The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942)

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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.

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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.

the murderer lives at number 21

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942)”

    1. I got it on TCM. It took me a few minutes to get into it, because right away the comedy approach to a serial killer mystery throws you, but once you get comfortable, it’s a fun mix. Not as good as his later stuff but worth a look for sure. Thanks!

  1. A tremendous writeup of a movie I like a lot. As I think you suspect, I prefer its precursor, Les Derniers des Six, but this one’s excellent too!

    1. Thanks! It was lots of fun once you adjust to the treatment of it, at least I had to, as I was expecting something like LES DIABOLIQUES. I’ll have to look for the earlier one. By the way Clouzot’s WAGES OF FEAR is on my list to watch for the first time this yr.

      1. By the way Clouzot’s WAGES OF FEAR is on my list to watch for the first time this yr.

        I think you’ll enjoy that one! I gather the second Hollywood remake, Sorcerer (1977) dir William Friedkin is worth a look as well, but I haven’t seen it myself.

        The original has Véra Clouzot in it, whom you’ll recall from Les Diaboliques.

  2. “A busy airheaded blabbermouth” – ha ha! Love that description! Sometimes those personality types are a bit much, but I can see how it would work in a film like this.

    Did you stream this movie or do you own it? I don’t see it on YouTube, sadly…

    1. I recorded this one off TCM, because I love LES DIABOLIQUES and expected a similar thriller. This is silly almost to the point of being too silly 🙂 but has a neat balance so it works (in my opinion anyway). By the way if you’ve never seen DIABOLIQUES then you must. Just stay away from its horrid Sharon Stone remake. blech.

      1. ust stay away from its horrid Sharon Stone remake. blech.

        Yes, but the remake does have Isabel Adjani, so it’s not all bad. And Kathy Bates.

        1. Yes I agree with those, Isabel is worth seeing anywhere pretty much, and did a good job in that part. But what a letdown that movie was, I feel like Stone was acting in a different movie altogether.

          1. Am I right in remembering that it was Stone’s vanity project? Whatever the case, I imagine it must have been an immense anticlimax for Adjani. She must have been to be a part of the remake of such a famous movie, and then to find it was being used as a Sharon Stone vehicle . . .

            Oh, and I’ve just remembered Chazz Palminteri was pretty okay in it too.

            1. That’s right and there was conflict with the director, she wanted and had input since she was huge at the time, it was all so hotly anticipated and it just came out so shallow, odd and off (to me anyway, haven’t seen it since!).

            2. it just came out so shallow, odd and off (to me anyway

              That was the general consensus.

              Just noticed I missed out the important word “busting” from “Adjani. She must have been to be a part of the remake”! 🙂

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