got him cast opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Fittingly for someone assaying the Queen of the Nile, Ms. Taylor was considered by many of her contemporaries to be the loveliest woman in the world. Two extremely talented, vain and beautiful people, Dick and Liz immediately fell under the spell of their combined gloriousness. As a couple they embodied that glittering subset of humanity dubbed The Jet-Set. At a time in which regular foreign travel was still prohibitively expensive for most, these were larger-than-life figures, almost demigods. They lived by caprice, traveling the world according to their own whims. Breakfast in Greece, lunch in Paris and a late night of gambling in Monte Carlo.
It was a quest for constant stimulation, marked by often-grotesque opulence, free from moral constraints and driven almost purely by hedonistic impulse. For many, this could be a harsh environment that would eventually exact a heavy price. So it was for the Burtons. In a fairly short amount of time, their wondrously beauteous forms became bloated. Stardom became a necessity rather than a goal; the riches and adulation it brought were their tickets into the world they now inhabited. However, as their bodies coarsened, so too, it seemed, did their talents. Acting became a job, a tool, and it usually showed.
Yet Burton never could have achieved the Jabootuic heights he did if not for the times in which he lived. It was the ’60s. Society was in turmoil, a state most of the intelligentsia encouraged. Meanwhile, the legendary Studio System, in which the studios basically ‘owned’ talent due to long-term contracts and merely assigned them their next pictures, had recently and precipitously collapsed. One of the people who kicked it to death was Jimmy Stewart, the first star to take a percentage of the gross instead of a big upfront acting fee. The film, Winchester ’74, for which this occurred was a major hit. Seeing the immense monies Stewart raked in as a result caused even old-fashioned upfront fees to skyrocket.
It was a bewildering time for the studios. They now provided funding while often splitting profits and maintaining less control over the resultant product than ever before. That was one side of the equation. The filmmakers themselves, intoxicated by the impossible amounts of money and power they now wielded, could now afford to be dogged by the notion that they weren’t creating ‘Art.’ In France a group of intellectuals, including future director Francois Truffaut, had begun to seriously examine film as an art form. Eventually these flattering conceits worked their way back to Hollywood, where amongst the hipper, younger set imported terms like ‘film noir’ and the ‘auteur theory’ began to flit about.
It was a heady mix. Newly gained power, augmented by a newfound sense of artistic importance. And so these newly empowered directors and screenwriters and actors introduced a radically heightened level of experimentation into the making of American films. In the end, the late ’60s and early ’70s would prove amongst the most artistically ambitious and fecund periods in American film.
Craftsmanship became, by many, a disdained quality. Any hack, it was assumed, could pick up technical skills. Art, though, capitol ‘A’ Art, could only be created by those who able to tap into the Zeitgeist. In this, unsurprisingly, the youth of the day largely carried the banners. The Coppolas, the Scorseses, the Nicholsons, the DeNiros, the Polanskis. And let’s not forget the newly influential American film critics, like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kahl. They were, for a brief period before they grew powerful enough to become mere marketing tools, redefining film as a cultural force.
Older stars, those of the World War II era, the John Waynes and Bob Hopes and (ironically) Jimmy Stewarts, looked upon the situation with unease and, often, distaste. Their audiences, largely middle class and still socially conservative, felt much the same, and thus remained loyal to their established favorites. And so these older actors continued to grind out often-mediocre work for the culturally scorned Middle America. Even in their twilight years, with their best work largely behind them, such stars could afford to return the contempt of the New Hollywood. They were the giants, and they had nothing to prove to a bunch of pretentious, know-it-all punks.
(Although the latter did often get the last word. Bruce Dern, an actor who epitomized the New Actor, was hired to portray the cowardly backshooter who outraged much of America by murdering John Wayne’s character in The Cowboys. Wayne ambled up to Dern and noted that he’d be hated in Middle American after the film came out. “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley,” Dern replied.)
Others, though, especially those whose stars rose in the ’50s and early ’60s rather than the ’30s and ’40s, hungered to feel artistically vibrant. They wanted to prove that they were still, in the parlance of the day, ‘with it.’ The Studios, feeling the heat of declining revenues, gave them their heads. They threw huge amounts of money at the screen, hoping to draw audiences with garish spectacle that their mortal enemy Television couldn’t hope to match. The infamous Cleopatra, in adjusted dollars, might well have cost more than twice as much as James Cameron’s behemoth-like Titanic.
Meanwhile, indecipherable little films like Easy Rider, produced by comparative nobodies and on shoestring budgets, were generating tens of millions of dollars. Studio heads, hopelessly out of touch with the Youth Market, hired anyone under thirty who walked through the door. At the same time, the old-timers that remained frantically clung to ideas like ‘established stars,’ ideas that they could wrap their minds around. Sure, the withering stars of the Golden Age continued to churn out their last-gasp Westerns and flaccid comedies. And these films turned out a reliable profit, one that was reliable but not the giant successes the studios were just now beginning to increasingly rely upon.
But certainly, it was thought, there was that middle generation. Not the John Waynes and Henry Fondas, but the Marlon Brandos and, yes, the Richard Burtons and Elizabeth Taylors. If punk kids could make millions with no resources and weird, technically inept little pictures that made no sense, surely Hollywood could make even more, once they figured out what these new audiences wanted.
This, again, served to increase the power of the talent. Talent that was extraordinarily arrogant and pampered, yet who themselves secretly feared the hungry youths beating on the doors behind them. And so they were matched with Studios that were queasily entering a new age, in which they often had to trust others to intuit what the public wanted. Studios that also prayed that they could continue to work with the kinds of people they understood, not these ragged, pot-smoking Peter Fondas and Dennis Hoppers and Jack Nicholsons. The result? Massive amounts of money available to fund projects that were often vain attempts to prove the hippness of those who made them.
Otto Preminger and Jackie Gleason (!) made Skidoo. Stanley Kramer and Anthony Quinn made R.P.M. John Huston and Marlon Brando (and Elizabeth Taylor) made Reflections in a Golden Eye. And, alone and together, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor made more stupendously pretentious bad movies than I can go into here.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. In a comparatively short period, many of the greatest American films were produced. It was, and is, considered a golden age of cinema. However, there is a more largely ignored corollary. It was also the Golden Age of Dreck. As never before, and as never again, Jabootu reigned supreme. His claws were red and his teeth were white and he feasted well upon the multitude of bloated cinematic corpses strewn before him. Never again would such economies of wealth and hubristic talent align so perfectly for his dark purposes.
Here we have just such a film, although a comparatively late example. (You knew we’d get here someday, right?) It was made by pros trying to keep up with the times. In this case not just Burton, but director Edward Dymtryk. Dymtryk moved from b-movie potboilers in the ’40s (Captive Wild Woman, Confessions of Boston Blackie) to what promised to be a major career. He directed the Philip Marlowe classic Murder, My Sweet, as well as such films as Crossfire and The Caine Mutiny.
However, he was also one of the fabled Hollywood Ten. These were directors and writers who refused to testify before the HUAC anti-Communist hearings in the late ’40s. After some time spent in jail for contempt of Congress, Dymtryk changed his mind and decided to give testimony. This ruined his reputation in Hollywood, as it did for such other major talents as Elia Kazan. His career never fully recovered, and he spent much of the rest of his life working in Europe. Aside from Bluebeard, his other major Jabootuonian credit is for directing The Carpetbaggers, a typically awful Harold Robbins adaptation.
Unsurprisingly, our subject today is an adaptation, of sorts, of the legend of Bluebeard. Bluebeard is the tale of a young bride who is told by her new husband that she must never enter one particular room. Naturally she does (Pandora’s box, and all that), and discovers the bodies of her husband’s many previous wives. In France, early 20th century serial murderer Henri Landru was nicknamed Bluebeard after murdering a series of young women he courted. He was arrested in 1919 and convicted two years later, whereupon he made the acquaintance of Madame Guillotine. The case loosely inspired many films, including the Charlie Chaplin anti-war black comedy Monsieur Verdoux and 1944’s Bluebeard. The latter was helmed by cult director Edgar G. Ulmer and provided John Carradine with what many consider to be his finest screen role.
Our Bluebeard, however, doesn’t really work off of the Landru case. It has other fish to fry, as we shall see. Filmed in Hungary and funded by backers from numerous European countries, it was demanded that the film be jam-packed with nudity. In 1972, this was considered ‘artistic’ and ‘daring’ in the States, at least for a film sporting name talent. In the more jaded Europe it was commercially de rigueur. Hence most every woman in the film, with the notable exception of its biggest female ‘name,’ Raquel Welch, appears topless. (I hope this doesn’t make the film sound more interesting than it is.)
