“L'assassin habite... au 21” (“The Murderer Lives at 21”) was the directorial debut of the esteemed and sometimes controversial French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot, as well as the sequel to an already successful French comedy/mystery of the early 1940s titled “Le Dernier des Six” (“the Last of the Six”), which had been directed by Georges Lacombe and appeared in the year preceding Clouzot’s close-following release. Both had had their screenplays adapted by Clouzot in collaboration with the author of the original source novels, who was a then-popular but now forgotten Belgian mystery writer by the name of Stanislas-André Steeman. “L'assassin habite... au 21” reunites the unlikely romantically entwined lead couple-cum-crime solving duo from “Le Dernier des Six”, namely Inspector Wenceslas Wens (Pierre Fresnay, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”  and “Le Grande Illusion” ) -- a dynamic, bowler-hated detective with a Sherlock Holmes-style penchant for going undercover in disguise; and his mercurial girlfriend, Mila Malou (Suzy Delair): a ditsy but alluring would-be cabaret singer and performer who ends up getting involved in her beau’s cases and adding much mayhem to his investigations, while also -- just occasionally -- saving the day for him as well.
From early in 1941, Clouzot was made the head of the script department at Continental-Films, a French division of Germany’s famous Ufa Films, which was set up soon after Nazi Germany’s occupation of France, in order to oversee and regulate French film production during the rule of the collaborationist Vichy Government. As American films were banned in Occupied France during the Nazis' presence – along with those of all other nations apart from Germany and Italy -- Continental-Films concentrated on the making of populist and escapist entertainments intended to fill the gap which had now been created by the absence of Hollywood fare, and one of the most popular genre types during this period was the hybrid comedy/mystery, a style of picture which Clouzot was arguably instrumental in popularising through his screenwriting work as well as this, his earliest but remarkably assured debut as a director in his own right.
The film deftly delivers a finely judged combination of serial killer-based whodunit noir mystery material, buoyed along by a broad screwball comedy style of repartee involving much risqué sexual innuendo as icing to the performances of the male and female leads, that helps to bring a distinctively subversive tone to an otherwise populist mainstream work . It alternates outlandishly comedic character sketches with a dark undercurrent of film noir misanthropy just under the surface, and at its very root -- beyond the musical comedy skits, razor sharp dialogue and the oafish, humorous comedy policemen, etc. -- there’s a black heart to be unearthed here. Somehow the mixture works, perhaps because it all seems to be underpinned by this deeply cynical and almost insubordinate style of humour which anticipates the cruelty much associated with Clouzot’s more critically acclaimed later works, starting with “Le Corbeau” in 1943.
The fact that Clouzot continued to work for the German owned Continental-Films throughout the course of World War II, naturally made him a controversial figure in the immediate postwar years. He’d worked briefly in Germany even before this, though, but was fired from Ufa in 1934 for his close friendships with Jewish producers. However, this period is also the one that furnished him with the requisite contacts who enabled him to start his directorial career after having spent the intervening five years bedridden with tuberculosis. On its release “Le Corbeau” managed to offend almost every section of the political spectrum for its supposed ‘unpatriotic’ portrait of the French nation,; indeed, it got Clouzot fired from Continental-Films. The film caused just as much consternation among the right-wing Vichy regime as it did with the Resistance opposition for its hard-edged, unforgiving portrayal of almost all sections of a corrupt French nation. Thus, after the war, Clouzot was tried and briefly condemned as a collaborator, but his peers (Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre chief among them) openly defended him, and his career soon took off again -- leading to some of French cinema’s greatest classics and Clouzot’s burgeoning reputation as ‘the French Hitchcock’.
We can see some of the characteristics which later earned him that sobriquet even here, in this neophyte’s effort which expends as much energy on playful hijinks and witty banter as it does on crime thriller suspense and whodunit theatrics. There’s a peculiar tone to this film evident from its opening scenes onwards, starting with when a dishevelled drunkard is mocked and dismissed by a pretty young woman in a Parisian bar, who then promptly changes her attitude and attempts to come on to him when he reveals that he’s just won the lottery. However, the old man’s good luck turns out to be extremely short-lived when, upon escaping her clutches and ambling his way home ,he finds himself stalked through atmospherically rain-soaked, darkened Parisian streets by a killer who eventually pins him up against a wooden fence and pierces his heart with a rapier. Coming in 1942, this sequence defies almost everything we think we know about the beginnings of horror suspense cinema, consisting as it does of an extended POV stalking scene, taken from the vantage point of a black gloved killer as he hunts down his quarry through shadow-raked streets. This is almost twenty-years before Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” or the first cinematic glimmers of the Giallo genre!
