L’Assassin habite au 21

 (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1942) 84 minutes


Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Producer: Alfred Greven
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, from
  a novel by Stanislas-André Steeman
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Editor: Christian Gaudin
Music: Maurice Yvain
Pierre Fresnay (Inspector Wens)
Suzy Delair (Mila Malou)
Jean Tissier (Triquet, aka prof Lalah-Poor)
Pierre Larquey (Monsieur Colin)
Noël Roquevert (Doctor Théodore Linz)
René Génin (Alfred)
Jean Despeaux (Kid Robert)

Reviews and notes

2017 Grand Lyon (France)[digitally restored version]

Henri-Georges Clouzot's directorial debut has been widely overlooked in favour of its immediate successor Le Corbeau (1943) and the masterpieces that followed. True, it's more of a jolly comedy-thriller than the grimly protracted suspensers with which Clouzot made his lasting reputation, but it unmistakably foreshadows his later work, with even the jokier moments undercut by a bitter and all too characteristic misanthropy... Although Clouzot relocated the action in Stanislas-André Steeman's source novel from late-1930s London to early-1940s Paris, there's no onscreen mention of the Nazi occupation of France — but there are many nods towards its day-to-day reality, specifically the notion of death coming out of the blue and the hopelessness of the French authorities in preventing it. While the big climactic reveal won't be spoiled here, it too has a specific satirical thrust that's hard to miss. The film is startlingly racy compared with its buttoned-up English-language counterparts, not just in its innuendo-charged dialogue but also its overall sexual frankness.
- Michael Brooke, Sight & Sound, May 2013.

Runing the gamut from a low-simmer parlour murder mystery in the mode of Agatha Christie to screwball comedy, writer/director Henri-Georges Clouzot barely stops for breath in The Murderer Lives At Number 21, which must surely have been an influence of Francois Ozon's 8 Women among many others.

The story, adapted from Stanislas-André Steeman's novel, sees police inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) go on the trail of a mysterious serial killer who leaves the calling card 'Monsieur Durand' on all of his or her victims. Wens' singing girlfriend Mila Milou (Suzy Delair) blows like a hurricane through Wens' life and, in a bid to secure a vocal part from someone who won't hire her unless she is already famous, decides she will compete with her beau to unmask the killer. A stroke of luck reveals the murderer lives at a boarding house, No.21, on the Avenue Junot, and Wens, posing as a pastor, quickly infiltrates the scene.

In what could now be considered the finest parlour murder traditions, the guests each come with a room full of eccentricity. There's Theodore Linz (Noël Roquevert), a former serviceman doc who claims to have travelled the world and is constantly at loggerheads with entrepreneur Monsieur Colin (Pierre Larquey), who makes and sells a line of faceless, mechanical Monsieur Durand dolls - a moment in which one of these walks across his bench is one of several in the film which becomes suddenly and surprisingly disturbing.

Neither man is very fond of the flamboyant Professeur Lalah-Poor (Jean Tissier, in a performance that could rival Danny Kaye for extravagance), who spends his time between magic performances charming the ladies of the house, namely maiden aunt aspiring writer Mademoiselle Cuq (Maximilienne) and the far-from-ordinary pipe-smoking landlady Madame Point (Odette Talazac). If all that isn't enough to spread suspicion far and wide, there's also blind boxer Kid Robert (Jean Despeaux) and his suspiciously sexy nurse (Huguette Vivier) and the boarding house odd job man, who spends his days mimicking bird whistles. From here the stage is set but though Clouzot blasts the story along like a bullet train, the pace is enjoyably frantic and you never feel as though you are being left behind.

It was the second time Clouzot had adapted a novel by Steeman and he assumes we're familiar with Mila and Wens - both Delair and Fresnay sparkily reprising their roles from The Last One Of Six [directed by George Lacombe (1941)] - dropping us into the middle of their constant sparring, a move which serves to keep the film moving at speed. Their relationship is every bit as enjoyable as the murder mystery - whether it is the look of horror on Wens' face when Mila also turns up to rent a room at the boarding house or the hilarious skewed domestic scene in which she offers to pop her boyfriend's blackheads in a bid to cheer him up, "It's like vermicelli!," she declares, unable to contain her delight. The fabulous character of Mila is reason alone to see this film. She may be played for laughs by Delair but Clouzot never invites us to mock her, showing that while she is kooky she's more than a match in the brains department for Wens.

The script is taut and there are visual gags aplenty, such as when a succession of police chiefs, in diminishing office, move from room to room as the camera spins, passing bureaucracy down the line.

Away from the humour, Clouzot shows a firm grip on the plot's more sinister moments. In an early scene he uses the killer's point of view to good effect as, suddenly, we find ourselves in the murderer's shoes, looking down at a cane as a knife is drawn and put to dastardly work. Thanks to the general lightness of tone, Clouzot is able to generate sudden darkness, and lighting is employed cleverly throughout, whether it is an unexpected, expressionistic, bright light that instantly switches the mood from humour to horror or a cloak of shadow used to hide something from us... The film's beautiful composition, enjoyable humour and mystery are well worth catching on the big screen if you can.
- Amber Wilkinson, Eye For Film, 20 Nov 2015.

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