Spotlight On A Murderer (Pleins feux sur l’assassin)

France (1961) Dir. Georges Franju

Families. You can’t choose them so they say but most of us would be lost without them. But what is it about money that can drive a huge wedge between the tightest of clans, especially if that money comes in the form of an inheritance? For his follow up to the shocking gothic chiller Eyes Without A Face, Georges Franju ponders this very notion.

The eccentric descendent of French aristocracy Hervé de Kerloguen (Pierre Brasseur) has 24 hours left to live so he holes himself up in a secret alcove behind a two way mirror in his opulent castle to annoy his family. The main beneficiaries of his estate – Jeanne (Pascale Audret), Edwige (Marianne Koch), Christian (Jean Babilée), Claude (Georges Rollin), Jean-Marie (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Guillaume (Jean Ozenne) – arrive at the castle for the reading of the will.

However, the law decrees that because they can’t find a body, Hervé cannot legally be declared dead and the will cannot be executed for five years. Not only that by they have to pay for the upkeep of the castle in the interim, so they devise a plan to hold a Son et Lumière event based on the old legend of the castle to attract customers. However, one by one the heirs die under mysterious circumstances.

Even by 1961 this familiar plotline was already beginning to feel passé, having been well established by crime writers such as Agatha Christie, presumably a major influence for Franju and his successful co-writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Having scripted Eyes…, Les Diaboliques and Vertigo, we can at least expect some curious twists and sleight-of-hand distractions from the criminally minded authors to give this outing a lift.

Interestingly, aside from the shock of the initial announcement of the five-year wait, none of the cast shows any overt signs of being greedy and dependant on the money, and begrudgingly accepts their roles in making the castle a profitable tourist attraction out of family loyalty. That doesn’t mean they might be the odd skeleton in one of their closets or someone might have an aversion to sharing the inheritance.

Having elected to give the live performance based on the tragic family legend, concerning a duel over a woman contested by an ancestor of the de Kerloguen clan and his wife’s lover, sees many people come and go to add distractions for the culprit as well providing them with a number of tools with which they can perpetrate some original crimes.

One of the more effective and sad examples of this is the fate of Jeanne, a depressed and paranoid young woman already on edge about the death and finds the castle too creepy for her liking. Convinced that she can hear voices, the crude (for the time) PA system linked to every room is used to get into Jeanne’s head and convince her that she is the fated woman of the legend.

There are times where this film feels like a spoof or a satire, largely through the characterisation of Jean-Marie’s spirited girlfriend Micheline (Dany Saval), who is told to stay away from castle despite driving Jean-Marie there in the first place. Every night Jean-Marie sneaks away to meet up with Micheline to update her on events, which she doesn’t seem to take that seriously.

Indeed the first death is a little contrived, and an argument could be made that the others are too, but Boileau and Narcejac are much smarter than this bowing to convention suggests, bending the rules just enough to make us think twice and maybe even a third time about what is happening. Ironically, Micheline first cottons on to the fact that less heirs means more money for the last one standing.

As expressed above utilising simple upfront elements of the story by way of hiding the obvious is one of the strengths of the plotting in keeping the audience and the cast guessing as to who the murderer is. Clues aren’t really laid out for us since none the characters are defined enough to give anything away about their personalities which allows the occasional misdirection to have a greater effect.

Whilst not strictly a horror film or a flat out crime drama, this is a slow burning exercise in testing the nerves of the characters and ultimately their moral fibre as survival becomes imperative which each passing demise. By extension, Franju picks his moments to catch the viewer unaware, this time relying on simpler and less visceral tricks than in Eyes…a startling scene featuring an owl epitomises the “less is more” maxim employed here.

If we had to nominate one flaw in the script, it would be the lack of definition of the characters, and the unhelpfully muted introduction of the family members, some of whom fail to stand out against the support cast. By focusing on only a few of them, this serves to telegraph those most likely to survive at the end, itself a bit of a spoiler.

Luckily, the cast acquit themselves with the requisite aplomb to sustain the illusion of unity regardless of how big their role is. Jean-Louis Trintignant is the nominal main protagonist but is upstaged by Dany Saval’s vivacity as Micheline and Pascale Audret’s ethereal fragility as Jeanne.

The castle, the 15th century Château de Giuliani, is as much a cast member as the actors. It looks regal and affluent yet has that foreboding gothic presence to set the chilly atmospherics before the deaths even begin. This fabulously pristine HD transfer from Arrow films is also integral in heightening the eeriness and unnerving aura of the Chiaroscuro presentation.

Franju may not have hit the same critical and commercial highs of Eyes… with Spotlight On A Murderer and we can see why, yet conversely it niggles at you for underestimating it on first viewing. Already overlooked for 56 years, this new Blu-ray release could gain Spotlight.. a new and more appreciative following to fight it’s corner.

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