Hoping to attract continental audiences, notable actresses from across Europe made appearances here. Agostina Belli starred in such films as The Seduction of Mimi. She worked with directors like Lina Wertmuller and Lucio Fulci, and with actors Marcello Mastroianni and Kirk Douglas. Nathalie Delon appeared in the French noir classic Le Samourai for Jean-Pierre Melville and she worked for, among others, Joseph Losey and Roger Vadim. Marilá»© Tolá»› worked for Fellini and Dario Argento. Also on hand for a bit is Sybil Danning (!). Meanwhile, the American side of things was covered by the previously alluded to Welch, along with the picture’s female lead, Joey Heatherton. (!!) Heatherton is perhaps best remembered today for inspiring the Lola Heatherton character on SCTV, although she did star in The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington.
We open on a WWI era biplane flying above a well-dressed crowd. A band strikes up a jaunty tune and we see a banner welcoming the return of Baron von Sepper. The plane lands and the cheering populace greets the great man himself (Burton). A girl shrinks from the sight of his vaguely bluish-hued beard and we freeze-frame (!) on his visage as the credits roll. The monotonous strummed theme music and overtly arty credit sequence cue us that we’re in for a bit of a ride.
We cut to Baron Sepper (I’m not writing ‘von’ every time) standing before a portrait of a dignified lady and readying an old-fashioned camera. Next he’s in a darkroom, developing a snapshot of said painting and working various effects upon it. We watch as the photograph evolves into a series of abstract images only slightly reminiscent of the original woman’s face. Presumably this took a lot of work at the time. Luckily, we can now achieve much the same effect with Paint Shop Pro using only the ‘Black Pencil’ and ‘Rotating Mirror’ commands.
The final result ends up framed and hanging on the wall in Sepper’s (egad!) pipe organ room. This lavish setting tells us that the Baron is quite well-to-do, while his Phantom of the Opera-esque playing confirms that this will be that most ghastly of all things, a ‘spoof.’ (In the general sense, not in terms of being a specific parody of anything.) Perhaps the most telling omen, however, is the appearance of three monstrously huge dogs in the room. Lying before Burton, one can only imagine how they salivated in the presence of this gigantic ham. We are also witness to the Baron’s pet falcon. This comes to land on his shoulder as he tickles the ivories, all whilst woodenly staring at the portrait of an older woman hanging opposite him.
We cut to an opulent ball. Sophisticated couples waltz away, including Sepper and one young lovely named, inevitably, Greta. The lights dim (another omen!) and when they return the twosome are discovered to have gone. We cut to find them outside in the garden. Here we get our first excruciating earful of Burton’s comic opera Germanic accent, which is about as effective as his fiberglass beard. He woos Greta in a tedious little sequence that seems to ramble on endlessly, not exactly an encouraging sign when watching a film lasting over two hours. Bored, we begin to notice things like how the lighting makes Sepper’s tuxedo look a particularly garish shade of purple. He then kisses Greta’s hand in the manner of a family pet licking a dollop of peanut butter off its owner’s finger.
Greta makes to touch his beard, but he tells her not to. Presumably, given the film’s title and all, this will prove a plot point of some sort. He explains that he’s had it since The War. We cut to some sloppily inserted stock footage of a WWI German biplane crashing to the ground and bursting into flames. “I was a little slow getting out,” he notes over shots of the instantly occurring conflagration. This spontaneous inferno apparently resulted in some scarring on his chin. (?) “[A]nd some strange chemical reaction,” he continues, “and I can’t shave.” Uh, yeah. OK. Whatever. Anyway, the ‘chemical reaction’ resulted in the very slight blue tinge to his beard that we can see whenever the lighting is exactly right.
I guess my first reaction to this was, did they really think they had to be quite so literal about the whole ‘blue’ beard thing? It seems a tad heavy-handed. Second, do fires really result in ‘strange chemical reactions’ of this sort? Meanwhile, that exact phrasing, along with the sight of Sepper’s purple tux, made it seem like they were making some bizarre allusions to the origin of The Joker.
The couple kisses â€“ not a pretty sight â€“ after which Greta is attacked by a cat. (?) Sepper explains that it was his mother’s cat. Oh. All right, then. (Presumably his mother is the woman whose portrait lies opposite his *ahem* pipe organ. Gee, could they be setting up a subtle Mother Fixation of some sort?) Taking her back inside the ballroom, Greta is whisked away by her *cough* comic relief parents. In case you’re wondering, the mother’s ‘humorous’ trait is that she’s a nag, the father’s that he’s a drunk.
When Greta departs, Sepper is surrounded by some of his aristocratic toadies. They are complaining about unionizers and other manifestations of working class uppityness. Lest we fail to ‘get’ their snobbery, one gentlemen speaks derisively of “men who can’t tell wine from Champagne!” (Someone involved with the film evidently has a prejudice against Champagne, because much caustic attention is paid to it throughout.) Having a point to make, albeit a pretty lame one, Dymtryk makes sure to have these fellows wildly overplay their parts. In any case, they’re hoping that the Baron will use his vast influence to peacefully convince the workers to behave. Sepper, however, believes that a firmer hand should be used.
Here’s where the film gets both actively offensive and epically moronic. We cut to some obvious European Jews, and I mean right out of a production of Fiddler on the Roof. One quick scream later and they’re being assaulted by literally jackbooted thugs. Here we meet up with the film’s single most bizarre stylistic oddity. You see, the thugs are dressed in all ways like Nazis, complete with leather boots, jackets and caps, but their identifying Swastikas have been altered slightly. The mind can only boggle at what the point of this was. You can’t say this material is meant to be metaphorical, because it’s much too on the nose. It’d be like watching a biographical movie about Adolph Hitler, only one where they’ve decided to refer to him as Dolph Itler. So what reason could there be to modify (a little) the Swastikas? Were they afraid that Nazis would complain about how they were being represented here? In 1972? What the heck? (Future Ken: Actually, the reason has been provided. See the end of the article.)
Cue the typical mÃ©lange of pointless cruelty and destruction, including a none-too-subtle zoom-in on a toppled Menorah and, inevitably, the upsetting of a fruit cart. Windows are broken (gee, if these were Nazis it’d be just like Kristalnacht), the word ‘Juden’ is painted on walls, stores are burned down, etc. One such shop, in particular, sells musical instruments, and we watch violins go up in flames. We end the scene slowly zooming in on the face of one devastated young man, apparently the son of the man who owned the instrument store. Purportedly meant to be tearful, his visage instead looks like someone smeared large gobs of Vaseline over his face. Which, probably, was the case.
We segue from the flames of the burning store to some inordinately large flames rising from dozens of candles. The camera pulls back and we see we’re in a church, one where Sepper and Greta are being wed. How’s that for an arty transition, eh? As Greta is about to take communion a blast of thunder sounds and the wafer is dropped to the floor. It’s a portent, I think. I don’t know, it’s mighty subtle, but I think it’s a portent. We then cut to Sepper’s palatial mansion, where he is pounding away at his organ. I know that sounds like a juvenile attempt at a lame and smutty little quip. Unfortunately, it’s not one I can avoid, as it’s actually the film that’s employing it. Over and over again.
He is interrupted by Greta. She expositories that it’s their second anniversary, and time to begin the celebratory hunt. Said hunt is shot in some sordid detail, as the film again beats us over the head with the decadence of the aristocratic set. In case you’ve somehow failed to make the association, the cruelty of hunt — shot at some length and represented at one point by a close-up of the quivering nose of a cute little bunny-wunny — is meant to be an analog to the recently witnessed assault on the Jews. Get it? (Somewhat diminishing the effect of all this indignant righteousness is the fact that they apparently actually killed animals for this sequence.)
After a time-wasting montage of blown-away animals straight out of a PETA film, Greta is seen merrily shooting down the aforementioned bunny rabbit. (Boo! Hiss! Why doesn’t she buy her meat in grocery stores, like the rest of us?) However, the tides turn when she is charged by a wild boar. No, I’m not referring to Burton, although it’s by far the film’s most effective metaphor. Her husband is nearby, though, and saves her life with a quick shot. As she runs forward to gloat over the beast, however, another shot rings out. Greta falls lifeless and lands atop the dead beast, which I’m sure is meant to mean something, although I don’t know what. On the other hand, she’s one of only two women to die in this flick without having to expose her ta-tas. (Future Ken: Or so I thought. See later.) So at least it was a death with dignity.
An inquest quickly pronounces the death an accident and the body is cleared for internment. We cut to Greta’s corpse, dressed all in white and laying upon a candle lit funeral bed. I must say, she left a pretty decent looking body behind, considering that she was shot with a rifle powerful enough to drop a charging wild boar with a single shot. Not a mark on her. Sepper, standing over her with his camera, takes her picture, but not before bending over for a kiss that adds implied necrophilia to the film’s litany of offenses against good taste. Soon another abstracted face print is added to the wall next to the earlier one. Then a quick sequence shows three, four, five and finally six others joining the first two. It’s sort of like the sped-up passing of history in George Pal’s The Time Machine. This allowed for a fantasy, albeit one cruelly short-lived, that maybe the rest of the film would proceed in this fashion and the whole mess would be over in minute or two.
