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REVIEW – L’Assassin Habite au 21(1942)

May 17, 2013

21FilmJuice have my review of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s zesty whodunit L’Assassin Habite au 21 (a.k.a. The Murder Lives at 21)

Best known for his misanthropic thrillers Le Corbeau, Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear, Clouzot’s first film tells of a dapper and sarcastic detective who is charged with tracking down a mysterious serial killer known only as ‘Monsieur Durand’. Unfortunately for the detective, he is involved with a flighty and foul-mouthed opera singer who insists on going undercover with him in the hope that the ensuing publicity will help her faltering career:

Much like Ernst Lubitsch’s magnificent Trouble in Paradise, Clouzot’s film features a couple whose relationship has nothing to do with love or devotion and everything to do with sex and cynical self-advancement. This misanthropic vision of human relationships pervades every aspect of the film from the way people talk to each other in the boarding house to the way things get done at police headquarters.

L’Assassin Habite au 21 looks and feels like an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man filmed by Fritz Lang but aside from being brilliantly written, brilliantly shot and brilliantly acted, the film also reminds us that there was a point in cinematic history when films were not afraid to depict grown-up and unusual relationships in all of their complex glory. Indeed, one of the things that most struck me about J.J. Abram’s recently-released (and incredibly tedious) Star Trek into Darkness is that while all of the characters may technically be adults their concerns are those of much much younger men.

Today’s Hollywood blockbusters are locked in what can only be called a financial death spiral. Lured into competing with each other to produce more and more expensive films, the studios have now reached a point where they have spent the last decade actively alienating anyone who is not a teenaged American boy. Painfully aware that films like Star Trek into Darkness need to make about $1 Billion before they start making money, the studios are now making more of an effort to reach out to foreign markets and they are doing this by making their themes and narratives as broad and accessible as possible. A Hollywood blockbuster needs to be comprehensible to everyone in America but it also needs to be comprehensible to people who grew up in rural China or India. As a result, films like Star Trek into Darkness are about grown men confronting the generic problems of teenaged boys such as getting the right girl to like them and overcoming their love-hate relationship with Daddy. This infantilisation of Hollywood’s primary protagonists is particularly amusing in the case of Star Trek as there’s a scene where Zachary Quinto’s Spock contacts Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in order to get advice. 21st Century heroes are evidently not afraid to call their parents and have them come and pick them up from the party. There’s your crisis of masculinity right there!

The Murderer Lives at 21 is released on Monday by Masters of Cinema and it is worth every penny.

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