Judge Paul Pritchard is glad he lives at number 78.
"Watch out for Monsieur Durand!"
The Murderer Lives at 21 opens with a drunken oaf foolishly flaunting his money, having just won the lottery. Despite the warnings of his fellow drinkers, he sets out into the dark night alone, where he is brutally murdered. This is no isolated incident. Rather, this is the latest in a series of grisly murders committed by France's most wanted: Monsieur Durand.
The true identity of Monsieur Durand is a mystery to the police force, but with the media focusing on the killings, they are forced to increase their efforts to apprehend him for fear of looking incompetent. When he gets a tip suggesting the murderer resides at a local boarding house, Inspector Wens Vorobechik (Pierre Fresnay) goes undercover to root out the killer. Wens is not alone in his investigation.Much to his dismay, his fame-seeking girlfriend (Suzy Delair) decides to follow him in an attempt to discover the identity of the killer before him.
Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot's debut film, The Murderer Lives at 21 (aka L'Assassin habite au 21), is nothing short of an absolute joy. Masterfully blending a murder mystery—itself containing moments of genuine suspense—with a wonderfully light comedy, Clouzot's film is an engaging concoction that proves impossible to resist.
Released in 1942, The Murderer Lives at 21 was produced by the Nazi-owned Continental Films as a substitute of sorts for the American cinema that was banned under the German occupation of France. Given a substantial budget, Clouzot went on to win over critics and audiences alike.
One of the film's prize assets is the cast of oddball characters that Clouzot rolls out for our entertainment. Each is worthy of further investigation than the brisk 84-minute runtime allows, with each blessed with more depth than most whodunits would dare to bestow upon their creations. This depth in turn ensures the mystery regarding the identity of the killer will remain elusive to all but the keenest eyed of viewers, right up until the moment the final act finally exposes the truth from underneath a series of keenly plotted twists and turns. The residents of the boarding house truly are a curious bunch, and their interactions are fascinating. When Inspector Wens goes undercover as a pastor looking for a place to rest his head, he finds that it is not just he who is snooping on his fellow lodgers. Indeed, no sooner has Wens returned from a routine search of a suspect's room than he finds another resident in his room, inspecting the contents of his luggage.
As much as Clouzot masterfully builds his mystery, I found myself willing him to hold off on the reveal as there is so much to enjoy simply from the witty dialogue, and often surprisingly sharp comedy that separates The Murderer Lives at 21 from so many of its peers. The film's cast is impossible to fault, with Pierre Fresnay and Suzy Delair offering standout performances that are as warm as they comic. Refusing to rest on his sparkling screenplay, Clouzot's directorial flourishes (the opening murder is exceptional) reveal an assuredness that would go on to craft celebrated works such as Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear.
Eureka's region 1 DVD release of The Murderer Lives at 21 boasts a newly restored transfer, presented in the film's original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Understandably, given the films age, the picture quality is a little inconsistent. Though generally sharp, there are moments when the picture appears soft, with detail levels suffering as a result. Still, overall the transfer is clean, with few examples of damage to the print. The mono soundtrack is perfectly clear, if a little minimalist, while English subtitles are available for those not fluent in French.
The extras on the DVD are a little underwhelming. Indeed, the only extra on the disc is an interview with Ginette Vincendeau, a professor of French cinema. There's no doubting Vincendeau delivers an interesting insight into the film—not to mention a fascinating look at how Clouzot's work for Continental Film's impacted on his career once the Nazi occupation came to an end—but clocking in at under 15 minutes, it is not substantial enough. That said the DVD release does include a booklet, containing essays on the film and French cinema of the period.
The Murderer Lives at 21 is a breathless, funny, and engrossing picture that, if there is any justice, will captivate modern audiences with its combination of comedy, mystery, and murder most foul.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
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