The conclusion of this pleasant and whimsical interlude, however, proves especially harsh. For not only does the movie restart portraying events at ‘normal’ speed, but we immediately segue to a shot of Joey Heatherton (JOEY HEATHERTON!!), wearing a silver-spangled leotard and shaking her stuff on a stage. I believe her antics are meant to suggest the customary exuberance of the Flapper. Unfortunately, the actual nature of her disjointed and awkward gyrations tends more to call to mind Flipper. A Flipper, moreover, who is being hauled aboard a tuna boat on a large hook. Sadly, nothing else about Ms. Heatherton, certainly not her thespians skills, will call to mind that noble sea creature.
I’m not even going to describe the rest of the ‘act,’ which, yes, involves a guy in a raccoon skin coat. Sigh. Anyway, the conclusion of this aptly named ‘routine’ is met with a fusillade of flowers from the audience, presumably the European analog to tossing rotten tomatoes. Amongst the flung foliage we see *gasp* (or something) a black rose. Apparently fearful that the sudden cut to a close-up wasn’t sufficient to draw our attention to this object, they have Heatherton stoop to pick it up. Looking in the direction from whence it came, she sees Sepper, whose beard is now very blue indeed. (Continuity!)
Following the established motif of the film, the Baron is arrayed in a classic Nazi Brown Shirt outfit, complete with a thin leather strap crossing bandoleer fashion across the chest. Here’s the clever twist, though. The shirt isn’t brown. It’s green. See. Big difference. That’s what makes it Art, you see. Anyway, down in the violin pit we focus on a young man who’s presumably the older version of the Vaseline-besmirched lad from the Kristalnacht scene. Ooo, ooo, plot point! Plot Point!
Back in her dressing room, Anne — for that’s our heroine’s name — is being importuned by Sergio, her stage partner. It’s quite evident that he’s got a crush on her. And I mean, quite evident. Equally obvious is that he’s the archetypical nice guy who doesn’t yank her chain. So enter Baron von Sepper. Here Anne emerges from behind her dressing screen whilst clad in a dress so horrifying that I imagined Sepper was going to arrest her. Instead, he turns on the charm â€“ look, just go with it â€“ and Anne quickly falls under his spell. Meanwhile, the violinist is shown skulking around in the alley behind the dressing room. Because, you know, they don’t want us to miss his relevance to the plot.
Cue a romantic montage between Burton and his daughter. Oh, I’m sorry. Between Sepper, Burton’s character, and Anne, played by Joey Heatherton. Who’s only young enough to be Burton’s daughter. Yes, that’s much more accurate.
Anyway. They pick flowers. He pushes her on a rope swing attached to a big tree. They play chess. (Joey Heatherton pretending she knows how to play chess! Perhaps she’ll pantomime brain surgery next.) Then we cut to Burton clad in what appears to be George Hamilton’s gangster suit from Sextette. You know, thick blue serge, pinstripes that appear to have been drawn on with chalk, gigantic lapels, etc. Here Burton lends that marvelously stentorian voice of his to such dialog as “Have you ever had Champagne with just a touch of sugar in it? It makes you feel a bit dizzy. Just a bit.” Boy, some wordsmith earned his buck that day.
Here the script wants to bring the photographs more directly into the story. To accomplish this, Anne is provided with dialog as to the long list of things that she likes about Sepper’s castle. “I love the park. The woods. These curtains. These walls. Furniture. I even like these strange photographs.” See? See how cleverly, how slyly, the subject of the photographs has been introduced? (Meanwhile, that speech had me experiencing traumatic flashbacks to Last Year at Marienbad, whose narrator spends roughly half the film gliding unseen down the halls of an ornate hotel while itemizing in monotone the same fixtures over and over again.)
Anne notices Mum’s cat, now sporting a scar in place of one eye. She then thinks she sees one of the photographs ‘moving,’ which she attributes to the Champagne. In fact, the pane of this one particular photo is semi-transparent. We cut to the other side and we see an old woman leave from behind the photo and traverse a cobweb-filled secret passage.
We cut to one of the Baron’s toadies raising a drink to the newly wedded Sepper and Anne, the latter with what appears to be a jewel-encrusted starfish adorning the side of her head. “Your smile is as delicate as a candle flame,” the toastmaster tells her, “yet shines like the sun.” Making the line less effective than it would be anyway is the actor’s Katzenjammer Kids Bavarian accent, turning ‘flame’ into ‘frame,’ and so on. The merriment, however, is interrupted when a series of shrieks rings out, prompting some small panic amongst the guests.
“Gentlemen, I’m amazed,” Sepper exclaims, admonishing their cowardice. “Men who have fought in the war, in the trenches, facing machine guns, bombs, even Communists.” I think that line’s supposed to be, I don’t know, ironic, or, uh, satirical, or, uhm, something like that. I admit there’s no empirical evidence for that theory, certainly not from the line itself, which functions at best as a non sequitur. But that’s my take on it, anyway. The shrieks turn out to emanate from a stuffed owl, one with a clock embedded in its torso, then perched on an artificial tree and hidden behind a curtain. You know the kind. Seeing that Anne is somewhat nonplussed by this admittedly singular objet d’art, Sepper calmly pulls a — what else? — Luger from a drawer and puts a series of bullets through it. (Feel free to insert your own “wasting time” jape here.) Again, this is all apparently meant to be so baroque as to be humorous, but if it is you couldn’t prove it by me.
We later see Sepper putting his new bride to bed in a horribly garish room, one all arrayed in red. Anne is incapacitated with drink, or something, and so nothing, you know, happens. We then hear a creaking sound that they’ve loudly foleyed onto the soundtrack so that we won’t miss it. Sepper turns out the light and leaves the room. The hallway is festooned with mounted animal heads, rhinos, etc. I’m guessing this is supposed to be symbolic of something, if only because it’s that kind of film. Sepper walks down the hall a bit, the creaking gets louder, he stops to open a door, andâ€¦
â€¦we cut away. Oh, the tension. What mysteries lie behind that door, yada yada. What’s depressing about all this is the slow, lumbering, self-indulgent pace of the film. (I’m sure this is all reading faster than it seems while watching it.) Here we are, approaching the half hour point, and we’ve still over seventy-five percent of the proceedings left. Rubbing our collective face in this are all these threads they keep introducing: The enigmatic old woman, the one-eyed cat, the numerous photographs, the Kristalnacht guy, the creaking behind the doorâ€¦.
It’s a truism: Good movies pass quickly, no matter what their length. Bad movies plod along, no matter how short. (See Teenage Monster for an example.) Here we get the worst of both worlds: A bad movie with the extended running time of a good movie. And these plot devices, all of which, presumably, will have to be wrapped up before we can call it a night, begin to act as a grim portent of the long slog ahead. I can only imagine what the poor devils who saw this in the theaters felt like at this point in the game.
Sepper is taking pictures of the new Baroness, ones that fall into the category now known as glamour photography. If you ever wanted to gawk at Joey Heatherton’s boobies through a transparent lace dressing gown, here’s your opportunity. The odd thing is their complete lack of success at making any of this sexy or sultry or whatever’s its supposed to be. I mean, Heatherton’s hardly an unattractive woman, and her breasts are certainly serviceable. Even so, her vamping here is about as erotic as an eight year-old girl smearing her face with lipstick in an attempt to look like Mommy. You could chill a martini with the sexual heat now emanating from the screen. Even worse is cutting back to Burton, as you can only blankly stare at him and wonder what the hell he’s doing here. Joey Heatherton in a piece-of-crap movie? OK, that makes sense. Richard Burton, though. Cripes, Dick, you only had so many movies in you. Why were so many of them like this one?
Anne finally gets tired of fooling around, or not fooling around, actually. (She passed out on the wedding night, remember, so consummation is still greatly to be desired.) She tells Sepper to put down the camera and come to bed. After a few moments of cuddling, however, he runs off to grab some more film. At this our frustrated heroine lies back, before becoming cognizant of the creaking we heard earlier. She heads towards the door Sepper opened earlier â€“ which is all of maybe twenty feet away from her bedroom door â€“ before spotting a diamond tiara on the floor. Hearing the creaking, and with the omnipresent atonal theme droning on as usual, she twists the knobâ€¦
â€¦and finds The Mysterious Old Woman brushing the hair of a preserved, desiccated corpse of another old woman sitting in a chair. (Gee, ripping off Psycho, that’s a fresh one.) Inevitably the camera zooms in on this latter object, which I suppose under different circumstances â€“ for instance, had it occurred in another movie — might have had a ‘shocking’ effect. Anne faints at this mundanely macabre sight, setting up an amusing moment for continuity error fans. When we see the corpse from Anne’s perspective at the doorway, it’s perhaps twenty feet into the room. However, they use a reverse angle as Anne falls to the floor. Here, the corpse, now in the foreground of the shot, sits only six or seven feet from where she stood.
