The Murderer Lives at 21 Review

It might actually be more interesting to read a dissenting view of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Murderer Lives at 21 (L'Assassin habite au 21) rather than a glowing recommendation. If so, I'm of no help because the picture delighted me completely. I was smitten and sad to see it end, compelled throughout the too-short running time. I only speculate on the possible merits of a negative view because I can't imagine what complaints any fair and observant reviewer might glean from the feature. To be honest, even if I hadn't seen the movie, I'd still ignore the warnings when they concerned a forties French whodunnit guided by H.G. Clouzot. After Diabolique and The Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau and even Quai des orfevres, the director sometimes compared to Hitchcock would be (internet) review-proof in my mind. And that's why I immediately sought out his debut feature once it hit the Criterion Collection's Hulu channel and, again, when it took up residence in the Masters of Cinema series.

What I especially like about The Murderer Lives at 21 is its classic ability to, firstly, establish a compelling crime and then tease us until pretty much the very end with exactly who is responsible for committing said transgressions. In the meantime we have a quirkily interesting, Thin Man-esque protagonist detective and his girlfriend, who also has a strange curiosity for the case. Clouzot picked up with his debut essentially where he'd left off in that the characters of the detective Wens (played by Pierre Fresnay) and his showbiz-sniffing gal Mila Malou (Suzy Delair) had figured prominently in a picture he'd adapted just before called The Last of the Six (Le Dernier des six). The original author of the books which Clouzot adapted into these films (the first of which was directed by Georges Lacombe) supposedly didn't care for the screen versions, and I can't speak to the merits of The Last of the Six. Still, the follow-up would seem to do most everything one could hope for in marrying suspense with occasional and more light-hearted comedy.

The primary point of concern is the frequent murders in Paris by someone leaving behind a calling card inscribed "Monsieur Durand" and the police's subsequent inability to catch this apparent serial killer. Pressure building, it's Wens who takes action when a tip comes in that the murderer's cards were found at a boarding house located on 21, rue Junot. He quickly moves in, posing as a priest. There he finds a real cast of characters, almost any of whom could be the killer. These include the blind ex-boxer and his supposed caretaker, a self-professed magician buried in oddities, and a military man with a questionable past. He also soon finds his own girlfriend living there, hot on the case herself after reading a letter from Wens that was intended to be opened only in the event of his death.

What the viewer gets out of all this is a rather eccentric but delightful introduction to a rogues' gallery of potential suspects and non-innocents. There's the constant, competing idea as to exactly which one of these potentials is Monsieur Durand. To Clouzot's credit he actively propels it all forward. Most everyone seems like a candidate yet none enough to be the inevitable choice. And that's an important part of what I love about the picture. Simply being able to vicariously investigate the case from the point of view of one's couch is a rare gift. Clouzot makes it look easy but that hardly means it is. The very lightness on display takes a great deal of skill to make happen. As usual, Clouzot was up to the task and, if anything, one of the more surprising aspects of the picture in relation to his later filmography is the relative lack of cynicism or nastiness. To be sure, it's still adult in tone, especially considering the time period, with an early, throwaway exchange retaining a bit of shock when a recent lottery winner asks a woman if she wants to be his nanny. As the woman at the bar sticks out her chest and says, "I've got what it takes," the man responds with "sorry I've already been weaned." Soon enough we see a thrilling murder from the perspective of the victim.

There's plenty more inside Clouzot's The Murderer Lives at 21 to keep most any and all entertained. I don't know if the subtext can necessarily match the director's later efforts, but for sheer entertainment value this is pretty high up there. Its final revelation pumps and slithers really nicely. The presence of comedy, notably between Wens and girlfriend Mila, adds a dimension not typically found from Clouzot. If there's a modest complaint to be made it's only that the picture can feel slight in ambition, though I'm very reluctant to register such a forgivable quality as a negative in this instance. From start to finish, Clouzot commands the viewer into being interested in his movie and in what the outcome will be regarding the central serial murderer. He succeeds, completely. The film likewise registers as a smashing success in my view.

The Disc

Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series presents The Murderer Lives at 21 in separate DVD and Blu-ray editions. The latter, under review here, is a single-layered Region B disc.

Recently restored by Gaumont, Clouzot's film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The initial take while viewing is that the image is exceptionally clean-looking, absent any significant damage, and it's also very light on grain. I wouldn't characterize it as appearing overly scrubbed or waxy, though, and the possible tinkering done during the restoration seems more or less respectful of the original image. Detail is certainly a strength and, in motion, the picture quality is easily more strength than weakness. Those prone to picking at digital nits may be less forgiving but the type of restoration on display here strikes me as more than acceptable from a pragmatic standpoint.

A perfectly fine French LPCM two-channel mono track sprays dialogue and the mood-enhancing musical score with modest efficacy. It's free from any listening distractions such as hissing or pops. No issues involving clarity or volume. There are optional English subtitles here.

The only on-disc special feature is an interview (13:18) with Ginette Vincendeau in which she discusses Clouzot and the film. Particularly interesting, I thought, was the talk of Clouzot's tendency to be emotionally and even physically abusive to his actors on set and their eventual acquiescence after a picture's commercial and creative success.

Also significant is the 28-page booklet found inside the case. An essay by Judith Mayne has been excerpted from her book on Clouzot's second film Le Corbeau, and runs for just over six pages. It's followed up by an essay of roughly the same length that was taken from Christopher Lloyd's book about the director. Lloyd discusses the French film industry during the German occupation using Clouzot as a focus. Last is a five-page compilation of relevant quotes from Clouzot, writer Stanislas-Andre Steeman and actress Suzy Delair. Attractive stills and credits help to fill out the booklet. Make sure to read the back cover as it effectively creates the mental image of Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso attending a cinema showing of the film together.

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