Shadowy killer and Edwige

Spotlight on a Murderer: A Little-seen Mystery Thriller From Three Masters of the Form

Georges Franju and his co-writers create a nice balance of tones and a general air of puzzlement with some clever misdirection for an entertaining light mystery.

Georges Franju is an important French filmmaker who made fewer than ten features and is known to Region 1 audiences, and indeed elsewhere, largely for the quietly intense and ghastly horror film Eyes Without a Face (1959). Several years ago, Criterion finally brought out another of his items, Judex (1963), a celebration of the spirit of silent serials, and since then we’ve remained parched for more output.

Perhaps the dam is breaking, for Arrow Films has bestowed upon us the movie Franju made right after Eyes Without a Face. Spotlight on a Murderer (1961), is scripted by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the famous team of novelists whose work inspired the films Diabolique (1955) and Vertigo (1958), and we’ll add the vastly underrated Body Parts (1991). In other words, they’re famous for plot twists and a labyrinthine air of mystery in its purest, most uncanny form.

The film opens with top-billed Pierre Brasseur making a cameo as the lord of his castle, dressed in a robe of the Knights of Malta and doddering about and muttering to himself before he hides in a secret room behind a large two-way mirror in the main hall. From here, his dying eyes will observe his despised heirs, a pack of nieces and nephews for whom he has no use. The absence of his corpse will prove a legal problem, and they decide to raise revenue by turning the place into a kind of tourist theatre. The family stages an open-air “sound and light” show that re-enacts a 13th century tragedy of adultery, murder, and suicide.

Meanwhile, various heirs keep dropping like flies due to random misadventures. Is the old man still alive? Is a ghost afoot? Is one of the heirs a murderer? Stay tuned.

Pierre Brasseur as Comte Hervé de Kerloguen

Shot at the beautiful Chateau de la Bretesche in Brittany, which seems to be perched in the middle of a lake, with interiors at the Chateau Goulaine, this is a very “old dark castle” affair, shot in a clean modern style with plenty of fresh air. It won’t be mistaken for an essential masterpiece of cinema, nor need it be. Although it’s an essentially mechanical story with interchangeable and expendable characters, Franju and his co-writers create a nice balance of tones and a general air of puzzlement with some clever misdirection for an entertaining light mystery.

The cast is required mainly to be attractive. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the nominal hero because he’s the youngest and most handsome and has a beautiful down-to-earth girlfriend (Dany Saval). Pascale Audret and Marianne Koch provide more eye candy, while Jean Babilee’s character spends most of his time drunk. George Rollin, Gerard Buhr, Serge Marquand and Maryse Martin also sidle or skulk about as suspicious relatives or servants.

The films fits Franju’s penchant for a hybrid tone of realism with undercurrents of the surreal, or at least the potential for uncanny events. For example, an owl makes a startling appearance, along with several crows, and these possibly numinous or spiritual manifestations look backward to the spectral use of doves in Eyes Without a Face and forward to the large surreal bird-heads in Judex. The possibility of the resurrection of a presumed dead character has obvious reverberations with Diabolique. It’s likely that a connoisseur of these films would find this example relatively minor, yet that connoisseur will wish to be immersed in it anyway and will find it rewarding as a 90-minute snack.

Besides a trailer, the only extra on this Blu-ray/DVD combo is a contemporary half-hour French TV show that serves as a puffball promo with brief interviews of Franju and several actors.

RATING 6 / 10