We cut to Anne sitting up in bed as her husband ruminates over his joyous childhood relationship with Marka, his beloved nursemaid. I’ll spare you much of a description of this, although her propensity for making jam is gone into in some detail. It was she and his mother who raised him, his father not having been a presence in his life. In any case, the upshot is that Marka is now apparently rowing her boat without all her oars. This resulted in her purloining the body of Sepper’s mother and placing it in her old bedroom, where Marka could ‘care’ for it. Sepper assures Anne that Mom’s back in the family crypt and that Nanny will be taken away and looked after.
Of course, we’re supposed to be going, “Anne, don’t believe him! He knew what was happening in the bedroom!” However, the filmmakers apparently didn’t consider a number of other issues that we’re also questioning. For instance, why was Mom’s corpse, kept sitting in a noisily creaking rocking chair, stationed in a room right down the hall from Anne’s room? (For that matter, why are preserved corpses always kept in rocking chairs?) If this was necessary to stow it there, couldn’t they have at least locked the door? Also, I don’t know, could you brush the hair of a long-dead woman without it pulling out? Or why Burton seems to occasionally slip into a bad (maybe) Russian accent instead of a bad German one.
Anne is aggrieved to hear that Sepper is planning to travel to Vienna in a couple of days. He promises that he will obtain a companion for her before he leaves. Cue a young servant woman to enter the room. This is Rosa, and she’s right off a Swiss Miss envelope. Blond hair with Princess Leia buns on the side, little Bavarian dress, everything but the yodel. She’s also cheerful and boisterous, setting off the knowing viewer’s Odious Comic Relief Alarm. She then leaves, thankfully, to prepare Anne some breakfast.
The Baroness wanders back down to the sitting room, the one with the photos on the wall. There she pets the cat before turning her attention to the pictures. Pulling one from the wall, she draws eyes, a nose and a mouth on the glass covering it and realizes that the abstract pattern now resembles a face. Of course, so would many abstract patterns were one to sketch facial features upon it, but there you go. (This strikes me as similar to the ‘spiral pattern’ bit from The Giant Claw.) I also have to wonder that she feels so comfortable mucking about with her husband’s possessions.
Sergio comes to visit his old stage partner. Anne tells him how blissful life has been. For instance, there’s Rosa. “It makes me happy just to look at her,” she confides. It’s odd how the characters in a film can often find the Odious Comic Relief so amusing when we find them so dreadful. Sergio knows Anne too well, however, and discerns that she’s troubled. Cornered, she admits that her marriage to the Baron has been, well, uneventful up to now. If you know what I mean. If not, I could try to explain it as Anne does. “We still haven’t been in bed yet,” she relates. “Do you understand?” Well, you’re moving kind of fast, but we’ll try to keep up.
Sergio has some news of his own: He’s returning to the States. Anne is bummed, as this will leave her even more isolated. Still, she bucks up and prepares to show him out. First, though, she draws his attention to, that’s right, that photo she was looking at earlier. He admits that it doesn’t do much for him, whereupon she draws grabs her trusty grease pencil and sketches features over it again. This is accompanied by ominous music, which makes no sense, but at least it’s not that one annoying piece of theme music they keep playing over and over again.
Seemingly in sync with my previous theory, Sergio replies to this by noting, “You can probably find a face in any one of these drawings.” Of course, there’s a reason for that, plot-wise. But even if there weren’t he’d still be right. Again, draw features on an abstract form and it might well come to resemble a face. Meanwhile, behind that other picture, the one we sort of saw Marka lurking behind earlier, we see movement. The camera then cuts to shows us what’s happening back there. It’s Marka again, despite the fact that Sepper had supposedly sent her away. She’s struggling with an unseen assailant, and quickly pushed to her death down some stairs. During this we are only shown views of her killer’s hands and feet. Great, another plot thread to tie up. Although it pretty much has to be the Baron, right? Who else would be skulking in the castle’s secret passages?
The Baron pops up as Anne is saying goodbye to Sergio. (Future Ken: At the risk of spoiling things, we do indeed eventually learn that Sepper killed Marka. To throw us off the track â€“ although, again, there aren’t many other suspects here â€“ they have Sepper enter the scene here in entirely different clothes that those the murderer was just shown wearing. The reason I bother to mention this is that the time element makes no sense. Anne was showing Sergio out, anyway. This means that in a ludicrously short amount of time Sepper would have had to navigate through the passages to his room and don a complete suit, including different shoes, a vest and a tie. I’m not buying it.)
“I’ve just been down in the cellar controlling the new wines,” the Baron relates. I think. I mean, “controlling” the wines? That’s what it sounds like, though. “Very interesting,” he continues, “rather like watching a child being born.” I have no frickin’ idea what he’s talking about. Acting a little strange, even for him, he demands that they accompany him down for a taste, noting that he’ll drive Sergio into town when they’re through. There’s a strange, pointless little time-wasting scene down there. The one incident of note is that the cat is standing next to a humongous wine vat and meowing. So the only thing I can figure is that they’ll pan up and show usâ€¦yep, there we go, it’s Marka’s body floating in the wine. Gee, didn’t see that coming. (Can’t be very good for the wine, either.)
Anyway, now that we’re forty minutes into things we can finally get the ‘plot’ going. As Sepper leaves to take Sergio into town, and to then himself depart for Vienna, he hands Anne a ring of massive keys. This will prove a good opportunity, he tells her, to explore the castle. Of course, being a film based â€“ sorta â€“ on the Bluebeard legend, there’s one golden-hued key she’s told she mustn’t use. So he and Sergio drive off, she heads into the castle, and Kristalnacht Guy emerges out from the nearby woods. Fearing we won’t ‘get’ whom this is, his appearance is accompanied by wild violin music. Because, remember, they burned his father’s violin shop. And also he was a violin player in the orchestra earlier. Hence the violin music. Get it?
Anne, with Rosa at her side, wastes little time in exploring the mustier and dustier areas of the castle. One room is filled with suits of armor and so festooned with ‘webs’ that it appears to have been the epicenter of a detonated Silly String Bomb. Another room is filled with manikins wearing dresses from different historical periods. Being girls (tee hee) they decide to play dress-up. A jaunty record is put on Anne’s turntable, and soon the giggling begowned gals are cutting a rug. Anne’s dress proves heavy on the dÃ©colletage, allowing those of us still awake to ogle her jiggling goodies. If, that is, we can muster up enough interest to do so, which frankly I couldn’t. Instead, I found myself thinking that this is exactly what the Charlie’s Angles movie would have been like had it not worked in the slightest.
The merriment is thankfully cut short when Rosa remembers some ‘medicine’ she has to pick up in town. Hitching up the wagon, she heads out, with Anne telling her to return before it gets dark. Rosa says she’ll be back in an hour, which seems like a pretty short trip for back in the horse and buggy days. Left on her own, Anne continues her explorations. The next room she sees is a nursery, chillingly filled with teddy bears. At least I guess it’s chilling, because the musical cue here is all ominous and such. Rosa, meanwhile, experiences some difficulty when a bridge spanning a small stream gives way as she’s riding over it. She painfully pulls herself up on shore before collapsing.
And so the stage is set. We cut to that night, which proves of the Dark and Stormy variety. Well, OK, Dark and Blustery. (Although, yes, it gets Stormy later.) Anne is running around shutting windows and doors and such. She then heads outside to bar the gate to the grounds. Which would seem to leave Rosa rather in a lurch should she return, but there you go. Hearing a bird shrieking in a nearby tree, Our Heroine walks over to investigate something lodged up in the branches. Here we are treated to another purported shock cut as the camera zooms in on the bloody corpse of old One-Eye the Cat. Anne screams at the sight, which is more than she did upon finding Mama’s body in the room down from her’s. Still, everyone’s entitled to their own priorities, I suppose.
Panicked, she runs back inside the castle. As she cowers behind a door the phone rings. It’s Sepper, although Anne can do nothing but hysterically cry into the phone. Sepper tries to work around this, explaining that Rosa’s been taken to the hospital. Anne finally spits out the Horrifying Incident of the Dead Cat in the Tree. Sepper remarks that it must be Marka — although we know better, don’t we, Gentle Reader? — who he says has escaped from the institution he sent her to. It’s obvious that Sepper is playing head games with his wife, ones that are not only extremely sick, but also rather boring. Anne is (supposedly) a stalwart sort of woman, however, and soon bucks up. Her husband, meanwhile, tells her that he’s canceling his trip and will be back the next day.
For some reason Anne decides this is the right time to disobey her husband’s request and use The Forbidden Golden Key. So she wanders around — hey, we’ve got time, the movie runs over two hours — trying it in jewelry boxes and locked desk drawers and whatnot. Finally she happens to notice, in one of the apparently dozens of rooms in the place, a wall with a small slot cut into it. Sure enough, in goes the key and a secret passage is revealed. There she finds a life-size portrait of her husband. The painting shows him with a ring on his finger, the stone of which proves to be a button. Pushing it triggers a sliding door, revealingâ€¦
â€¦.well, c’mon, this is a Bluebeard movie. Revealing a refrigerated room containing the corpses of several beautiful young ladies, all of who rather apparently met with some violent demise. And in case you’re wondering, yes, being frozen solid does cause your body to look like it’s made of wax. Needless to say, Anne screams and runs out of there, which I thought was somewhat rude, as it risked waking up those viewers lucky enough to be napping at this point. She tears downstairs and pulls open the door, whereupon she finds Sepper standing there. He pretends that he just returned, but the fact that he’s completely dry while it’s pouring rain out will probably unmask this particular ruse.
Anne, after throwing her arms around him when he pops up, appears to be putting two and two together. Therefore she acts nonchalantly and doesn’t mention the secret room-sized freezer full of dead woman. After he heads inside she tries to phone Sergio, but the line cuts off. Still playing dumb (and doing pretty well at it), she brings Sepper a drink in his darkroom. There he’s developing a photo that shows Anne discovering the secret chamber. “There’s a small hidden camera inside,” he explains, just in case we’re complete morons. Sepper expresses his deep sorrow at this turn of events, but obviously at this point she Can’t Be Allowed to Live.
Out in the organ room he explains how much he loves her, but, well, you know. Her finding the dead bodies and all. Spunky Anne, however, buys time by encouraging him to rave on. She asserts her conviction that the women must have deserved their fates, and asks him why they did so. So here we get to where the movie’s been heading all the time, which is a series of macabre black comic sequences detailing the deaths of Sepper’s previous wives. In other words, we’re finally getting to the raison d’Ã©tre of the movie, and it only took them fifty minutes to get here. Don’t worry, though, they won’t have to skimp. We still have over an hour of running time left.
This is, as you’d imagine, one of the consternating things about this film. Most of the movies reviewed at our site are rather short. I’d estimate that over half run in the area of ninety minutes or less. Some don’t last much over an hour. Seldom do they cross the two-hour threshold, as does this one. Perhaps only the ‘expanded’ version of The Swarm, limping as it does towards the two and a half hour mark, is much longer than this. And for all its flaws, The Swarm at least is a charmingly Bad Movie, full of goofy incident to amuse the viewer. Bluebeard, meanwhile, falls more heavily into the ‘appalling’ Bad Movie category. This, as Chris Isaak might say, is a bad, bad thing.
Responding to the stroked-ego bit, Sepper ruefully admits that everything was the fault of his former wives. “I didn’t want to kill them,” he sighs. “They forced me to it.” This sets-up our first flashback. It’s an equestrian exhibition, one that Sepper — or an unreasonable facsimile thereof — is effortlessly winning. He eye is caught by the woman presenting the trophy, a woman with a blond Little Orphan Annie hairdo and a big feather attached to her fur cap. (?) Here I got a big laugh at the fact that, not only did they use a stuntman for the actual horsemanship exhibition, but one was required to portray Sepper merely getting off his horse (!). If you ever see this, notice how they awkwardly cut to a rear-angle shot when ‘he’ dismounts.
One problem with this particular wife is that she’s probably the most obnoxious and least alluring of the lot. In appearance she calls to mind a middle-aged drag queen Marlene Dietrich impersonator, while her Comic Trait is that she’s constantly singing in a loud, keening manner. In fact, she’s identified in the credits only as “the singer.” Giving credit where it’s due, actress Virna Lisi manages to make his woman an absolutely dreadful presence. It could be that they realized this and wanted to get her out of the way so as to move on to hotter chicks.
The problem being that this makes little sense. Presumably this is Sepper’s first romance after the previously featured Greta. In other words, you’d expect him to be at his choosiest at this point. Instead, his most obviously atrocious wife is featured early in the game. We see their courtship, and have no idea why he would decide to chase after her. Maybe later, as he flailed around for different types of women whilst searching for one that would do, he would have gone with this one. Early in the game it makes little internal sense. (In fact, I can’t even tell if he’s supposed to have married all these women before killing them, which sort of ruins the Bluebeard connotations.)
It should also be addressed that most of the woman here are not meant to be, you know, women. They’re archetypes. That’s where the satire (or whatever it is) is meant to spring from. Hence the end credits. Footage of the wives is used, with text identifiers along the lines of “RACHEL WELCH was the nun.” “VIRNA LISI was the singer.” “SYBAL DANNING was the prostitute.” Even this they can’t pull off though. At least half the wives are identified in the credits with an actual name, ala ‘Greta.’ If this were an idea to be employed, all of the wives except for Heatherton’s should be so broadly identified. Only she, the one to best the Baron (oops, sorry), should actually earn the right to be an individual. (To be fair, they do manage to credit all the dead woman as “was,” while Heatherton’s credit identifies that she “is” Anne.) My point being that if that they should have abandoned the ‘archetype’ thing is it weren’t to be used consistently. I mean, what the hell?
Anyway. Back to the singer. We see her put off his impatient advances in a rowboat out on a lake. (“I can’t swim!” is the punch line. Ha. Ha.)
Eventually, though, they’re at the castle and they start heading up the stairs to do the deed. She runs ahead, singing the entire time, of course. After all, she’s The Singer. She makes him chase after her, stopping for a passionate kiss or two before running off again. Moreover, Sepper eventually realizes that she’s never going to stop singing, even in, you know, The Act. She ends up hiding in a room with a guillotine in it (?), and you can probably take it from there. In any case, fans of pathetically patent paraffin pates will find much to appreciate here.
The tale concluded, they stop to dine on some Jell-O. (Don’t ask.) Red Jell-O, of course, I think that’s the only kind they serve in movies. They also continue the “too bad I must kill you, you would have been a great wife” bit. Cripes, get on with it, would you?! This, by the way, is Burton’s purportedly tour de force thespian scene, the one where he explores Sepper’s madness. “They weren’t woman,” he intones, “they were monsters. Perhaps that’s why I killed them.” Let’s just say that Baron Sepper won’t be lodging with Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector anytime soon.
This leads to the tale of The Model. (Not so identified in the credits. There she’s Erika.) Unsurprisingly, she’s one of the hottest wives, and is the first chick to bare her boobies before she goes. Sepper first sees her on the catwalk of a fashion show. Presumably this is where he buys his awful clothes. Their courtship allows the film to trot out his purple tux again, which I really wish they hadn’t. He drops her off, but she refuses to let him see her to the door of her luxurious home. We soon see why. It turns out that she’s not the wealthy person she pretends to be. After he drives off she heads to her real quarters, which are much more modest.
The Baron has guessed her secret, though, and reveals his presence. “You should live in as beautiful a place as you are,” he tells hers, and whisks her back to the castle. Eventually we learn her (literally) fatal flaw: She’s a baby talker. Things come to a head when she bares a breast in bed and reveals that its name is Jasmine. Then she introduces her other breast. It was here it struck me that, were this better, it would work rather like the Seinfeld TV show. Only instead of a neurotically fussy man dumping women because of minute flaws, he would be killing them.
Not yet, though. Panicked by her eccentricities, Sepper flees her bed. Erika gets a knowing look on her face and in the next scene has brought “The Prostitute” into the house. Erika has hired this woman to provide her with professional lessons on how to pleasure a man. Egads, what a smutty, smirking piece of work this is. It’s like watching a film based on the Playboy Party Jokes page. (“Our unabashed dictionary defines ‘dickless’ as what we wish Bluebeard were!’)
The Prostitute gives Erika lessons in stripping first. She advises her client, however, to keep her stockings on for that extra touch. However, in a rather awkward and telegraphing line, this advice is expressed as “Keep them onâ€¦until death.” Huh? Also amusing is that all of the ‘naughty’ advice here sounds like it came from this month’s Cosmopolitan article on How to Spice Up Your Sex Life. All this, meanwhile, is being observed by what is presumably Sepper behind the see-through picture.
After the verbal lessons they start over, with The Prostitute stripping along with Erika to show her how it’s done. Sure enough, the two are soon unclothed, and eventually engaging in some obligatory, if rather light, lesbian action. It takes a while to get there, though, as they build up to it slowly. (Well, why should this part of the film be different?) In fact, this whole bit may be the longest sequence in the film, leading to the depressing notion that it was intended to be the film’s ‘money’ scene.
