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Henri-Georges Clouzot made his reputation as a director of coldly corrosive, meticulously-engineered thrillers, but he made his debut with the snappy, witty, screwball murder mystery The Murderer Lives at Number 21. You could call it a continental answer to MGM's The Thin Man films -- it has a sophisticated detective, a spunky girlfriend who joins him on his cases, and plenty of witty banter -- but there is also a wry cynicism under the cheeky humor and a decidedly French attitude to sexual mores.
Clouzot had been working in the film industry since the early 1930s, apprenticing as an assistant to directors Anatole Litvak and E.A. Dupont and writing or co-writing scripts in both France and Germany. By the early forties he had become a specialist in French thrillers and among his successes was The Last One of the Six (Le dernier des six), a light 1941 murder mystery made for Continental, a German film company that established itself in France during the occupation. Adapted from a novel by Stanislas-Andr Steeman and directed by Georges Lacombe, the film starred Pierre Fresnay as Inspector Wenceslas Woroboyioetschik, aka Wens of the Paris police, and Suzy Delair as Mila Malou, aspiring singer and Wens' saucy lover. Clouzot forged strong friendships with Fresnay (Clouzot once said that Fresnay helped him more than anyone else in his lifetime) and Delair, who became his companion during the production and even made suggestions to the script, over the course of production, and the film's success led to a promotion for Clouzot -- he was made head of Continental's screenwriter department -- and a chance to direct his first feature.
The Murderer Lives at Number 21, also based on a novel by Steeman, reunites Clouzot with Fresnay and Delair. Though Wens and Mila are not characters in the novel, Clouzot wrote them into the leading roles of the mystery of a serial killer who leaves his calling card with every corpse. The name Monsieur Durand becomes notorious on the streets, like a boogeyman, but in this case a very real one. While Wens goes undercover, moving into a rooming house where he believes the killer lives (thus the film's title) under the guise of a minister, Mila embarks on her own investigation for purely professional reasons: Nabbing the killer would make her famous and kick-start her singing career. Clouzot writes Wens as a sly, quick-witted investigator, sharper than his bosses and more clever than his suspects, and Fresnay plays him as a man who spars with words like a fencer with a foil. Where Fresnay's sophisticated Wens outmaneuvers his opponents with verbal dexterity and wit, Delair's street-smart Mila is a dizzy force of nature who bowls them over by sheer force of personality and determination. Their lively relationship is defined by the sardonic byplay between the characters, who are not married but clearly live together.
The rooming home is, of course, filled with colorful characters and likely suspects, including a flamboyant showman and magician who calls himself Lalah-Poor (Jean Tissier), a blind boxer (Jean Despeaux), his seductive nurse (Huguette Vivier), and a misanthrope of a doctor (Nol Roquevert) who publically praises Durand's murders for ridding society of the weak and the inferior. (Though not necessarily obvious at the time, today it comes across as a sly anti-Nazi dig slipped under the noses of the German censors.) It's part of the gallows humor that Clouzot brings to the film. While he never plays the murders for laughs, he fills the film with satirical jabs and sassy insults and he constantly deflates his authority figures by revealing them as pompous hypocrites, quick to pass the buck of responsibility and even quicker to take credit for a success.
The budget was lavish by wartime standards. Clouzot drew from his experience working in German studios to give the film a shadowy, expressionist look (the first murder is seen from the perspective of the unidentified killer as he stalks his victim down shadowy, rain-slicked streets) but he directs the actors with the energy of an American screwball comedy. He was by all accounts a demanding, even despotic director. "He slapped me," admitted Delair years later. "So what? He slapped others as well. He could only get the best out of actors by hitting them... He was tough, but I'm not about to complain." According to Fresnay, "He worked relentlessly, which made for a juicy spectacle." It also made for a critical and popular hit film.
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 apparently filled the gap left by the German ban on American films and established first-time director Clouzot as a new directing talent. He used his newfound clout to make the controversial Le Corbeau (1943), a corrosive portrait of French society that came close to ending his career just as it was taking off. It did end his friendship with Fresnay.
by Sean Axmaker
"French Cinema," Roy Armes. Oxford, University Press, 1985.
"Le Corbeau: French film guides series," Judith Mayne. I.B. Tauris, 2007.
"World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945," ed. John Wakeman. The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.
"Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant," documentary directed by Eddy Vicken on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray of The Wages of Fear.