The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942): Clouzot’s Directing Debut, Thirller with Wit, Starring Pierre Fresnay

The acclaimed French director Henri-Georges Clouzot made his directorial debut in 1942 with the comic thriller The Murderer Lives at Number 21, adapted by him and Belgian writer Stanislas-André Steeman from Steeman’s 1939 book of the same title.

The film marked the second collaboration of Clouzot and Stanislas-André Steeman, who had previously co-penned Le Dernier des six (1941). Steeman did not like some of the changes that Clouzot made, like shifting the story’s locale from London to Paris.

The film was financed by the Nazi run film company Continental Films, which tried to make entertaining movies to substitute for the American fare, which was banned in France during WWII.

Pierre Fresnay, a major Gallic star, plays inspector Wenceslas (referred to as “Wens”), who is assigned the case of a serial killer who leaves a calling card with the name ‘Monsieur Durand’ on his victims.

Wens’ mistress is the ditsy struggling actress Mila Malou (Suzy Delair), who helps him, hoping to get publicity and promote her career.

Upon discovery that Durand is a tenant at a boarding house at No. 21 Avenue Junot, Wens takes a room there, disguised as a Protestant minister.

Suspects are arrested, but while each is in jail another murder occurs.  At the climax, Wens is captured and about to be killed, when Mila and the police arrive and rescue him.

Most French critics at the time singled out the judicious mixture of suspense, wit, and humor.  The thriller is laced with light and subtle comedic overtones.

Clouzot made some playful references to the Nazi occupation in the subtext, though the German authorities failed to detect them. In one scene, the criminal has his hands raised, with one arm lowered by Wens to light a match on the man’s neck, suggesting a Nazi salute.

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 was released in France in July 1942, and in U.S. in 1947. 

End Note:

I am grateful to TCM for showing the film on March 26, 2019.