B&W, 1961, 92 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Georges Franju
Starring Pierre Brasseur, Pascale Audret, Marianne Koch, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dany Saval, Philippe Leroy
Arrow Academy (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/B HD/NTSC)

Spotlight on a Murderer

Spotlight on a MurdererFor some inexplicable reason, this stylish and very clever murder mystery, the third feature for director Georges Franju and his immediate follow-up to the incredible Eyes without a Face, has been one of his most obscure films and never had an English-language release of any kind of decades. Thankfully rediscovered and restored, it's a very entertaining thriller as well as a riff on the spectacle aspect of cinema in ways that anticipate the director's later success, Judex. It doesn't hurt that he has the star of his previous films, Pierre Brasseur, back in business here in a very limited but amusing role as the cause of all the trouble, and the script is the handiwork of Eyes screenwriters Boileau-Narcejac, the thriller-writing duo behind the source novels for Vertigo and Diabolique.

Realizing his days on this earth are numbered, the elderly, bearded, and eccentric Comte Hervé de Kerloguen (Brasseur) disappears within his own palatial estate. He was barely active, and the absence of his beloved Knights of Malta suit of armor leads his solicitors to believe he's died somewhere on the grounds but yet to be discovered. Believing they're about to attend a reading of his will, his heirs are appalled to learn that without a body as evidence, they'll have to wait five years to collect their inheritance -- and keep up his estate the entire time. Several of them are buried in debt, and unbeknownst to them, his body is actually secreted behind a two-way mirror with a wind-up music doll and witnessing their every move in the main hall. The most benevolent of the heirs, Jean-Marie (Trintignant), Spotlight on a Murderernot Spotlight on a Murdereronly brought a wreath to the occasion but is well-versed in the spooky family history, which inspires his girlfriend, Micheline (Saval), to mount a tourist attraction filled with piped-in sounds and artificial lights to reenact one particularly romantic and tragic tale. However, tragedy strikes right away when a nocturnal floodlight installation turns into an electrocution, and soon the whole enterprise turns into an eerie web of voices in the night, technical malfunctions, erotic intrigue, familial backstabbing, and more mysterious deaths before Jean-Marie turns amateur sleuth and the truth is finally revealed.

Compared to Agatha Christie on several occasions (including the packaging for its Blu-ray and DVD bow from Arrow Academy), this is actually closer in spirit to the gimmicky Edgar Wallace thrillers with shadowy killers using outrageous methods to off heirs in a confined setting. The basic idea of course has been around at least since The Cat and the Canary, but the Euro-horror spin here with an arthouse touch makes all the difference as it comes off like an amusement park version of Last Year at Marienbad orchestrated by Jean Rollin. The lilting Maurice Jarre score confirms the Franju touch here, with the director particularly having a field day with the two "son et lumière" sequences as his roving camera, loudspeakers, and a light show not only tell a story for an audience Spotlight on a Murdererbut set up nefarious deeds by the killer himself. As opposed to Franju's previous features (which had a respectable hook thanks to their protests against mistreatment of the mentally ill and the horrors of Spotlight on a Murderervivisection), this one is a pure genre exercise filtered through a cinema maestro's eye; that may account for why it was dismissed back in the day but carries such a strong, magical allure now.

As expected, the Arrow release looks gorgeous with perfect blacks, detail, you name it. There's really nothing to quibble about here at all, and the DTS-HD MA French soundtrack with optional English subtitles is also a great way to savor that lovely score. The first pressing laso comes with a liner notes booklet featuring an essay by Chris Fujiwara. Extras include the French trailer and a really amazing 1960 episode of the French TV documentary series Le Courrier du Cinema (27m14s) with Franju and most of the primary cast chatting in the castle location ("This is a film about atmosphere"), often in very amusing and familiar spots. Hilariously, the lively Brasseur gets far more screen time here than he does in the actual film!

Reviewed on May 26, 2017.