The Review/Feature/

Bluebeard at the Movies

Joan Crawford’s superlative noir Sudden Fear offers a nifty twist on a classic plot

Joan Crawford in SUDDEN FEAR

by Farran Smith Nehme
Dec 3, 2018

Myra Hudson is in a good mood, floating around her spacious office in a ruffled chiffon peignoir after a nice bit of connubial bliss with her virile, much-younger husband, Lester. Everything’s going her way: she has plenty of inherited wealth, a successful career as a playwright, a grand house in San Francisco, and did I mention the younger husband? Bright and breezy, she turns on the dictaphone — and in less than a minute, she realizes that the machine accidentally recorded her husband being his real self. Lester has a mistress his own age, and together they are plotting to kill her.

Behold Sudden Fear (1952), in which Joan Crawford’s Myra finds herself inhabiting one of the classic plots: the Bluebeard folktale, which dates back at least to Charles Perrault’s gruesome interpretation in 1697. The original story tells of a woman who marries a rich, mysterious man who has secretly been murdering his wives one by one. In Perrault, the woman escapes the fate of her predecessors by imploring Bluebeard to let her say a prayer before she dies; in a kind of modified Scheherazade ploy, she then prays long enough for her brothers to burst in and rescue her.

But this is a Joan Crawford movie, not The Song of Bernadette (1943), and screenwriters Robert Smith and Lenore Coffee knew very well that no one wanted to see Crawford on her knees praying to be rescued. Instead, Myra uses the tricks of her writing trade to save her life, concocting a plot to frame Lester (Jack Palance) and his lover Irene (Gloria Grahame). “[Myra] is never portrayed as a victim,” writes The Love Witch director Anna Biller, who’s at work on her own version of the Bluebeard fable and has been chronicling her research on her blog. “[She’s] incredibly tough and smart… a wealthy and established playwright, and yet she falls for this dreadful man because her Achilles heel is that she wants to fall in love and be vulnerable once in her life.”

David Miller’s film certainly has one of this mini-genre’s most unusual and effective denouements, but the beauty of the trope is its versatility, with variations that go well back into the silent era. Georges Méliès made his own Blue Beard in 1901, and F.W. Murnau’s greatest film, Sunrise (1927), is on one level the tale of a Bluebeard who regains his conscience. Other pre-war incarnations include a film that Biller especially likes, Love from a Stranger (1937). Based on a stage adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, it stars Ann Harding (she of the Valkyrie hairstyle and serene demeanour) as a struggling young woman who wins a lottery. News of her win soon attracts bounder Gerald (Basil Rathbone, never more villainous, which is saying something), who marries her and spends the rest of the movie trying to do her in. Directed by the skilled journeyman Rowland V. Lee, the film retains its impact even today, and concludes with one of the era’s most jolting climaxes.

Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone in Love from a Stranger

Pace Laura Mulvey, a large proportion of the great films of classic Hollywood were made for the gaze of an audience that was predominantly female. These “Bluebeard” films in particular, and the novels they came from, “were expert at delving into female psychology and telling stories from a specifically female point of view,” says Biller; “The female characters in them were realistic, fleshed-out characters with real challenges to face.” Women have always been drawn to Bluebeard films, seeing in them outsized versions of the fears and dilemmas they may face themselves — as well as heroines who are able to get out from under abuse, whether physical or psychological.

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight

In George Cukor’s great Gaslight (1944) as well as Thorold Dickinson’s version of 1940, the planned murder is psychological rather than physical, with the scheming husband (Charles Boyer) aiming to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) insane to get control of her fortune. While the term “gaslighting” has unfortunately come to be overused (and occasionally misused), Cukor’s film has lost none of its power. The scene where Bergman at last confronts her abuser is an extraordinary declaration of independence and newfound strength: “... I'm rejoicing in my heart, without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!”

