When I set down to watch this French language film, I wasn’t sure how I would take it. It had English subtitles of course, but so many years had passed since I’d even attempted one, I thought I might have trouble getting into it. It’s a comedic thriller made during the Nazi occupation. Nazi owned Continental Films was the sole producer of films in France where American films were banned during the war.
Not to worry.
The plot is a simple one. There’s a serial killer working Paris and he likes to leave a calling card with each victim: a white business card with two words, Monsieur Durand. He’s a minor sensation in newspapers and I watched in amusement as the buck was passed down the line. The Chief of Police is told he has two weeks to find the killer or he will be fired. He gives his subordinate one week. The next man in line gets four days. When this man goes to the office of Inspector Wenceslas Vorobechik(Wens for short)(Pierre Fresnay), the man finds a sign on the desk that says “I have two days to find the killer or I’m fired!” and the office otherwise empty.
Wens gets a clue when a small time crook is picked up for a drunk and disorderly, Wens sees him because he’d arrested him on several occasions. The fellow claims he’d gone straight, the used furniture business, and was coming to see him. He had a supply of the Monsieur Durand white cards and said he found them in some furniture he’d bought, a bureau. He didn’t know who was the killer, but he knew where he lived. A boarding house at Number 21 Avenue Junot.
To keep the killer from learning he’s on to him, Wens arranges for his witness to be locked up, with the man’s agreement, so word doesn’t get out. He goes undercover as a Protestant minister and takes a room at the boarding house in order to pick out the killer. We get an assortment of oddball characters as Wens makes his investigation.
Much of the comedy comes from Wens’ mistress, Mitzi Malou(Suzy Delair), a ditzy would-be singer that wants to get noticed. She feels she has more talent than some signed into the opera house. The manager tells her “they are famous, you’re not.” It’s her idea to find the killer and get those all-important newspaper articles lauding her. Scenes are alternated with Wens’ more serious ones.
According to the film’s host on Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz, director(and screenwriter) Henri-Georges Clouzot is considered the “french Hitchcock” and that Hitchcock did indeed consider him an equal. THE MURDERER was Clouzot’s first feature film and the fourth script he’d written(this one co-written with Belgian Stanislas-Andre Steeman) for Continental. Since American films were banned, they wanted pictures of equal quality for their audiences. It worked to all aims with both commercial and critical success.
For more overlooked movies, as always, check in on Todd Mason, every Tuesday.