The uncanny Georges Franju strikes again, in an Agatha Christie-like thriller imbued with his special mood, the eerie music of Maurice Jarre and some great actors including Jean-Marie Trintignant, Pierre Brasseur, Dany Saval, Marianne Koch and Pascale Audret. If mood is the key, then Franju has found an ideal setting, a beautifully preserved castle in Brittany.
Spotlight on a Murderer
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Academy USA
1961 / Color / 1:37 full frame (1:66 widescreen?) / 92 min. / Street Date May 30, 2017 / Available from Arrow Video.
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Pascale Audret, Marianne Koch, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dany Saval, Jean Babilée, Georges Rollin, Gérard Buhr, Maryse Martin, Serge Marquand, Philippe Leroy.
Cinematography: Marcel Fredetal
Film Editor: Gilbert Natot
Original Music: Maurice Jarre
Written by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Georges Franju, Robert Thomas
Produced by Jules Borkon
Directed by Georges Franju
Until a few years ago most U.S. fans knew of Georges Franju solely through the great Eyes Without a Face and perhaps his notorious early short subject The Blood of Beasts; one had to keep one’s eyes peeled to see his other features. I was able to see the terrific Judex early on, and much later caught up with Thomas the Impostor and the remarkable Thérèse Desqueyroux.
Made right after Eyes Without A Face by most of the same team and with the same star Pierre Brasseur, Spotlight on a Murderer is an extremely welcome home video release. Casual viewers may see a somewhat subdued Agatha Christie- type story, with the fantastic, surreal element less evident than in Franju’s more celebrated pictures. But for fans hankering for more odd atmospheres and intoxicating Maurice Jarre suspense-waltzes, it’s going to be a marvel. It’s perhaps Franju’s most commercially conventional movie, yet it’s still far too personal and eccentric to be the work of anyone else. The film’s suspense may not be razor-sharp, but its feeling of surprise and discovery are. It’s like an Edgar Wallace story with fewer pulp elements.
Spotlight on a Murderer demonstrates Georges Franju’s fondness for old formulas, given a personal twist. In this case it’s the reading of the will and a problem of property. The dying Count Hervé de Kerloguen (Pierre Brasseur) has disappeared somewhere in his spacious castle in Brittany. Although he’s presumed dead the score of cousins arrived to divvy up the estate has no choice to wait ’til the body is found or five years pass, whichever comes first. To pay for the upkeep on the beautifully preserved castle, they mount a fancy tourist-oriented ‘son et lumiere’ (sound and light) show, recounting a creepy tale from the past, in which a Kerloguen ancestor killed his wife’s lover, and she killed herself by jumping from the highest tower. Aha, but something devilish is afoot: heirs begin to die one after another, in suspicious accidents and in ways that remind of the castle’s sordid past. The audio-visual equipment installed for the public tour detects a mysterious, unseen intruder; and one of the cousins is ‘haunted’ by voices from the audio speakers, telling her to do away with herself.
Working from a story by Boileau-Narcejac, the team that came up with the unlikely stories for Clouzot’s Diabolique and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Franju builds only mild suspense from this generic premise. The killer isn’t easy to guess, but the surviving cousins don’t seem all that panicked as the body count rises. Franju instead appears to reach for a statement about the relationship of lazy modern Frenchmen to their historical past. The Kerlougens are stuck with a glorious heritage that they can’t afford and can’t sell, and the best they can do is to rent it out to the tourist trade. Two of the heirs don medieval armor to record sword fighting audio for the rather sophisticated show, which brings the past to life in sort of a ghost-pantomime. The assembled audience sits on the castle lawn at night, while recorded voices tell a story of jealousy and death from the past, and dramatic sound effects accompany carefully directed spotlights. Franju is clearly in love with this spectacle, which predates even the silent-movie serials he affectionately recreated in his Judex.
The Kerloguen family is anything but close; everybody arrives in their Sunday best, even if young Jean-Marie de Kerloguen (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has to change on the way. Appearances are so important that Jean-Marie keeps his vivacious girlfriend Micheline (Dany Saval) out of sight, sneaking out of the castle at night to visit her. She’s actually the one who thinks of the tourist show, to raise the money for the castle’s upkeep . The Kerloguens are eager to cash in, yet none seems particularly greedy. One potential heiress, Jeanne (Pascale Audret) is carrying on an affair much like the one in the family’s past. Cousin Edwige (Marianne Koch) shows her sexual frustration in obvious ways, riding her horse and attempting to seduce the stablehand. The only sin the Kerloguens can be accused of is disrespect for the past. Jokester Christian (Jean Babilée) plays with guns, and Jean-Marie can’t keep a straight face at a funeral. Are the gods punishing the Kerloguens for being lousy aristocrats? Or is it just a wicked joke being played by the mischievous Count Hervé?