So they strip, and eventually fall to the carpet, making out. Eventually Erika is in a fit of passion. After they are finished (and now that we’ve all gotten our presumed jollies), Sepper enters the room. The two women are conveniently napping entwined beneath the room’s chandelier. Which, by the way, is adorned with a plunging elephant’s tusk. (!) He releases the chain holding it and they are impaled. Ah, the merging of sex with violence. How clever, and how fun! Making the scene all the more repugnant is that Sepper calls to his wife to wake her first, so that she sees her death coming. Boy, That’s Entertainment, eh? And this in what is, after all, still more or less a comedy.
Meanwhile, I keep getting the hectoring feeling that there’s some sort of psychological subtext to these events, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe something to do with that elephant tuskâ€¦
Back to Sepper and Anne. (And still fifty minutes left on the clock. Fifty minutes! At this point our only hope is for an extremely long end credit sequence to cut thing this short.) Then it’s on to the next tale. Since he begins this flashback with the line, “I hate people who talk!”, we have some vague idea where this segment is heading.
This does, in fact, prove to be the ‘big’ bit everyone’s presumably been waiting for, as Rachel Welch now makes her appearance. She’s a nun asking for alms in the street when Sepper first sees her. Dressed entirely in white, with only her face showing, Sepper is attracted by her purity. (Can you guess what her Fatal Flaw will be?) Soon he’s hosting a charity event at his castle. This he’s evidently arranged so as to have a chance to chat her up. Over a variety of scenes he works on her, until she proves ready to *ahem* kick the Habit. (I am so funny!)
First, though, she wishes to be upfront regarding the sins that she entered the convent to expiate. Sepper tells her that her past is not important, but she insists. She admits to him that she’s not a virgin, telling of a youthful indiscretion with a student. Sepper, meanwhile, is busy fantasizing about her cleavage. These imaginations are helpfully visualized so that we may share them, since Welch was never one to doff her top, even in such an artistic piece as this. After this we cut to her in a normal dress, obviously having left her order. Sure enough, Sepper speaks of their approaching nuptials.
Here this segment’s central gag kicks in, as Welch continues to ‘remember’ an ever-expanding roster of former lovers. Furthermore, her chatty accounts of her amorous adventures begin to flow out in ever-greater detail, with Sepper turning a bit green about the gills as a result. He importunes her to cease these reminiscences, but she cheerfully soldiers on. This is all portrayed via a (supposedly) hilarious montage of Welch at every turn yakking his ear off about these escapades. In the study, out on a drive, during dinner, whilst getting a massageâ€¦well, you get the idea. Eventually she remembers the last one, but he proves to have been not only a Russian, but a communist as well. This ‘comically’ pushes Sepper over the edge, and so exit Welch. This occurs after she leads him to a coffin â€“ don’t ask — to finally have sex with him. Since he just happens (?) to have the key with him (the key?), he locks her in to presumably die from a lack of oxygen. Ah, the golden age of comedy.
The main problem I have with this section– and it is, sadly, one of the better Dead Wife sequences — is that it’s too close in content to the story of The Singer. In both cases, Sepper is moved to murder his wife/lover because she just won’t shut up. Especially odd is that they would run the two most similar such bits so nearly atop one another. Since there are six (!) of these altogether — and that’s not even counting Greta, whom we saw get whacked before Anne even entered the movie â€“ you’d think they could have separated them a little better.
Back to Anne and Sepper in the sitting room. There comes a knock from, I guess, the front door. Anne tries to bolt, but no go. To make sure she stays in place, he puts her in a plush seat that he reveals to be a disguised electric chair (!). (How they missed the room whose walls come together is beyond me.) He shackles her in and then covers her bonds with a lap blanket. These preparations completed, he leaves to see who it is. When he returns, he’s been joined by his collection of cronies.
For some reason they are dressed in black leather jackets that *cough, cough* vaguely resemble those the Nazis wore. Especially given the red armbands with white circles containing the film’s minutely altered ersatz swastikas. Again, I can’t figure out the point of this. Whatever it is, though, I’m pretty sure it’s symbolic. Of something. Anyway, as they enter Anne considers making a play â€“ although I’m not certain why she thinks these guys would help her in any case â€“ but Sepper positions himself by the button that activates the chair. Seeing this, she holds her tongue. They soon leave, after having told Sepper that a muckity-muck is arriving the next day with a personal message for him from “Our Leader.” Hmm, maybe that ‘Dolph Itler’ thing will come into play after all.
Oh, and we occasionally cut to an armed Sergio heading for the castle in a taxi. Just to keep you up to speed. Not that ‘speed’ has much to do with this movie â€“ thirty-seven minutes left and counting.
Here we hope that Sepper will just push the button and get things over with, but no go. Instead, he cruelly (for us) tells Anne that he won’t kill her until dawn. Why dawn? Hell, I don’t know. They just needed a rationale, I guess, to explain why he hasn’t killed her yet. So he’s waiting for dawn. Why not?
Anyhoo, on to the next wife/lover/whatever. This one, painfully, is Brigitt, or, more precisely, The Feminist. And we’re not talking about an ‘equal rights’ feminist here, we’re talking a ‘woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ feminist. Sepper first sees her in a town square, belting out some haranguing oratory. (By the way, unless my ear is playing me false â€“ darn lack of subtitles on this disc â€“ Sepper actually mentions Hitler here. Well, hell, if this is Hitler’s Germany, what’s with the half-assed fake swastikas?!)
Following this intro we cut to the inevitable montage of his romancing her. All for naught, though: “She wasn’t interested in a sexual relationship at all,” he notes. “She hated men.” Instead, they engage in typically masculine pursuits together. They drive fast cars, fly airplanes and go pistol shooting. (Wow, a broomhandle Mauser!) Her only fault was a taste for the vino. After such a spell she tends to get all dialectic on him. All whist wearing a see-through blouse, by the way. Look! Breasts!! See! Don’t get bored! Or depressed, or angry! Breasts!!
He ends up yelling at her for being drunk all the time. She responds by kneeing him in the groin. (Burton might not have studied Vincent Price very well â€“ see below in AFTERTHOUGHTS â€“ but he certainly does a good Benny Hill impression here.) Upon recovering he smacks her a good one across the chops. She gets back up and attacks him again, culminating in him slapping her around for a while. Here we get what, in any other movie, would undoubtedly be its most offensive moment. For it turns out that she’s turned on by the beating he’s given her. She’s soon begging him to hit her. Only not in the face, because she wants to stay pretty for him.
As faithful readers of this site know, I’m not what many would call a feminist. Although I personally believe that’s largely because the term has been so hopelessly distorted. Still, when I first saw this movie I literally rolled my eyes here. Meanwhile, my friend Andrew Muchoney, of similar political leanings, spit out an incredulous “Oh, come on!” at the same moment. It’s not like you have to be Andrea Dworkin or Gloria Allred to find this kind of moronic stereotyping offensive. I’ve got a lot of problems with the Patricia Irelands of the world, but not because I think they are secretly lusting after a good ass-kicking.
Now, if this were the kind of movie where there were actual, you know, people in it, this situation might not annoy me as much. A vocally feminist woman who secretly enjoys being beaten by men could be plausible if handled right. People are weird, after all, and don’t fit neatly into boxes, no matter how much we try to cram them in there. Even so, such a line of thinking doesn’t apply here. After all, the women here aren’t characters, they’re types. Brigitt isn’t so much a feminist as The Feminist. This is ultimately makes the ‘satire’ of the piece so risible. (Of course, many who would claim to find this sort of thing intellectually grotesque would be laughing their butts off if the character were an uptight Christian who secretly turned out to love kinky illicit sex or something.)
Anyway, in case you think this gets any better, they’re soon down in the cellar. She’s stripped to her panties and groaning with pleasure as he whips her. The more he debases her, the more she likes it. Soon she’s squealing for him to take her, although her wording might have been a tad more blunt than that. As she grovels Sepper gets that old disgusted look again and drowns her in a wine vat. (Again, could this movie stop repeating itself? Did we really need two women drowned in wine vats?)
Then back to Anne and Sepper, as they again rehash the “I’m so sorry I must kill you,” “oh, darling, don’t worry about it” stuff. Since we’ve worked over this ground enough to unearth bedrock, it’s getting a little tedious. Finally, though, Sepper has arrived at his last reminiscence. His last victim he met at a modern art exhibit. He rants that the works on display were decadent and, inevitably, Jewish. Because, you know, we mustn’t miss an opportunity to show how reactionary Sepper is. (In case, I suppose, we mistake him for one of those liberally minded Nazis.) I haven’t listed every example, but believe me they’ve been beating this idea to death. Of course, we might then wonder why he’s at the exhibition anyway, but let’s just move on.
