Continuing our crime month with a look at Henri-Georges Clouzot’s lightweight murder mystery shot during the German occupation of France.
Legendary French thriller maestro Henri-Georges Clouzot began his illustrious career with the lightweight – but unquestionably entertaining – murder mystery The Murderer Lives at 21 (French: L’assassin habite… au 21) that was made in 1942, during the Occupation, for the Nazi-owned production company Continental Films. A whodunit in the tradition of Hollywood comedy thrillers of the period, it might lack the potency of his later films like Les Diaboliques and Wages of Fear, but it has a lot of charm nonetheless – and while it plays its subtext close to its chest, it’s not hard to see a few digs at the fascists along the way.
Pierre Fresnay plays Inspector Wenceslas Vorobechik – aka Wens – who finds himself given just a couple of days to find the mysterious murderer who is known as Monsieur Durand, thanks to the calling card he leaves at the scenes of his crimes. Tipped off by a burglar who has found a cache of the cards at a boarding house at 21 Avenue Junot, Wens goes undercover (as a priest who has just moved into the house) to investigate the tenants. They turn out to be a rather eccentric bunch, all of whom seem highly suspicious – if not of murder, then certainly something. There’s Dr Linz (Noël Roquevert), who seems to admire the killer for sweeping ‘undesirables’ off the streets (one of more blatant of the several subtle digs at the Nazis worked into the film); would-be novelist Mademoiselle Cuq (Maximilienne), who neatly reveals Wens’ undercover operation while trying to think of a crime story idea; blind ex-boxer Kid Robert (Jean Despeaux); his seductive nurse Vania (Huguette Vivier); illusionist Professor Lalah-Poor (Jean Tissier); doll maker Monsieur Colin (Pierre Larquey), the creator of a line of faceless Durand Dolls that are impressively creepy and ahead of their time (if unofficial action figure creators were less narrow in their cinematic tastes, perhaps there would be a line of these actually on sale now); and the boarding house’s manservant/whistling impressionist Armand (Marc Natol).
Any of these characters could be the killer, but Wens finds cracking the case harder than it seems. Every time the evidence points to someone, leading to an arrest – and at one point a brutal interrogation that leads to a confession from Linz – another murder occurs, proving their innocence. It seems an impossible case for the Inspector to crack, and his investigation is further hampered by his scatty singer girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair), who is determined to crack the case herself in order to boost her public profile.
In contrast to some of his later, more famous films like Les Diaboliques, Clouzot keeps the atmosphere here fairly light, the emphasis as much on comedy as it is on drama, but his visuals are pure noir and his moments of violent shock – the first murder particularly – are handled with aplomb and considerable style. His digs at the Nazi occupiers are clear in retrospect – Linz’s speech praising Durand is very much akin to the idea of the Nazi superman, while the interrogation scenes could’ve been lifted from any WW2 prisoner of war drama. But these subtle little pokes are carefully worked into the story as a whole – he could hardly be upfront with them, after all, and in the end, this is primarily a piece of entertainment – and it works perfectly well as that. You don’t need to know the context in which it was made to enjoy it.
The sharp dialogue, constantly back and forth between Wens and Mila, immediately puts you in mind of The Thin Man films, which seem to have been a definite influence here. Neither character quite manages to have the effortless charm and appeal of Nick and Nora Charles though – Wens seems a little too self-satisfied at times for a man who keeps arresting the wrong person and is on the verge of being fired, and Mila often crosses the fine line that separates cute from annoying. But despite their shortcomings, they are a lively pair who keep things buzzing along as the story unfolds and bring a lightness to what might have otherwise been a very dour story. I’m assuming that French audiences in 1942 were in dire need of fluffy escapism and this film certainly provides that. There are few clues given to the viewer about who the killer might be, with good reason – I’ll confess I guessed what the final denouement would be about ten minutes before it happened, but this was less due to my brilliant detective skills and more because the same plot twist has been used in several other thrillers subsequently and as all other possibilities fizzled out, it seemed the only possible answer. It might feel to some like a bit of a cop-out – and it probably is. But it’s not unsatisfying and again probably had a lot more hidden (or not-so-hidden) meaning for audiences at the time. It’s hard not to see it as a dig at how evil spreads with mundane people who misguidedly think of themselves as superior beings.
I won’t pretend that The Murderer Lives at 21 is perfect – its style is very dated and at times the humour falls rather flat. The film doesn’t quite have the spark of similar American films, where everything positively buzzes along – there are many moments here that drag on, especially as we are introduced to all the main characters and Wens arrives in his undercover guise. But on the whole, this is a fine example of the light-hearted murder mystery film that was so popular at the time and should be more than satisfying for crime film aficionados.
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