Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (French: L’Assassin Habite au 21) (1942) is a good mystery with an original solution, it looks like a noir but has musical and vaudeville acts, slapstick humour, bawdy jokes and blunt naughtiness, and it makes daring comments on obsession with fame as well as life in France under the Nazi occupation. A serial killer is terrorizing Paris, leaving cards at each crime scene that identify him as “Monsieur Durand.” As the bodies pile up, the government puts pressure on the police to arrest somebody. The buck passes down the chain of command to Inspector Wenceslas Vorobechik, known as Wens, who reveals his sharp intellect and awareness of office politics with the note he leaves on his desk: “I know, I know, I’ve got two days to catch Durand or I’m fired” (loose translation). Pierre Fresnay plays Wens as a solid, assured and tranquil detective who doesn’t miss a thing. Good hands to be in among all the strange characters who populate this story.
When Durand’s calling cards are found in the attic of a boarding house, Fresnay disguises himself as a pastor, gets a room there and meets a house full of possible suspects: a large, loud pipe-smoking landlady who may be a crossdresser, a wily illusionist and Egyptophile “professor” who hasn’t performed his stage act in eons, a retired Army doctor who limps, hates the police and admires the serial killer, an old maid writer whose next work mirrors the plot of this movie, a dollmaker who’s cashing in on the serial killer craze by making creepy faceless Durand toys, a blind boxer and his “nurse,” and a doorman who impersonates every bird call and type of whistle. They all love to dish the dirt on each other which makes Fresnay’s investigation easier and messier at the same time. When one of the boarders is murdered, we get the familiar “the killer is in this room” bit, but little about this movie is formulaic or predictable, making for an enjoyable and very satisfying mystery.
Meanwhile, Fresnay’s mistress (Suzy Delair), also wants to catch the serial killer, since she believes the publicity will help her launch her singing career. She tags along to the boarding house to “help,” which includes mistaking him for the murderer and knocking him cold on the night of a murder. She’s a busy, airheaded blabbermouth who would be annoying in any larger dose, but when her shallow dizziness is combined with Fresnay’s quick wit, you get a fairly entertaining screwball relationship. And there’s always the possibility she might be smarter than you assume, especially when Fresnay is taken at gunpoint by the killer.
This film was a sequel to The Last One of the Six (1941), starring Fresnay and Delair in the same roles, directed by Georges Lacombe from Clouzot’s screenplay. Because these pictures were made for a German company during the Nazi occupation of France, the shots against authority in this movie seem all the more daring, and the lighter moments more necessary and subversive. It’s an interesting hybrid product too, with Clouzot bringing in the popular Hollywood “feel” (American movies were banned at the time) and a crazy investigating couple that could be Nick and Nora’s French relatives, mixed with uniquely homegrown humour and well-known French stage personalities as the boarding house weirdos.
Armand Thirard’s cinematography impresses with dark Expressionist shadows and nicely lit shots, especially at the murders, on dark staircases or the interrogation room. My favourite part is that long, continuous tracking shot that follows the first victim and shows us his death from the killer’s point of view. There’s a clever focus on Fresnay’s hat in his hands as he listens to the dollmaker’s gossip; he turns the hat around several times and worries the brim faster or slower, according to how revealing the conversation gets. Just a few memorable images from a first-time director who was to give us many more through his career.