The Gaslight theme was so effective it continued to turn up in films such as Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love (1948), where Claudette Colbert’s rich wife is imperiled by husband Don Ameche’s machinations, which include hypnosis and dumping her onto a train while she’s in a drugged sleep. Robert Ryan’s vile Howard Hughes avatar in Caught (1949) may or may not want his pregnant wife Barbara Bel Geddes dead, but if isolating her and subjecting her to sleep deprivation does happen to kill her, it’s clear he wouldn’t be overly troubled. Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is a splendid B-movie that finds Nina Foch being drafted against her will to impersonate a wife who has already been murdered, the plan being to convince everyone that Foch’s protestations about her real identity are just so many delusions. (As I wrote in Film Comment, in this mini-genre “the fight is always for the woman’s reality to be recognized, by the world or by herself.”)

Nina Foch (right) and her captors in My Name is Julia Ross

The years immediately after World War II proved to be the most fertile period for Bluebeard films. In her book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, Imogen Sara Smith writes that the end of the war found many women returning to their former roles in the home, which perhaps helps explain the proliferation of noirs that “focus on domestic settings [and] show women as vulnerable, locked in lifeless or life-endangering relationships and warped by the narrowness of their experiences.” Biller further notes that “Many women saw their men returning from the war very changed. Some had suffered brain damage and were violent, or they were moody and closed.” A number of Bluebeard films, she points out, involve men who come back from the war with their psyches shattered: Biller cites Curtis Bernhardt’s twisty thriller High Wall (1947), which finds Robert Taylor in a psych ward, accused of murdering his unfaithful wife. The Blue Dahlia, George Marshall’s famed noir from 1946, also involves a traumatized vet, an ex-flyer played by Alan Ladd whose cheating wife is murdered under murky circumstances (although it’s made clear that Ladd’s character didn’t do it).

She sure is: poster for Cause for Alarm!

One such example, and a somewhat underrated one, is Tay Garnett’s 1951 Cause for Alarm!, which shows exquisitely pretty housewife Ellen Jones (Loretta Young) married to George (Barry Sullivan), a veteran whose postwar trauma has left him bedridden and paranoid to the point that he frames his loving wife for his own death. (In what was then a death-penalty state, this itself counts as murder.) Cause for Alarm!’s whizz-bang 74-minute runtime finds Ellen frantically trying to retrieve George’s incriminating letter from the most tiresomely officious postman in American movies, as well as trying (and failing) to head off any suspicions from her gargoyle neighbours. Garnett has fun with the claustrophobic atmosphere of this trim little postwar (jail)house. “The housework seemed like drudgery, and so meaningless,” says Ellen early on; “[it’s] as though,” Smith drily remarks, “this feeling were a symptom of some rare malady.”

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Not all Bluebeard movies are framed as thrillers. Take for example Autumn Leaves (1956), one of Joan Crawford’s best postwar movies, in which she plays a typist who meets and marries a much younger man, an army veteran played by Cliff Robertson. As per the pattern, this woman too finds herself in danger of being killed by the man she married in haste — but Robert Aldrich’s film is neither a noir nor an exercise in suspense, but rather a heartfelt drama about loneliness, mental illness, and how women deal with encroaching middle age. Unlike the mentally scarred vets in Cause for Alarm! or High Wall, however, this potential Bluebeard’s violence is linked not to PTSD from his service but from childhood trauma: a moment of deep betrayal by his father (Lorne Greene).

Michael Redgrave and Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door

Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door, made eight years earlier, follows a similar but less emotionally convincing trajectory, as Celia (Joan Bennett) marries wealthy widower Mark Lamphere (a clearly uncomfortable Michael Redgrave, making his Hollywood debut) only to discover that her husband has a son who most definitely doesn’t want a stepmother, as well as a sinister housekeeper (Barbara O’Neil). More importantly, Mark’s first wife died under suspicious circumstances, he has a locked room he doesn’t want Celia to enter, and his behaviour increasingly suggests he wants to kill her. But like Robertson’s character in Leaves, Mark doesn’t really mean it: it all goes back to childhood, you see. Lensed by Stanley Cortez, Secret has often been compared to a dream, and certainly it has about as much logic as one, though its visual beauty and the way Joan Bennett plays Celia’s erotic fascination with her husband remain compelling.

Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion

The dangers that lurk in sexual attraction play a large part in Bluebeard films. Gene Tierney spends much of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) with a pretty good idea that her eventual husband Vincent Price is off his rocker, but he’s just so appealing — even if he does propose before his first wife has even made it to the undertaker. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) — a film about a woman who has every reason to believe her rather sleazy husband wants to kill her, until, in a vintage bit of Hollywood flip-flopping, it transpires that it was all in her head — Joan Fontaine’s performance goes a long way toward suggesting the sexual hold that Cary Grant’s Johnny has on her. Similarly, in Hitchcock’s immortal Rebecca from the previous year, much of the drama comes from Fontaine’s lonely sense that she is no competition for her husband’s first wife, the sensual temptress of the title. Fifteen years later, in Charles Laughton’s singular The Night of the Hunter (1955), Shelley Winters falls hard for the wildly handsome preacher played by Robert Mitchum, only to find that he has fully sublimated his own sex drive into murder.

Shelley Winters and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter

With his luscious drawl, hooded eyes, and effortless machismo, Mitchum was an ideal candidate to play either the murderous mate or the man who offers escape in the Bluebeard setup. In Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), he is the brother who shows up to derail the sinister designs that Alan (Robert Taylor, who should have played more villains) has on his bride Ann (Katharine Hepburn, unexpectedly great in an uncharacteristic role as a woman in peril). Two years earlier, Mitchum had also starred in a B movie variation on the theme, When Strangers Marry (a.k.a. Betrayed), its blunt title a clear warning from director William Castle and screenwriter Philip Yordan about what happens when women get hitched to the first man who raises their temperature. In this case, the addled woman is Millie (Kim Hunter), and the unlikely object of her instant attraction is travelling salesman Paul (Dean Jagger). Coming to New York to meet Paul, Millie finds that he’s missing; as Mitchum’s (perhaps too-) friendly character tries to help her, and unsurprisingly seems more appealing than Paul, Millie begins to suspect that her spouse is a serial killer.

Doris Day in Midnight Lace

The Bluebeard theme continued to get a workout as the 1950s came to a close. Doris Day made two highly enjoyable entries in the mini-genre: Julie (1956), in which, as Biller gleefully notes, Day “has not only to ward off her psychopathic husband, but to fly a plane on her own with no flight experience. So she gets to be an action heroine as well as a woman in peril”; and Midnight Lace (1960), a Gaslight-esque tale in which Day’s heroine is menaced by threatening phone calls.

Margit Carstensen in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha

The Bluebeard plot’s popularity seemed to wane somewhat as slasher movies gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, putting women into a different kind of peril — and one they were often less likely to escape. The mini-genre intermittently sputtered back to life, however, frequently via filmmakers who took inspiration from classic Hollywood: one notable example was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who in 1974 adapted “For the Rest of Her Life” — the most cruelly terrifying story Cornell Woolrich ever wrote — into his Bluebeard movie par excellence Martha, with Margit Carstensen as the spinster heroine of the title. The Bluebeard plot has also been a useful way for contemporary directors to evoke earlier, more glamorous eras of Hollywood filmmaking. Gwyneth Paltrow’s vague evocation of Grace Kelly got her cast in A Perfect Murder (1998), Andrew Davis’ loose but pretty good remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), in which Gwyneth’s trophy wife has double the murderous-man trouble (courtesy Michael Douglas and Viggo Mortensen) and a considerably more active part in the finale.

Mia Wasikowska in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak

One of the best recent incarnations is Guillermo del Toro’s opulent Crimson Peak (2015), which despite mixing in elements of horror, Gothic romance, and the supernatural still fits in quite well with its more stripped-down antecedents. Del Toro takes a kitchen-sink approach, throwing in locked rooms, a stalwart male friend, previous crimes, a good many elements of Dragonwyck (Victorian era, upstate New York setting, innocent bride), and — it’s quite a stretch, but I’d love to think so — perhaps a subtle nod to Cause for Alarm! in a key scene that, unexpectedly, takes place in a post office.

As it becomes more of a novelty on movie screens, the idea of a murderous husband has filled up the true-crime bookshelf (women have always been far more likely to be murdered by a spouse or partner than a stranger) and a permanent fixture on TV, at times seeming to take up the entire Lifetime network. The “based on a true story” format means such books and TV shows usually concern a dead victim. Bluebeard films, however, in their fantasy and strange forms of wisdom, more often offer an escape from such tragedy, for their audiences as well as their heroines.