It transpires that there is a rather publicity conscious serial killer with a sense of the theatrical on the loose in the city, who leaves his calling card at the scene of his every crime to announce himself as a ‘Monsieur Durand’ (a common French name akin to ‘John Smith’ in English). The first act of the movie offers up some deeply jaundiced black humour based on the sort of political machinations that might be provoked in law enforcement circles during such a spree, by a hysterical press response and public disquiet. We see the buck being passed down the chain of command, as each official demands of his immediate subordinate that the killer be caught in ever-diminishing periods of time – the chain ending with the lowly Inspector Wens, who finds himself saddled with the impossible task of uncovering the killer and bringing him to justice in just two days, or face the sack! Meanwhile, Wens’ indomitable but scatty singer girlfriend Mila is attempting to make it big in the world of showbiz, but finds herself being turned down flat by every impresario on the scene. She decides that the only way to get herself a reputation and knock Monsieur Durand off of the front pages is to track the killer down herself before anyone else can. This means butting in on her partner’s carefully calibrated investigations. When a petty criminal stumbles upon a cache of the killer’s printed calling cards in a drawer in the attic of a run-down boarding house he was intending to burglarise, it seems she might get her chance: Inspector Wens goes undercover in the lodgings at 21 Avenue Junot, taking on the guise of a Catholic priest, and hoping to flush out the killer from among the eccentric bunch of oddballs who turn out to be residing under the roof of the owner, Madame Point (Odette Talazac); but his plan is soon put in jeopardy when Mila joins the fray and threatens to expose his true identity to the killer.
The relationship between Wens and Mila is clearly based on that of the lead characters from the American comedy-mystery series which kicked off in 1934 with “The Thin Man”, and starred William Powell and Myrna Loy in similar roles to those Fresnay and Delair essay here. But Clouzot’s smart dialogue is allowed to get much racier than Hollywood would’ve ever countenanced at the time, and the diversity of the film’s eccentric roll call of boarding house lodgers permits the director to indulge in subtle digs at a variety of targets, while disguising the satire with Mila’s knockabout antics and Wens’ acid one-liners, as well as this lead pair’s lightning fast verbal jousting. The Inspector is presented with a smorgasbord of dubious suspects, each more suspicious than the last: there’s an ‘old colonial’ military man called Dr Linz (Noël Roquevert) who performs backstreet abortions and admits to admiring the killer because he believes his victims are all of the type who deserve their fates! Then there’s ageing spinster Mademoiselle Cuq (Maximilienne, a French comedienne who specialised in such unflattering roles) who writes Romantic novels but plans on turning to crime fiction next after a series of manuscript rejections, at which point she unwittingly stumbles onto a mystery outline that echoes the plot of the film exactly, and thus makes herself the potential next target for the killer; also there’s a sinister illusionist called Professor Lalah-Poor (Jean Tissier) whose turbaned fakir act has a faux Egyptian occultist theme; and there’s a dishevelled doll maker, the creepy Monsieur Colin (Pierre Larquey), who fabricates eerie faceless ‘Monsieur Durand ‘action figures in his spare time. Other residents include a blind boxer (Jean Despeaux) and his devoted young nursemaid Vania (Huguette Vivier), and weirdo manservant, Armand (Marc Natol), who is much prone to making bizarre quacking noises while serving guests at dinner, as he’s a part-time animal impersonator!?
During the course of working through some of it eccentric narrative turns, and in the midst of much mocking humour shot through with dark satirical undercurrents, Clouzot delivers some superb noir visuals via the work of cinematographer Armand Thirard, which add edginess and grit to the ingenious reveal which eventually explains exactly why every time Wens thinks he has conclusively uncovered the only possible person who could have committed the murders, another killing takes place which sends him right back to square one. From Mademoiselle Cuq casually reiterating the movie’s plot for one of her un-publishable novels, to the constant undermining of Wens’ apparently infallible ratiocinating, Clouzot delights in unravelling the deductive certainties of the entire detective mystery genre while laying the collective guilt of French society in plain view for anyone who cares to look and see. “The Murderer Lives at 21” was a big commercial success at the time, and was much praised by the collaborationist film literature of the period, but it manages to fulfil its screwball comedy-cum-thriller remit while smuggling in some fairly open scorn for the societal regime it was covertly made to promote.
Masters of Cinema deliver a stunningly clear and detailed 1080p HD transfer of the new Gaumont restoration which is resplendent with crisp picture detail and lovely deep black levels. The French language audio track is also very strong and there are clear and legible newly translated removable English subtitles also included. The only disc extra is an informal but learned talk given by Ginette Vincendeau, professor of French cinema at King’s College London. She fills in the background to the making of the film and discusses various aspects of the controversy which surrounds Clouzot's career during this sensitive period. She also focuses on other fairly unpleasant qualities in the director: for instance, his openness about his willingness to physically hit his actors in order to get the performance he wanted out of them. The film’s female lead, Suzy Delair, was Clouzot’s partner at the time, but even she has admitted that the director would slap her on set to get the required result. Although such behaviour would not be considered acceptable now, Vincendeau notes how no-one affected seemed to mind at the time, and justify the practice by the results the director obtained!
The fully-illustrated booklet which comes with the release features two excellent extracts from books on Clouzot’s work. Judith Mayne provides an exemplary overview of the film in an extract from her book on “Le Corbeau”, while Christopher Lloyd, Professor and Head of French at Durham University, delivers an essential guide to French film during the Occupation in an extract from his 2007 book “Henri-Georges Clouzot” entitled “Occupation and its Discontents”. Finally “Testimonials of a First Film” is a selection of quotes relating to “The Murderer Lives at 21” from Clouzot, author Stanislas-André Steeman and actress Suzy Delair.
Although clearly not on a par with later work, “The Murderer Lives at 21” remains extremely watchable thanks to excellent performances from the ensemble cast as well as the leads, and it marks a confident debut from a director whose talents were still in their infancy but which are unmistakably present nonetheless. The sparkling quality of the restoration and HD transfer on offer here considerably enhance the viewing experience, making this another pleasurable recommendation.
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