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Murderer Lives at Number 21, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite Nick & Nora, but nearly as nice."
4 stars

You know, I don't think I've seen another crime comedy quite like this one, which somewhat surprises me, because the darn thing works as well as anything in it's genre not named "The Thin Man". It's the sort of movie one expects to get ripped off and remade, and yet "The Murderer Lives at Number 21" is a relatively unique obscurity, noteworthy as Henri-Geroges Clouzot's directorial debut but not otherwise as well-known as it should be.

A thief and a killer stalks the streets of Paris, frustrating the gendarmes even more for literally leaving a calling card at the scene of each crime. They've had a break, though - a burglar found a cache of these cards in the attic of a house he was robbing. Unfortunately, it's a boarding house, requiring Inspector Wwenceslas Wens (Pierre Fresnay) to enter undercover. None of the residents seems particularly likely - there's Professor Lalah-Poor (Jean Tissier), artist Colin (Pierre Larquey), Dr. Linz (Noel Roquevert), spinster and would-be writer Mlle. Cuq (Maximilienne), former boxer "Kid Robert" (Jean Despeaux), and his nurse Vania (Huguette Vivier) - with owner Mme. Point (Odette Talazac) and valet Armand (Marc Natol) seeming equally harmless. And if Wens's job doesn't seem hard enough, his girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair) soon shows up, figuring she can crack the case and that the publicity from doing so can only help her singing career.

Give Stanislas-André Steeman's novel to a half-dozen different filmmakers and they'll probably come back with as many different tones; that description allows for everything from broad door-slamming farce to a taut psychological thriller. Clouzot - who, in addition to directing, collaborated with Steeman on the screenplay - opts for something in between. I'm not certain that the case is actually solvable for the audience, but it probably is. The audience just doesn't spend a lot of time working on it; not only do the filmmakers pull off the Agatha Christie tricks of populating the house with characters who all seem charmingly insignificant and not clearly favoring any of them, but they make sure that we spend as much time watching the detectives as the suspects.

And what a charming pair of detectives they are! When we meet them, they have already been together some time - or at least long enough to be past flirting and on to teasing. Wens is so certain of his ability to catch the murderer that he's able to have a little fun with it, dressing up as a preacher and dropping the occasional line with a double meaning, but Pierre Fresnay plays him as confident and witty, with charm that pulls this attitude back from seeming like arrogance. One wonders how Wens hooked up with Suzy Delair's Mila Malou, who seems to get by in large part on acting like she belongs somewhere no matter how much common sense says otherwise. Delair pulls off making Mila oblivious but not exactly an airhead, even as she gets a lot of laughs for doing airhead things.

The filmmakers are able to get a lot of unforced laughs out of those two while still remembering that there's a murder mystery going on as well as a romantic comedy, balancing the two elements very well indeed: The occasional corpse doesn't make the (would-be) sleuths' banter frivolous, and as much as Wens and Mila tease each other, they never take their eye off the prize. The Murderer Lives at Number 21 is a modest production - once in the boarding-house, the action never strays far from it - but Clouzot and company are able to use that to their advantage. It's a movie that knows its scale, knows the pleasures of a light murder mystery and a breezy comedy, and knows just the right ending to tie the two together in a way that's satisfying and not smug.

Sure, it's a bit dated and unlikely to be influential now; boarding-houses seem quaint and the casual attitude toward catching a killer may not come across as quite so droll as it once did (at least, not without a lot more sarcasm applied). But in its time, not many did this sort of film better; it's a film well worth rediscovering.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=23302&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/24/11 15:52:31
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  16-Aug-1947

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