Franju works for a light tone as he plays with various clichés, but there is no outright comedy, just some odd behavior and a constant effort to keep us off balance. As in Agatha Christie most of the heirs remain possible suspects, and we all know that unaccounted-for corpses very often turn up alive. Franju instead goes for a strange atmosphere that’s just a bit ‘off’ — the camera prowls the perfectly-preserved castle as if looking for secret rooms, while the assembled heirs go about their business as usual. Jean-Marie is rather sneaky, hiding his girlfriend Micheline; she teases him by sneaking into an unused room and swiping food from the larder. Edwige seems altogether too self-satsified, while poor Jeanne grows despondent as she is ‘haunted’ by mysterious voices.
This isn’t a good choice for first-time Franju viewers, as the rather generic who-dunnit formula will probably not impress. We eventually do get a gloved menace creeping through the corridor, but there’s nothing ‘giallo’ about the film’s violence, most of which happens off camera. I will say that my attempts to guess the killer’s identity were dashed, and the solution did come as a surprise. But that’s really not the point, as Franju is more focused on the creation of his special filmic spell, which he simply calls ‘atmosphere.’ Maurice Jarre’s delicate, eerie waltz sets the mood for mystery, and Franju’s delicate camera placement imparts life to the inanimate castle. Even in the ‘son et lumiere’ show he avoids barnstorming effects, preferring to let the tasteful stage effects speak for themselves. Franju’s unique style has an odd effect, as it sometimes seems to undercut the performers’ attempts to be light and breezy.
Star Pierre Brasseur, with hair and beard that make him look leonine, tops the cast list despite making a very brief appearance. This was Jean-Louis Trintignant’s 14th picture, and he displays full star quality. The three female leads are all Euro dream girls. Gorgeous Pascale Audret gets second billing and spends much of the picture looking unhappy. The more familiar Marianne Koch is well known to fans of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Disney adepts will recognize lovely Dany Saval from the sci-fi comedy Moon Pilot, where she memorably sang about ‘the seven moons of Beta Lyrae.’ Saval’s Micheline is the wild card in the deck — we’re not sure why she’s there exactly. The ‘funny’ cousin Jean Babilée was actually a famous French dancer and choreographer, while another cousin Claude (Georges Rollin) would wind up his career with three pictures for Jesús Franco.
Arrow Academy USA’s Blu-ray + DVD of Spotlight on a Murderer is a spotless, flawless transfer of this gem that captures the details in Marcel Fredetal’s B&W images. The one rather minimal gripe is Gaumont’s flat transfer. All evidence would seem to point to the real aspect ratio being 1:66. We don’t mind the extra head and foot-room because the settings are so handsome, but we wonder if the show would have more impact properly framed. Maurice Jarre’s dreamy music will be reason enough for Franju fans to get this release. Hearing ‘new’ vintage Jarre in the style of his music for other Franju thrillers, is one of the best things about seeing Spotlight for the first time.
Arrow’s extras are few but rich. The amusing trailer is so much like the one for Eyes without a Face that I’m convinced it was made by the same editor, perhaps Franju himself. A half-hour TV promo gathers Franju and his stars (Audret, Brasseur, Koch, Saval and Trintignant) for excellent light interviews that for once actually allow the actors to talk in depth about themselves and their roles. Don’t see it first, as everyone including Franju gives away secrets of the story.
The forty-page insert booklet is a real keeper. Illustrated with genuinely rare stills, it has one very good new essay and two vital older pieces on Spotlight on a Murderer. Chris Fujiwara amplifies Franju’s quest for a strange mood or atmosphere called insolite, which we’re told is something like ‘uncanny’ but slightly undefinable. A reprint of the Spotlight chapter from Raymond Durgnat’s 1967 book on Franju is a welcome read; Durgnat gets into the problems Franju had with pre-censorship. And Francis Lacassin and Michael Brookes’ 1961 interview with Franju is included as well.
As promised, a DVD with full extras contents is included. I’ve since paid attention to Arrow’s updates — the DVDs on both their US and UK discs are now NTSC. Apparently everybody in the UK has dual-standard equipment for DVDs? It’s better anyway, because in PAL the transfer speed must be accelerated by 4%. The reversible cover can be switched to display original poster art, which in this case makes Spotlight look very much like a later giallo thriller — a dark figure stands over a beautiful woman lying on the floor.
Spotlight on a Murderer
Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Video: Excellent even if the aspect ratio is questionable
Supplements: Featurette from 1960 with interviews with Georges Franju and actors Pascale Audret, Pierre Brasseur, Marianne Koch, Dany Saval and Jean-Louis Trintignant (27 min.), Original theatrical trailer; First pressing only: Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Chris Fujiwara.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson