L’Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at No. 21) for the very first time. I marvelled at the plot construction, the meticulously fair clueing, and the brilliant ending. But why am I bothering you with this summary? Go and read my review for yourself—I can still feel the enthusiasm dripping from my words. In fact, instead of starting a new mystery novel, I spent much of my reading time yesterday re-reading several passages from the book one more time… and my appreciation only deepened.
Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reviewing the film adaptation. It was released in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France. American films were banned and so the French cinema was pressed to give its audiences quality films—and thus, Henri-Georges Clouzot (sometimes called the French Hitchcock) was put into the director’s chair for his first major film, adapting L’Assassin habite au 21 with the help of the book’s author. And that’s about all I’ve been able to piece together—I’m sure more material is available on this film’s genesis but I haven’t got the ability to go out and do more research. Instead, I’d like to discuss the process of adaptation: what has translated well? What doesn’t work? What unique touches does Clouzot bring to the film as the director? And so on…
Which isn’t to say that there’s no sense of menace in the film. Au contraire! This is mainly due to Clouzot’s work. There are a few murders that take place directly on screen, and the very first of these at the film’s start is particularly chilling. Monsieur Durand is stalking his next victim and we see him prepare to pounce—all done from the killer’s POV. We see the victim hesitate as he realizes for the first time that someone is following him… the pace of the steps subtly changes… a car drives by and the killer stands still… This is quite simply a brilliant shot; there’s another really good moment in a similar vein when Monsieur Durand guns down one of his victims. This is where the sense of menace comes from.
I have taken a lot of time to point out the downfalls of the adaptation, but there are some really good points about it as well. Although the novel’s climax doesn’t work as well on the screen, Clouzot comes up with a wonderfully visual way for a character other than the detective to realize what the solution is. It’s a wonderful scene. The interplay between Mr. Wens and Mila Malou is wonderful, and they take the time to playfully flirt (especially Mila) which gives the movie some of its brightest moments. Just like the novel, the movie effectively combines dark scenes with very funny ones—and when Monsieur Durand confronts Wens at the end of the movie, the scene is laced with dark humour that had me laughing out loud!