Clouzot Of The Occupation – The Murderer Lives At 21

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Henri-Georges Clouzot is one of the great divisive figures of the French cinema. Coming of age creatively during the Occupation, Clouzot took advantage of relationships garnered in the years running up to the Second World War to make the leap from writer to director with the famous German studio Continental Films. While some might see this as canny opportunism, others would look suspiciously upon Clouzot for the remainder of his career.

While it is the exercises in tension of Les Diaboliques and The Wages Of Fear that audiences remember most fondly, Clouzot’s directorial debut, The Murderer Lives At Number 21 is not without merit. A whodunit set in the titular Number 21, a Paris boarding house, The Murderer Lives At 21 is superior fare, especially within the context of it’s origins.

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Pierre Fresnay, perhaps best known for his turn as Captain de Boeldieu in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion stars as Inspector Wenceslas Vorobechik, the detective charged with the task of bringing the illusive Monsieur Durand to justice. Durand is a serial killer who leaves behind a business card bearing his name alongside each of his victims. Vorobechik is joined in his investigations by his mistress, an actress in pursuit of the due notoriety required to make her name in showbiz. The film skirts between dark drama and lofty, broad comedy, straight from the boards of the Parisian theatre and cabaret community, from where many of the films supporting cast were discovered. In this respect the film is very much of its time; France’s theatrical legacy is fully on display, with lots of singing and physicality. At the same time, Clouzot uses these ideas to project a commentary on a cult of celebrity. In Clouzot’s Paris, notoriety  reigns; It’s a necessity to move forward professionally.

The core relationship evokes the American screwball comedies of the early-1930s, especially  Howard Hawkes’ collaborations with Cary Grant, His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. There’s probably something in the idea that the tone of Clouzot’s movie stands as opposite to the general mood of the time of the film’s production, much in the same way that the US screwballs were seen as a tonic to the low spirits of a nation caught in a Depression. Every corner of the picture is decorated with quirky and unusual characters, from Armand the manservant, who does a mean sideline in bird noises to Lalah, a relic of the stage, who performs the tricks that made him famous while casually engaging in conversation. Once again this all comes back to this idea that the nature of performance is central to the picture. It’s also pleasingly post-modern in many ways too, with the tale first unravelling before these unwound elements once again intertwine as the scenario unfolds, with one character in particular, a writer, begins to speculate within the film itself. The power of the writer is especially notable, given Clouzot’s former life as a wordsmith.

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Armand Thirard, the legendary cinematographer best known for his work with two very different filmmakers; with Clouzot he would help to define on-screen anxiety with Les Diaboliques and The Wages Of Fear, while with Roger Vadim he would engineer a new kind of Technicolor-powered CinemaScope for French audiences with And God Created Woman and Les bijoutiers du clair de luneThe Murderer Lives At Number 21 sees Thirard looks to the German Expressionist cinema of the silent era (Thirard actually served his apprenticeship during the 1920s) with a shadowy, atmospheric look’s wholly appropriate for a film set in the home of the Grand Guignol. The visual language of the piece is at it’s most thrilling in the long single takes that chart the final moments of each murder victim. Told from the perspective of the killer’s point of view, they’re convincing, driven uses of a technique so often written off as gimmicky.

The Murderer Lives At Number 21 was recently issued on Blu-ray by Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema imprint. 

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