L’Assassin Habite Au 21 (The Murderer Lives At Number 21) (1942)
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot rose to fame on the strength of films like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique: creepy, intense thrillers that immediately bring to mind Alfred Hitchcock rather than French art house. Clouzot’s filmography goes back a bit further, though, to his first feature film in 1942, the weird, funny, and slightly subversive L’Assassin habite au 21.
The film follows police detective Wenceslas “Wens” Vorobechik (Pierre Fresnay) and his would-be music star girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair) as they investigate a series of murders by the serial killer known only as Monsieur Durand, who leaves his business card at the scene of every death. There’s not much to go on, but Wens gets a break when a petty criminal stumbles upon a bunch of Monsieur Durand cards in the attic of the Mimosas, a boarding house run by Madame Point (Odette Talazac) at Number 21 Avenue Junot. Leaving Mila behind, Wens takes a room at the boarding house and proceeds to investigate each of his strange fellow tenants, many of them music hall performers on hard times.
L’Assassin habite au 21 has much in common with the British films of Alfred Hitchcock, relying as much on humor and comic characterizations as it does on thriller tropes. Wens is a dashing, acerbic hero, approaching his investigation almost as though it’s an amusing adventure instead of the search for a vicious killer. His suspects include a magician who keeps accidentally making things disappear, a former soldier with a violent temper and avowed respect for the killer, a failed novelist, a toymaker who makes Monsieur Durand dolls, a valet who does bird impressions, and a vampy nurse who cares for a blind former boxer. The characterizations are all loads of fun, as each suspect evinces some grotesqueries of their own that may or may not point the way to a disturbed psyche. Wens doesn’t let anything phase him, however, not even Mila, who regularly gets herself arrested in an effort to solve the case for herself. It’s a speedy, amusing little thriller, not high on scares but with rather tongue-in-cheek humor.
One of the most interesting elements of L’Assassin habite au 21 is its production circumstances. Made in 1942 in occupied France, it was the fourth script that Clouzot wrote for the Nazi-run production company Continental films. This is remarkable, given that the film includes numerous sly jabs at Nazi mentality, from characterizing one suspect as a fascist sympathizer with deep contempt for the “lesser” forms of humanity, to actually parodying a Nazi salute near the end. Clouzot would face some criticism for his apparent collaboration with the Nazis, but his films tend to mock Nazism from the inside out.
There’s really very little to complain about in L’assassin habite au 21, except that it could have been longer by ten or fifteen minutes and thus developed our characters more. It’s just an enjoyable whodunnit and it does exactly what it intends to do.