The monstrous artiste who longs to "paint something worthwhile" and leaves behind a trail of corpses, a breathtaking self-reflexive portrait by Edgar G. Ulmer. It moves swiftly from the Seine (a dead woman washes up at the outset) to an open-air puppet theater for a charcoal sketch of 19th-century Paris, pausing for a full aria performed by tiny wooden thespians (cf. Mizoguchi and bunraku in Osaka Elegy). The puppeteer is John Carradine, skulking in and out of shadows like a cloaked, top-hatted totem, a killer but also an acute auteur, a lovingly scabrous performance. His mocking beloved was strangled for not living up to his ideals of purity, now he only trusts himself to paint women as they are reflected in mirrors, Medusa-like -- the safety zone is shattered by a model’s slouched pose, she’s promptly found with his cravat around her neck. The flickering light in the shoestring chiaroscuro is Jean Parker, dressmaker, unwitting muse, Final Girl. Ulmer’s canted-angle tracking shots are precisely the nightmarish bravura called for in this tale of a man in control of a miniature proscenium yet at the mercy of demonic artistic urges, a transparent world of ramshackle ateliers and matte catacombs perpetually threatening to cave in on itself ("People come back to see how we pull the strings"). A proto-giallo thriller, sure, yet Carradine’s resemblance to Courbet cracks it open as a brackish dispersion of European art on Skid Row, with Manet’s name dropped by a brassy courtesan, a hint of Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses in the tell-tale canvas, Maupassant’s "petit marionette de chair" and Gounod for the scratchy tessitura. Chabrol (Landru) and Argento (Tenebre) are chief among the erudite students. Cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan. With Nils Asther, Ludwig Stössel, George Pembroke, Teala Loring, and Iris Adrian. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce