L'Assassin Habite au 21 (Henri-Georges Clouzot / France, 1942):

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Thin Man Goes to Vichy France, just about, though not without a lament for Paris under the Occupation ("How the faithful city has become a harlot," recites the bogus padre at dinner.) It opens with a creaking door then introduces the subjective slasher-cam for the murder of the moneyed barfly, "M. Durand" is the name on the killer’s calling card. Pierre Fresnay and Suzy Delair are the sleuthing duo at the center, he’s a darting dandy out of Doyle and she’s a chanteuse waiting to be discovered "like America before Columbus," a fizzy performance modeled after Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton. They know the killer’s location but not his identity, a joke diffused through the Hitchcock of Juno and the Paycock in the boarding house that Fresnay infiltrates under clerical guise. The toymaker with faceless dolls (Pierre Larquey), the limping abortionist (Noël Roquevert) and the fakir-gigolo-artiste (Jean Tissier) are the key suspects, though Clouzot’s ebullient viper’s nest is vast enough to encompass a failed novelist working on a policier ("set in a haunted castle"), a blind boxer with a nurse in black lingerie, and acerbic hints of colonial pasts: "If one returns from hell, one prefers to forget." "No one returns from hell. Cheers!" A curiously slaphappy whodunit that includes a dash of Lubitschian sleight-of-hand while name-checking the Vampire of Düsseldorf, fascinating for the screwball-comedy force with which it tries to keep at bay the malignant suspicions of an epoch of beasts. With René Génin, Jean Despeaux, Marc Natol, Hughette Vivier, Odette Talazac, and Louis Florencie. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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