Saturday, April 17, 2010

L'Assassin habite... au 21

1942, France, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

David Cairns, who runs the wonderfully eclectic shadowplay, seems to have a knack for drawing my attention to compelling French movies set largely in boarding houses, and I have him to thank again for pointing me to Clouzot's first significant work as a director, which, naturally, takes place in yet another boarding house, the Pension des Mimosas (presumably a pretty direct reference to Jacques Feyder's film of the same name).

Even by the standards of the genre, Clouzot's house is peopled by an eye-catching array of residents - a dollmaker, a failed novelist, an exotic illusionist, a returned colonial doctor - into which a flamboyant detective introduces himself in the hopes of catching a particularly elusive murderer, who leaves a calling card on each of his victims. Although France was under German occupation when the film was made, the capital is transfixed not by the Wehrmacht but by the elusive M. Durand, who seems to be able to attack at will; the opening sequence dramatizes his latest crime, in a tense bit of filmmaking that takes us from a cozy bar to a fearful street.

Despite the heinous crimes that set the film in motion, the tone shifts to a lighter register for most of the remainder of the action, with Pierre Fresnay's cocky Inspector Wens a comic foil rather than an embittered noir detective; Fresnay has to adopt the disguise of a minister to infiltrate the boarding house, where he also has to deal with his girlfriend's attempts to use Durand's infamy for her own career ends.

Although it hardly has an edifying view of human nature, the film is far less bitter than Clouzot's subsequent Le Corbeau, which dealt obliquely with the impact of the Occupation on a small French town. The comic/morbid tone may well have inspired Claude Chabrol's films featuring the equally unconventional Inspector Lavardin: the second of the films features a character not unlike the oddball dollmaker here, although in Chabrol's version the eccentricity is dialed up a notch since the character, played by Jean-Claude Brialy, makes models of eyes rather than entire people.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States