While Henri-Georges Clouzot is best remembered for many of his later films, including The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, the French filmmaker's 1942 debut has gone largely unseen by Western audiences until now. The Murderer Lives at 21 (L'Assassin Habite au 21), based on the novel by Belgian author Stanislas-Andre Steeman, is in fact a sequel to Georges Lacombe's The Last of Six, released a year earlier. That film also starred Pierre Fresnay and Suzy Delair, and was adapted by Clouzot for the screen. In fact, it was his dissatisfaction with the way his script was directed that inspired Clouzot to become a director himself.
At the time of the film's production, World War II was in full swing and France was under the occupation of the Nazis. Having worked in Germany before the war, Clouzot was able to continue making films, albeit for the German-controlled company, Continental Films. While this would eventually cause complications for the director, and see him labelled a collaborator and banned after the war ended, it did mean he was able to keep working and hone his craft while the country was embroiled in the conflict.
British and American films were incredibly popular in France before the War, but were outlawed by the Germans. As a result, Clouzot looked to those countries for his influences, in order to give the public and the authorities what they wanted simultaneously. The action in Steeman's source novel was transplanted from London to Paris, as anything showing the Allied nations in anything remotely resembling a favourable light was outlawed.
Fresnay reprises his role as Inspector Wenceslas Lens, commissioned with capturing a grisly serial killer who has been preying on the lowlifes of Paris, and leaving the name card "Monsieur Durand" at the scene. After a tip off leads him to a boarding house, Lens checks in, disguised as a priest, in order to investigate the eccentric guests. Meanwhile, Lens' plucky singer-girlfriend Mila (Delair) is convinced that catching the killer herself will make her famous, so she also moves into the pension, setting the scene for a delightful comedy, seasoned with moments of genuine tension.
While there are elements in The Murderer Lives at 21 that clearly foreshadow a number of British thrillers, from Alexander MacKendrick's darkly comic The Ladykillers to Michael Powell's terrifying Peeping Tom, Clouzot's own influences are also on display. The film's central relationship, between Fresnay and Delair, is largely indebted to the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s. The couple incessantly bicker and tease each other with an acerbic, yet incredibly witty banter that must have been as shocking as it was entertaining to audiences of the day.
Clouzot's supporting cast features a number of familiar comedians from the day, portraying the various bizarre residents of the Pension Mimosas. Jean Tissier as a turban-sporting conjuror, Pierre Larquey as a builder of marionettes resembling the killer and Maximilienne as an elderly dame are particular standouts. However, it is Suzy Delair who really steals the show, as the fast-talking, shrill-singing wannabe superstar Mila Malou, who proves on more than one occasion to be just as adept a sleuth - and performer - as her professionally-trained partner.
The film also shows Clouzot the director quickly finding his feet and style, and the film sparkles with visual flourishes and inventive camera tricks that hint at the growing genius. However, The Murderer Lives at 21 is far from the director's finest work, and is more interesting for its historical context - both in terms of Clouzot's career and the political climate in which it was made - than for its enduring contribution to world cinema.
Nevertheless, Eureka has treated the film with the greatest respect, delivering a beautiful 1080p HD presentation of Gaumont's new restoration for this Blu-ray release. The film is accompanied by an insightful interview with Ginette Vincendeau, Professor of Film Studies at King's College London, and a fully-illustrated booklet that includes an extract from Judith Mayne's book Le Corbeau, as well as an extract from Christopher Lloyd's book, Henri-Georges Clouzot, both of which discuss the film's production and the complexities of the period in France. The resulting package is certainly rewarding, both for fans of Clouzot and French Cinema in general.
The Murderer Lives at 21 is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK today.