In 1942, after a few years of working together with directing partner Karl Hartl, Henri-Georges Clouzot (Wages of Fear, Diabolique) broke out with his first solo effort with the old-school murder mystery The Murderer Lives at Number 21. The film has long been out of circulation in the United States, recently digitally restored and brought over from France as a 2K DCP (digital cinema package) courtesy of Institut Français and Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Chicago.
The noirish plot revolves around a series of murders throughout Paris that confound police, partly because they can’t catch the criminal and also because the killer seems intent on letting the police know that the same person is responsible for each by leaving a calling card at every crime scene. Eventually, the case falls to Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay), who disguises himself as a pastor and moves into a boarding house (with his obnoxious lady friend, played by Suzy Delair, not far behind him) where he suspects the killer is living. Also living in the establishment are the shadiest collection of potential suspects known to mankind, which comes in handy when one of them goes dead in the night, making everyone look at each other sideways.
With a mix of scrappy detective work and a healthy dose of gallows humor thrown in, The Murderer Lives at Number 21 feels like a primer for much darker material Clouzot had in store later in his career. It still has a nice sense of tension, a stark visual style, and a healthy suspicion that everyone is guilty of something, even if it isn’t serial murder. The payoff might be too bizarre and unbelievable for some, but it certainly kept me guessing. And I truly adored the reprobate group of suspects, each one a bigger liar than the next, sometimes for not good reason. More footnote than film history, the movie is still wicked fun.
The film opens exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where it will screen on Friday, July 13 at 2:15pm; Sunday, July 15 at 3:15pm; Monday, July 16 at 6:15pm; and Wednesday, July 18 at 8pm.
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