The Murderer Lives…at 21

The Murderer 21

From its very opening scene The Murderer Lives…at 21 announces itself as something special. The door of a quiet bar opens seemingly on its own accord. A few late night drinkers are wrapping up, amongst them a tramp who has won the lottery, merrily winding down a celebratory bar crawl. On his way out he’s warned to take care as a murderer is stalking the streets. Rubbish, he replies, merely a fabrication by the press to sell more newspapers. Foolhardy words as no sooner is he out in the street alone he is stalked and killed. The murderer robs him of his winnings and in return leaves a calling card on the body with the mysterious appellation Monsieur Durand.

This latest murder drives the police into a frenzy and super detective Wens, played by Paul Fresnay is drafted in to apprehend the killer before another crime is committed. A tip off leads him to a neighbourhood guest house, peopled with an assortment of oddball guests, one of whom is most assuredly the guilty party. Disguised as a priest he takes a room and makes to uncover Monsieur Durand before it is too late.

So far, so policier, right? Well up to a point yes. Fresnay is compelling as the fearless independent cop. A little aloof perhaps but cognizant of his own formidable skills and even phlegmatic when no credit comes his way after an early breakthrough. But director Henri-Georges Clouzot and writer Stanislas Steeman were clearly influenced by the screwball American comedies now strictly verboten under the Fascist regime. In a clear homage to the Thin Man films of the 1930s Suzy Delair plays alongside Fresnay as the inspector’s ambitious & social-climbing girlfriend. Seeing an opportunity for fame should SHE catch the murderer she too checks into the guesthouse at number 21 and begins a parallel investigation. Needless to say hilarity ensues with the back & forth comedy between the two complimenting the investigation.

The Murderer 21

The Murderer Lives…at 21 was filmed in 1942 with France under wartime occupation, moreover it was produced by the German company Continental Films so makes for intriguing viewing, specifically to decipher any anti regime messages concealed within. At the film’s climax Fresnay lowers one of the arms of a surrendered suspect to produce an erzatz Nazi salute, and we are introduced to the dizzying levels of police bureaucracy with a hilarious pass-the-buck routine close to the beginning of the narrative. Hidden messages to gently undermine the Fascist authorities, or perhaps a dig at the overt willingness of the French to go along with the occupation? Whatever Clouzot’s aim this is a tightly crafted picture that presages a glittering career from one of cinema’s legendary directors.

Highly recommended.

L’Assassin habite…au 21 – directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1942)

In Short
Clouzot’s debut, which delivers a taste of greatness to come from the much garlanded director.
Leading couple Fresnay and Delair are effortlessly delightful throughout.
Opening clip here