Here he meets Caroline. She proves to be a Free Spirit, or so I gather from the fact that she swims nude in the Baron’s lake. She plays with his hounds. She sunbathesâ€¦why, yes, in the nude. How did you know? Eventually we learn â€“ I guess — that she lives only to satisfy her own wants and pleasures; nothing else concerns or interests her. Considering her an empty vessel, devoid of a soul, Sepper decides to rouse a reaction, any reaction, out of her. So he shows her Marka combing Dead Mama’s hair. A bemused Caroline shrugs it off, noting only that “It’s ridiculous.”
In another room she stops to nestle the cat. Hoping to shock her, he whistles for his pet falcon, as established in the beginning of the movie, like nine hours ago. It swoops down and, of course, plucks an eye from the cat. Caroline, however, proves devoid of empathy. Her assumption is that the Baron did this to the cat because he was jealous of her attentions to it. So she shrugs off her shirt (big surprise) and mechanically offers to have sex with him. Enraged, he calls the falcon back to duty, whereupon he finally provokes a reaction from her, albeit a last one. Meanwhile, I guess they feared that the film hadn’t been distasteful enough up to now, as they end the scene with a loving close-up of the falcon gorily ripping her throat out.
Sergio arrives outside the estate. He sends off the cab and opens the gate. It’s still barred, but we learn that you can remove the rod bracing it shut from the other side. (!!) We kind of are wondering what his plan is, as we can hear the Baron’s gigantic hounds barking madly. Admittedly they appear to be kenneled, but he’d be screwed if they were released. Inside, Sepper grabs his gun and heads off to secure the place. This leaves Anne alone, and she manages to bust into the secret passage she earlier observed behind the picture.
Holding her slit dress real high so that we can appreciate her gams, she runs through the passage. This leads her down to the wine cellar. I have to admit, by now I was just assuming she’d ‘shockingly’ find Marka’s rotting corpse down there, but no go. Instead she makes it outside, only to find Sepper looking on as the dogs have at Sergio. (Told ya.) Sepper assures her that the dogs won’t draw blood without his command, whereupon she runs back inside. Back in the parlor — they only have so many sets, you know — she draws a sword off the wall in a last ditch effort to protect herself.
The Baron enters and quickly disarms her, however. In a rage he almost finishes her, but then nonchalantly returns the weapon to its place. Here he explains that it was *gasp* he who killed Marta. (Well, that solves that *snort* mystery.) She was going to warn Anne, he explains. Wow, so it was Sepper who killed her! What a shock twist!! Then he killed the cat (remem—oh, never mind) because it kept mewling over by the vat where Marka’s body was hidden. You know, now it all makes sense. I mean, if you think about it, it would have been pretty silly if it turned out that, say, Anne or Sergio killed Marka. But the Baron! Yes, now it’s all coming together.
Here Joey gets her Oscar Clip Moment, which unfortunately entails her telling Sepper things like “You make me shudder!” and “You have a small, nasty soul!” (Isn’t that a lyric from the “Mr. Grinch” song?) Watching Heatherton helplessly try to project the emotion of rage is pretty painful. Nor is the wan dialog she’s provided with helped by her Betty Boop voice.
Now we arrive at the punch line to this grotesque shaggy dog story. This is provided when Anne explains why Sepper really killed all those women. It wasn’t because of their flaws, she spits, it was because they expected him to make love to them. She reminds him that, by his own accounts, he murdered each of the women as they readied themselves for sex.
Even Greta, we learn via a flashback. (How Anne would be able to describe such events is left to our imaginations.) His first wife kept pressuring him for some lovin’, and thus when the opportunity availed itself he took the coward’s way out by shooting her. Said flashback also affords Greta with the belated opportunity to, that’s right, take her top off. Now only Welch and Heatherton have kept their boobies under wraps. And the latter was wearing a see-through dealie earlier.
See, Sepper offed them because he couldn’t admit to himself that he was Less Than a Man. Yep, that’s the payoff, folks. Two hours of horrendous, numbing and repulsive crap so that we could be served up this turgid and moronic heap of pseudo-Freudianism. Which is presented, I must add, with a total degree of seriousness. I know I can’t really communicate the utter worthlessness of this device â€“ you’d have to actually watch the film for that â€“ but it helps to know that the filmmakers obviously believed that this ‘revelation’ was providing a major-league ain’t-that-cool, cherry-on-the-sundae payoff for the audience.
So where were we? Oh, yeah. As if this all weren’t puerile enough, Anne goes on to explain that his inability to have sex derives from â€“ all together now — His Fixation on His Mother! Man, that’s quite an insight into the Human Condition, isn’t it? To prove her point, Anne â€“ three guesses â€“ rips open her bodice and bares her perky breasts. Sepper can only turn away, proving her contention.
Sepper decides to shut her up by feeding her to the dogs, “like Sergio.” (So much for his saying that they wouldn’t hurt him earlier.) He goes outside to fetch them, but finds them all dead. (??) Sergio, meanwhile, is gone, although there is a trail of blood. This leads to the bushes, and we in the audience are provided a burst of violin music on the soundtrack to clue us in on what happened. Or, more likely, confuse us further. Did Kristalnacht Guy help with the dogs? Did Sergio somehow manage to kill four or five huge attack dogs all by himself, using his bare hands? Of course, even if KG helped, that doesn’t make things much clearer. We know the dogs weren’t shot, because the sound would have been heard in the parlor. I mean, they heard Sergio’s cab drive up outside the gate earlier, for Pete’s sake.
Somewhat consternated at this turn of events, Sepper sees his cronies’ car approaching down the road. As I’m sure you’ll recall, he’s supposed to join them to meet a high Nazi official at the train station this morning. The Baron runs back inside and grabs Anne â€“ who apparently failed to hide or run out the back door or anything like that â€“ and shoves her in the secret freezer to meet her fate. Holy Ice Cubes, Batman!! As if this weren’t lame enough, the camera pans around so that we can see the patently waxen ‘bodies’ of her predecessors. In the name of our simple, common humanity, it’s incumbent upon me to issue this warning: If you have a phobia regarding manikins cheesily made up to look like they’re covered with ice, avoid this film at all costs.
So we catch Sepper and his pals, all in their 99% accurate Nazi regalia, awaiting the arrival of the Important Messenger. However, we also see *gasp!* Kristalnacht Guy moving through the crowd. The camera cuts to a close-up of him, then to a flashback to the Vaseline-besmirched youth back during the Kristalnacht thing. Wait!! You meanâ€¦that’s the same guy?! Man, it’s a good thing they put that flashback in there or I never would have figured it out! Oh, and the blaring violin music used here helps too.
KG creeps through the crowd, unnoticed by those watching the train as it approaches the station. Finally he rushes out into the open and puts three bullets into Sepper’s chest. (Which, oddly, results in only one wound.) Amusingly, we’ve then to believe that he manages to escape because he ducks behind the train as it arrives. Oh, yeah, he’s practically out of Germany at this point. They’ll never catch him now. “It’s absurd,” the dying Sepper mumbles. “It’s ridiculous.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s just a shame he expired before he added ‘anti-climatic.’
Cut to Anne, nearly frozen. She hears Sepper’s associates knocking at the door — great acoustics in this place — but can do nothing to get their attention. They leave, and all looks lost. However, she then hears some breaking glass. It’s Kristalnacht Guy (??), and apparently he’s come to smash up the place as a further cathartic act. This would be a good spot to go into how unbelievable is was for the Baron to have this gigantic estate yet no servants, other than Marka, of course, but why bother? Needless to say, KG finds Anne in the freezer and frees ‘er (ha ha, I’m so funny!) just in the nick of time.
Freed, the Loving Widow (as far as anyone knows) is next seen standing by Sepper’s body as it lies in state. She’s dressed in black, of course, but is wearing the Gold Key on a necklace. She turns and leaves with a slightly injured Sergio â€“ where the hell has he been all this time? â€“ as jaunty jazz music blares across the soundtrack. Since this is the happy ending of a movie, I guess we’re to believe that they’re a couple now. Although if she didn’t feel that way about him before I’m not sure why she’d feel differently at this point. The Hero’s Reward, I suppose. Of course, he didn’t really do anything heroic. Except, I guess, that he inexplicably managed to kill all those ferocious hounds. An event, by the way, which I have a pretty good idea why they didn’t show, andâ€¦oh, screw it.
And so we end ourâ€¦hey, following them out of the churchâ€¦is that Kristalnacht Guy?! It is!! Let me get this straight. He showed up at the church displaying Sepper’s body after murdering him in front of dozens of witnesses in broad daylight?! And then just gets up and leaves?? Without anyone in the honor guard suspecting who he is? Iâ€¦oh, screw it. Again. For the last time. Except, what happened to Rosa? Surely she’s out of the hospital by now. So why isn’t she joining them? Andâ€¦.arghhh!
