Bluebeard’s Castle (1963) – Film Review


Director: Michael Powell
Cast: Norman Foster, Ana Raquel Satre
Certificate: PG

By Sarah Morgan

You know how it is. You think you’ve found the partner of your dreams, then you take them to your gaff for the first time and they turn their noses up at it. They hate the decor, and they want to poke into every nook and cranny, including the places where you hide your secret stuff.

So what do you do? Well, you show them a few bits and pieces, get all moody about it and then lock them away with their predecessors in a room that nobody else will ever find.

bluebeard's castle film reviewOkay, so only the most depraved members of society might consider that as a plan, but it’s pretty much what happens in Bluebeard’s Castle, Bela Bartok’s unusual opera which, due to its short running time, limited setting and lack of real drama, has rarely been performed since it was written in 1911.

“Visually stunning”

However, in 1963, production designer Hein Heckroth enlisted his old friend and colleague, Michael Powell, to direct a film version produced by American bass-baritone Norman Foster, who also took the role of Duke Bluebeard, the notorious wife-killer.

Heckroth and Powell previously worked together on such classic movies as A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman, among others, so if you’re approaching this production for the first time, you’ll already know what to expect – something visually stunning and atmospheric, which looks even more incredible due to its recent restoration.

Certainly, fans of mid-century design will love it. Heckroth’s sculptures, which dominate the otherwise sparse sets, look like a cross between the work of Henry Moore and Elisabeth Frink, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay them. They’re also lit in an intriguing way, reflecting mostly primary colours that offer insights into Bluebeard’s psyche.


“Convincing anti-hero”

The opera itself isn’t an easy watch, however. Mostly because it’s all sung in German. The disc does contain a version with some English subtitles added by Powell, which I found essential. Foster makes a convincing anti-hero, while Ana Raquel Satre, looking rather like horror icon Barbara Steele, portrays Judit, his final wife.

Special features-wise we’re treated to a new interview with noted film scholar Ian Christie, who recently took part in a Hull Noir-organised event as part of the BFI’s current Powell and Pressburger season (of which this blu-ray release is also a part), as well as a fascinating 16-minute film made during Powell’s time as Artist in Residence at Dartmouth College in the US in the 1980s, where he can be seen passing on his knowledge to a group of eager students.

And if you’re lucky enough to be one of the first 2,000 buyers, you’ll also get a fully illustrated booklet that’s essential reading for fans of the director.

Production Design9
Special festures
  • Newly restored by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with The Ashbrittle Film Foundation, and presented in High Definition. Restoration funding provided by the BFI National Archive and the Louis B. Mayer Foundation and The Film Foundation
  • Optional audio track of the English translation, commissioned by Michael Powell and sung by Norman Foster and Ana Raquel Satre
  • Newly recorded interview with film scholar Ian Christie (2023, 21 mins)
  • Picture Business: Michael Powell at Dartmouth (1980, 16 mins): a short documentary depicting Powell’s time as artist in residence at Dartmouth College
  • Image gallery of production designs by Hein Heckroth
  • First pressing only Illustrated booklet with an essay by Ian Christie; ‘Bluebeard’s Castle: A Prologue’ – extracts from Million-Dollar Movie by Michael Powell; Bertrand Tavernier on Bluebeard’s Castle; biographies of Hein Heckroth, Norman Foster and Ana Raquel Satre by Lillian Crawford; notes on the special features and credits
Bluebeard's Castle is available on Blu-ray from the BFI Shop for £16.99

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