Henri-Georges Clouzot began his career in Nazi Germany where he helped to adapt French films for the German market. When World War II broke out, Clouzot returned to France and landed a job with a studio set up and run by the German ministry of propaganda where he produced Le Corbeau, a fantastically sinister and ambiguous film in which French people hound each other to death using poison pen-letters. Taken by some to be a pro-German indictment of French cultural values, Le Corbeau did little to appease Clouzot’s critics and the end of the war saw him banned from directing for two whole years. While Clouzot remains a somewhat controversial figure in the history of French cinema, his defenders argue that he was far too misanthropic to be a Nazi and his first film The Murderer Lives at 21 (a.k.a. L’Assassin Habite… Au 21) suggests that they may well have a point.
The film opens on a corner bistro where a local tramp celebrates an unexpected lottery win by buying everyone a drink. Unfortunately, as soon as the tramp sets foot outside the bistro he is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant, the only clue a stylishly engraved business card marked ‘Monsieur Durand’. With the police powerless to stop what turns out to be a series of murders, the minister of justice begins applying the screws to his subordinates who then put pressure on their subordinates until eventually the buck stops with a dapper and sarcastic police detective named Wenceslas Wens (Pierre Fresnay). Though not married, Wens turns out to be involved with an aspiring opera singer named Mila Malou (Suzy Delair) who hatches a plan to use Wens’ investigation as a means of getting her name in the papers. Wens quickly works out that Monsieur Durand lives in a boarding house and decides to go undercover as a priest in order to work out the killer’s real identity. However, it’s difficult to pass yourself off as a clergyman when your foul-mouthed girlfriend decides to tag along.
Arriving at the boarding house, Wens and Malou discover an assortment of beautifully drawn stereotypes including an old maid (Huguette Vivier), a colonial doctor (Noël Roquevert), a neurotic grocer (Pierre Larquey) and a music hall hypnotist (Jean Tissier). Aside from representing different facets of French society, these characters openly loathe one another and are not in the least bit shy about voicing their hatred resulting in an atmosphere of ceaseless verbal aggression in which Wens and Malou seem perfectly at home. With only their rapier wits and acid tongues to defend them, the couple must find a way to stop bickering and unmask the killer.
The most striking thing about The Murderer Lives at 21 is the absolutely incendiary dialogue. Combining elements of screwball comedy and noir thriller in a style that is reminiscent of W. S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man, Clouzot’s film is not only incredibly funny but astonishingly base as the film’s central couple lob heavily-sexualised insults back and forth whilst demonstrating the kind of casual indifference to each other’s wellbeing that you simply do not see in contemporary film. Much like Ernst Lubitsch’s magnificent Trouble in Paradise, Clouzot’s film features a couple whose relationship has nothing to do with love or devotion and everything to do with sex and cynical self-advancement. This misanthropic vision of human relationships pervades every aspect of the film from the way people talk to each other in the boarding house to the way things get done at police headquarters.
Aside from being a brilliantly written whodunit, this film is also intensely beautiful as Clouzot’s familiarity with German cinema is evident in the obvious debt owed to the works of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. Particularly impressive are the shadowy interrogation sequence that could easily have appeared in Murnau’s Nosferatu and a vision of clockwork bureaucratic dysfunction that could almost have been lifted directly from Lang’s ground-breaking M.
Flawlessly restored by Gaumont and released in this country by the ever-wonderful Masters of Cinema, The Murderer Lives at 21 comes with a booklet of stills and writings as well as a fascinating introduction to Clouzot’s works by a French academic.