Now, lots of films suck. What makes this one especially appalling is the way it drapes the horrid spectacle of Nazism upon itself in order to lend ‘depth’ to the proceedings. When are people going to learn that subtext works best as, well, subtext. I mean, if you’re beating us over the heads with it, it’s not really subtext anymore. Yes, we get it, already. Sepper’s personal homicidal decadence is, writ small, a metaphor for the sociological decadence of the Ruling Classes that eventually resulted in the Holocaust. How sly.
That this is all so obvious and ham-fisted is bad enough. Adding to the picture’s staggering indecency, however, is how puerile these connotations are. I hate to inform Mr. Dymtryk (who still seems to be ‘analyzing’ historical events through a Marxist class-lens), but it wasn’t the Aristocratic classes who were responsible for the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. Quite the contrary, the aristocrats largely disdained Hitler as a grubby little rabble-rouser. Truth to tell, they gave so little credence to the possible popularity of his political theories that they thought they were neutering him when they allowed him to be elected Chancellor.
Nor was it the Aristocrats whose feelings of superiority were enhanced by the persecution of Jews and other ‘non-Aryans.’ They already felt superior, thank you very much. No, Hitler’s power base came from the middle and working classes. In fact, to the extent that Hitler’s Germany raised members of the lower classes to positions of power — such as creating the SS to counter the traditionally Aristocrat-laden branches of the military, particularly the Luftwaffe — it was the bane of the Aristocrats. Indeed, the fact that Hitler served as a lowly sergeant in World War I, not even as a junior officer, led to continuing jibes and deprecations behind his back. At least until his ‘betters’ ruefully learned, along with the rest of the world, that the Fuehrer was no laughing matter.
Twenty-five years after Bluebeard was released, Schindler’s List would be harshly criticized for, as some believed, trivializing the Holocaust. So imagine what this film is like. It’s grotesque to use these unimaginable yet all-too-real events to illume some gross little parable, much less one intended to be something of a comic one. Moreover, Bluebeard was released less than thirty years after the Holocaust occurred. These were events that, in 1972, lived in the vivid memories of millions of people. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for someone who had managed to be rescued from, say, Buchanwald to sit down in a theater and watch this thing unspool.
Yet it’s even worse than that. Mixing puerile class-based theories about the psychological underpinnings of the Holocaust with the film’s extraordinarily facile pop-Freudianism is what really takes the cake. If we follow the reasoning all the way to its turgid end, I suppose that Sepper’s literal impotence ‘stands for’ the symbolic impotence of the aristocrats that the film seems to be arguing led to the Holocaust. Frankly, even discounting the Holocaust stuff, the ‘impotence leading to murder’ revelation is a tad sophomoric. Magnified in the manner meant here, however, it quickly graduates from ham-fisted and superficial to actively repugnant.
Another odd note is that the film was obviously inspired in part by a slate of pitch-black comic horror movies of then recent vintage. In particular I’m speaking of such Vincent Price vehicles as the two Dr. Phibes pictures and Theater of Blood. Indeed, at the time Bluebeard was being produced Burton was quoted as saying that he was modeling his performance on Mr. Price’s work. If so, he didn’t do a very good job, since I’ve seen most of Price’s films a number of times and he never sucked in them. (Another powerhouse actor, Geoffrey Rush, reportedly did a better job of suggesting Price in the quasi-remake of House on Haunted Hill.)
It’s a historical fact that mainstream films ultimately co-opt elements introduced by the less constrained exploitation pictures. For instance, The Omen received criticism for its loving depiction of a decapitation. Never before had the technical expertise of a major studio been used to bring such a graphic image to the screen. The suits shrugged off the complaints and the film made tons of money at the box office. So a movie sporting ‘name’ talent and a big budget ‘borrowing’ the sensibilities of inexpensive horror films is hardly without precedence. The difference being that when The Omen hijacked the graphic violence common to exploitation films, it outdid them at it. Professional special effects technicians with a major league budget at their disposal unsurprisingly beat out those lacking their resources.
In contrast, Bluebeard in no way surpasses the films it’s condescending to steal from. It’s not witty or droll, something Price’s horror comedies were in spades. Instead it’s pompous, and you can practically smell its smug assumption that it’s engaged in an act of chic slumming. About the only way it outdoes its predecessors is in the naked breast department. At one time (maybe), such nudity might have been considered ‘sophisticated,’ in some baroque, ironically winking definition of that term. “Yes, we know we’re better than this. That’s the joke, you see.” Looking at the film today, however, it just looks crass. In fact, it probably did back then, too.
Then there’s the score. This basically consists of one monotonous refrain, played over and over and over again. And again. And again. And again. Andâ€¦ To be fair, sometimes it plays more slowly. And, uh, sometimes faster. Finally, despite my notoriously bad ear for music, it hit me. The piece sounded like a markedly inferior version of the staccato banjo piece that serves as Cheyenne’s theme in Once Upon a Time in the West. Sure enough, I zipped back to Bluebeard’s opening credits and was depressed to learn that it was indeed scored by the (usually) great Ennio Morricone. Still, everyone deserves a few whiffs at the plate, especially someone who composed music for something like five hundred movies. And, after all, he did write the music for Orca. (Late Note: When listening to the entire score, which is played only over the end credits, we learn that it’s actually not a bad piece of music.)
The acting here is pretty bad. The Eurochicks live up to the reputation of their continent, which means that most broadly overplay their parts. This propensity was presumably even further exaggerated since the film is meant to be a spoof or a satire or whatever they meant it to be.
I also acknowledge that I’ve been pretty hard on poor Ms. Heatherton here. In fact, she was victimized merely by being cast in this film. Who the hell thought that Joey Heatherton had the chops to act opposite a powerhouse; even a slumbering one, like Richard Burton? (Shades of Jennifer Love Hewitt playing Satan opposite Anthony Hopkins in the upcoming The Devil and Daniel Webster.) Never does she manage to suggest the strength and ingenuity that the role requires of the wife that gets away. Ms. Heatherton’s rather modest talents lay more in the light comedy department. Ten years earlier and she would have been well cast in Gidget movies. I can only theorize that she got the part because she was the biggest American ‘name’ (and think about that!) in 1972 willing to flash her ta-tas in service of this thing.
I should also, of course, take a moment to give proper due to Richard Burton. This remains perhaps his worst performance ever, which is like talking about Mickey Mantle’s best performance at the plate. Nor can Burton fob off the blame with his “I was doing Vincent Price” excuse. While slightly more epic, his performance here bears the same lazy, self-satisfied qualities that mark most of his film work from this period. Still, it’s impressive that you can compare any performance with those from Exorcist II: The Heretic or The Assassination of Trotsky and reasonably say, yeah, this one’s worse. I challenge interested viewers to sit down some night and watch this and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in one sitting. That one man could be responsible for both performances is almost literally beyond comprehension.
Another problem is less his fault, except for taking the part in the first place. Burton was middle-aged when this was shot, and hard living had taken its toll. In other words, he was past the point where he could play a variety of ages. When you’re in your thirties, you can play a bit younger as easily as a bit older. Burton, whatever his exact age here, is clearly past this point in his career. This further weakens the flashbacks, since rather than taking wives over a span of some years, Sepper looks instead to be about the same age throughout. I guess they could have partially covered for this by making him up to be older in his scenes with Heatherton, and then removing the make-up for the flashbacks. One doubts this idea was even brought up, however, especially as Burton already appears laughably old for Heatherton as it is.
If you get the DVD for this, they include the trailer. Apparently uncertain of how to sell the picture (and I can fully understand why) they play it as an out-and-out horror piece. Even dumber, they include brief glimpses of all the women’s death scenes. Yeah, that’s a good idea, why wait until we actually go to see the movie. All in all, the trailer is almost as lame as the movie itself. Except that it’s two hours shorter, of course. There’s also a fairly pointless Still Gallery, as well as some Cast Biographies (and a separate one for director Edward Dmytryk). The Bios for the women are all prefaced â€“ again â€“ by their death scenes. So if you insist on watching this thing, save the extras for after the main bill.
Joey Heatherton is given a line of dialog whose import, in her case, seems open to interpretation:
Sepper, offering some Champagne: “It makes you free to say anything that comes into your head.”
Anne: “That’s never been my problem.”
Various readers have kindly written in about a law in Germany that prevents the presentation of Nazi insignia, even in fictional films. Hence the need to slightly modify the swastikas here and such. Even so, and I know this might sound like I’m post-facto trying to justify the above complaints, I still believe the filmmakers were mistaken in doing so. Surely the leather clothes and their acts of terror against Jews would have gotten the point across. Instead, for those of us unacquainted with the cited laws, the forged symbol remain comically perplexing. Here we see an example folks following the letter of a law to laughable results when they all might have been better off following the spirit of the law. For surely using a film of this sort to ‘explain’ Nazism is fundamentally misguided to begin with, both esthetically and morally.