The Murderer Lives at Number 21, the feature debut from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is best known for films like the masterful Le corbeau and Les diaboliques, is an entertaining, comedic film noir – a blend of two different genres that works thanks to some brilliantly witty dialogue, excellent performances and a superb visual aesthetic that makes the most of the atmospheric hallmarks of noir cinema.
A murderer stalks the streets of an arrondissement in Paris, a calling card from a Monsieur Durand found on the bodies of each of his victims. While the local residents seem more intrigued than frightened by the killer, who’s become a steady fixture in all the newspapers, the police officials are beginning to feel the heat. The elegant Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) is brought in to work on the case and soon after receives his first break: a reformed thief, now rag-and-bone man, has found a stash of the calling cards while clearing out an attic at Les Mimosas, a boarding house at 21 Avenue Junot. With the information at his disposal, Wens decides to take a room at the boarding house in a rather humorous disguise.
But matters are complicated by the actions of his incongruous girlfriend, Mila Malou (Suzy Delair). A thwarted singer, she is first introduced to us at an audition, where, flattering the impresario to no avail, she learns that her only chance of success is if she’s already famous – and what better way to become a star than to get her name in the newspapers, like Monsieur Durand? Although fashioned as something of a ditz, Delair’s character is fabulous – at the audition, she compares herself to America before Columbus, waiting to be discovered. Later, she tells someone that she stays home and knits booties for a baby – if Wens is capable of producing one. And of course, she finds the solution to her celebrity problem by taking part in Wens’s murder investigation, following him to the boarding house.
Wens’s fellow lodgers are a motley bunch: a manservant trying to train a caged bird to sing; the ageing Miss Cuq, described as ‘une vraie jeunne fille’, a ‘maiden’ lady and failed author who perseveres after each rejection; Linz, a doctor dressed for safari, who boasts about surviving 25 years in the bush; Colin, a down-at-heel man who makes faceless dolls meant to resemble the killer; the pick-pocketing Professor Lalah-Poor, a turban-wearing magician and ‘artiste’; and Kid Robert, a blind former boxer, joined by his attractive nurse.
The lodgers, including Wens and Mila, spy on each other, sneak into each other’s rooms, steal… there’s no shortage of distrust and malevolence beneath the artificially friendly veneer in the house. Meanwhile, more bodies pile up, including one of their own, after Mila, sticking her nose into the affair, suggests to Miss Cuq that she base a story on Monsieur Durand’s murderous crime wave. But in the end, after some unorthodox detective work, Mila and Wens solve the mystery with plenty of flair, drawing out ‘Monsieur Durand’ in inimitable fashion. And while The Murderer Lives at Number 21 might not be as subversive or fiercely brilliant as some of his later films, Clouzot’s impressive debut as a director is a remarkably stylish and entertaining detective story.
Watch a clip from The Murderer Lives at Number 21: