Strangers in the House, Henri Decoin

French Wartime Noir ‘Strangers in the House’ Haunts

Whether as a star vehicle, a Simenon mystery, a wartime allegory, or merely a studio product, Strangers in the House is a rewarding French film that’s gone largely unnoticed.

Strangers in the House
Henri Decoin
Kino Lorber
8 August 2023 (US)

A mystery thriller made in the Nazi-occupied France of 1942, Henri Decoin‘s Strangers in the House (Les inconnus dans la maison) is a stylish, gripping exercise in suspense and cynicism making its Region 1 video debut as a Kino Lorber Blu-ray.

The opening image is a lovely miniature model of a town as the camera glides around it. A surprisingly chummy narrator repeats in various poetic permutations that it’s raining. Pierre Fresnay is the narrator, and we’ll have more to say about him later.

Then, we move closer to the soundstage of a street populated by actors. Finally, the narrator introduces us to a glum domestic scene at the home of Loursat, an alcoholic and demoralized attorney who has withdrawn from the world to nurse his wounds since his wife left him years ago. He’s played with gruff, bearlike implacability by one of France’s most beloved stars, the single-named Raimu.

Loursat’s status as a cuckold keys into the casting of Raimu. At one time, his embittered yet tender portrayal of a betrayed husband in Marcel Pagnol’s The Baker’s Wife (La femme du boulanger) was universally hailed as one of the monuments of cinema, and if you’ve seen that 1938 film, you may agree.

Loursat’s silent alcoholic dignity embodies a contempt for and alienation from the modern world. He has contempt for himself. He’s someone everybody disapproves of as they go about their gossip and love and justice, but he’ll be revealed as the town’s righteous man; if not its Jeremiah. Although the action in Strangers in the House seems to occur in a world that’s never heard of a German Occupation, that world’s complacent deafness to its debased state carries a powerful subtext.

When Loursat finally delivers more than a few gruff sentences as the seemingly disengaged advocate of a young man accused of murder, our anti-hero reveals himself as both eloquent and penetrating. The first part of his speech is a sweeping indictment of the older generation, to which he belongs, as he argues that disaffected youth turn to crime and other activities to relieve boredom in their parents’ petty, stifling world. His attitude prefigures, for example, the big speech in Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door (1949) or other dramas about juvenile delinquency.

While Raimu dominates Strangers in the House almost passively until the climax, his social panorama is enacted by a large cast, including Juliette Faber as Loursat’s adrift daughter, André Reybaz as the accused killer, Héléna Manson as his mother, Jacques Baumer as the prosecutor, Jean Tissier as his associate, Jacques Grétillat as the judge, Noël Roquevert as the inspector, Tania Fédor as Loursat’s snippy sister, Gabrielle Fontan and Marguerite Ducouret as the bickering servants who dominate the first scene, and Pierre Ringel, Marc Dolnitz, Marcel Mouloudji and Jacques Donoel as the young delinquents.

The plot of Strangers in the House comes courtesy of a contemporary novel by one of France’s icons, the crime novelist Georges Simenon. The script by Henri-Georges Clouzot is an early signal of his own dark vision, which we now call noir. The murder aspect holds the story together, while the larger subject is the vision of a corrupt and complacent society in which patriotism and respectable morality are signs of hypocrisy. Simenon’s novel was filmed twice more, and I’ve reviewed one of the remakes here.

The fact that Strangers in the House is a wartime production lends more resonance to its vision. In their commentary, film writers Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger point out that the very title has connotations of foreign occupation. While the people who live in the house are already strangers to each other, the outsider who’s been living in Loursat’s attic without his knowledge, dominating everyone and spreading corruption, becomes a rich metaphor without our seeing this mysterious person.

Continental Films, financed by the German government, was the only official film company of occupied Vichy France. The company’s thrillers and comedies were supposedly escapist and apolitical, although critics can’t help looking for collaborationist or subversive vibes. Clouzot wrote many scripts there and directed his first films. His second film as director, Le Corbeau (1943), aroused such acrimony and controversy for its dark outlook that he was fired and couldn’t make films until 1947.

Today, the corrosive and “demoralizing” portrait of provincial, backbiting French society in Le Corbeau is recognized as one of the most important French films of its era, on a par of social commentary with Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (Le regle du jeu, 1939), also dismissed in its time. Strangers in the House is manifestly a trial run for Le Corbeau, and also of Clouzot’s La Vérité, another courtroom drama arguing that the legal system doesn’t know what it’s doing.

We mentioned Fresnay, the narrator. This legendary actor was also busy at Continental. He would be scapegoated for it after the war, mainly for starring in Le Corbeau. He played a master detective in two Clouzot scripts, George Lacombe’s The Last of the Six (Le Dernier des six, 1941) and Clouzot’s The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L’Assassin habite au 21, 1942). While the second of these is on a region-free Blu-ray, it’s not officially a Region 1 release; they’d make a great double-feature.

Like Clouzot, Fresnay returned to film in 1947, this time literally as a saint. He played Vincent de Paul in Maurice Cloche’s Oscar-winning Monsieur Vincent. Talk about rehabilitation.

Director Henri Decoin was one of the prolific, elegant, smoothly styled professionals who provided the backbone of French commercial cinema for 30 years and then got dismissed or forgotten.

Gaumont’s gorgeous 2018 2K restoration shows the folly of ignoring wide swaths of French cinema. Whether approached as a star vehicle, a Simenon mystery, a wartime allegory, or merely a professional product at the height of studio mastery,  Strangers in the House is another rewarding French film that’s gone largely unnoticed in the USA.