‘The Murderer Lives at Number 21’ on TCM

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-André 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.

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Plays on TCM on Sunday, April 7.

“Diabolique” – Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Icy Masterpiece

The Blu-ray debut

Diabolique” (Criterion)

Henri-Georges Clouzot was called the Hitchcock of France for his shadowy thrillers and the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that ran through so many of his films. “Diabolique,” his 1955 thriller about a plot to commit a perfect murder and the wrenching tension when the corpse disappears, plays like his attempt to out-do Hitchcock. In fact, Clouzot beat out Hitchcock to secure the rights to the original novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (Hitch consoled himself with another of their novels, “D’Entre Les Morts,” which became the basis for “Vertigo”) and turned that blueprint for terror into the most popular film in his career.

Vera Clouzot stars as the sickly wife of the bullying, philandering headmaster (Paul Meurisse) of her family’s provincial private school and the commanding Simone Signoret is his mistreated mistress. He married her for her money and, tired of waiting for her weak heart to give and leave him with her small fortune, he now torments her with an open affair while refusing a divorce. The two women find common ground in their desire to kill the cause of both of their miseries.

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“Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” – Portrait of the Artist as a Mad Man

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (Flicker Alley)

Serge Bromberg is one of the most dedicated film preservationists in the world today. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, his documentary on the legendary unfinished film, represents a different kind of detective work but the same spirit of discovery, preservation and presentation of cinema saved from neglect.

Blu-ray+DVD Combo

In 1964, French director Henri-George Clouzot—a man at the top of his game and his fame for such films as The Wages of Fear, Diabolique and La vérité (though largely forgotten today, it was an Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film)—was given carte-blanche by Columbia Pictures to make a dream project.

His film, a portrait of obsessive jealousy in a husband (Sergio Reggiani) who becomes insanely paranoid and maniacally controlling of his beautiful young wife (Romy Schneider, then one of the most luminous stars in Europe), collapsed in the director’s own obsessive camera tests and experiments, increasingly demanding direction and endless reshoots. He pushed the production overbudget and over schedule, drove his leading man to quit in exasperation and became distracted in exacting minutiae at the cost of the big picture. When a heart attack leveled him, the producers to pull the plug. It’s like Hearts of Darkness as reconceived by Werner Herzog as an epic failure: one man’s vision and creative ambition fueled by obsession and growing megalomania and laid low by the limits of physical reality, production economics and the limits of his own body.

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