An influential but often overlooked originator of French surrealism would be genre stalwart Georges Franju, still best remembered for his 1960 masterpiece, Eyes without a Face. But Franju’s heavy, often hybridized stylizations faded after the onslaught of the Nouvelle Vague, and by the 1970s, he would complete only two final features before disappearing into television.
Genre cinema owes much to Franju’s famed sophomore film, which remains equal parts discombobulating and unforgettable. And yet, the majority of his filmography remains difficult to revisit. Criterion resurrected his 1963 feature Judex, a remake of the famed 1916 French serial, while his stellar 1962 mounting of Therese Desqueyroux was further obscured by Claude Miller’s 2012 re-make, a swan song starring Audrey Tautou.
So it is with great anticipation his rarely discussed third film, 1961’s Spotlight on a Murderer has at last been made available for the first time on disc from Arrow Video’s Arrow Academy. Featuring a young Jean-Louis Trintignant, this light murder mystery recalls the familiar clichés of Agatha Christie while projecting Franju’s favored motifs regarding the dangerousness of reevaluating the past and exaggerating its importance.
On the verge of death, Count Herve de Kerloquen (Pierre Brasseur) disappears into a secret compartment in the bowels of his palatial estate, taking with him only his favorite windup ballerina doll. Knowing he’s dead but unable to locate the body, his heirs are dismayed to learn they will be unable to collect their inheritance until the corpse is found or five years of time have passed. In the interim, they are responsible for the upkeep of the property, which includes paying for taxes. With most of them already in dire financial straits, the disparate crew orchestrates a complicated idea to open the castle up to the public for a gruesome reenactment tour wherein family members act out an infamous suicide which happened on the grounds. Meanwhile, someone is intently disposing of the relatives one by one.
If anything, Spotlight on a Murderer surely proves Franju’s abilities as an impressive technician of the cinema, as every frame establishes and reinforces the appropriately calibrated haunted house mise-en-scene, which is more on the giallo side of Christie.
While the narrative seems to be a self-aware exercise in the clichés of the pulpy murder mystery, this treatment fails to carry its peripheral comedy into the foreground, which upsets the delicate balance in tone. We don’t get to know too much about Brasseur’s briefly seen Count Herve de Kerloquen, while his infamous family history is streamlined for the benefit of creating shock and awe for its stunt-tour. Likewise, most of the miserly family members feel equally underdeveloped, while Marianne Koch and Trintignant tend to stand out (thanks in part to either their familiarity or extensive screen time).
The real problem is this ‘original scenario’ from writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, those famed authors of timeless classics like Les Diaboliques and Vertigo. Once again, they depend on their particular favored twists and illogical turns, such as one family member ‘driven mad’ by the voice whispering to her through the newly installed loudspeaker.
If this is familiar for Boileau and Narcejac, it’s more interesting to surmise Franju’s interests concerning a greedy pack of heirs who reinvent their sordid family history while they search for the corpse of their deceased uncle. Their clinging to not only the past but the entitled of their positions is exactly what makes them vulnerable to murder. However, Franju’s technical abilities were often only as persuasive as his base material, almost always adapting from a famed novel source (including Zola, Cocteau, and even Jean Roden for Eyes without a Face).
The zany clan of Spotlight on a Murderer sounds like something requiring a more idiosyncratic touch (Wes Anderson? Arnaud Desplechin?), while perhaps Franju would have been better served tackling something a bit denser on patrilineal madness, like an Edgar Allan Poe.
Arrow Academy continues its careful curation of lost auteur classics with this entry, presented in high definition 1.37:1. Picture and sound quality (uncompressed mono 1.0 PCM audio) are worthwhile in this new restoration, which includes archival material.
Le Courrier du Cinema:
This twenty-seven minute French television documentary which aired on New Year’s Day in 1960, features interviews with Franju as well as actors Pascale Audret, Pierre Brasseur, Marianne Koch, Dany Saval, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as they discuss the shooting of Spotlight on a Murderer.
While any resurrection of Franju is cause for celebration, Spotlight on a Murder is a bit too hoary for its own good, especially considering it was his follow-up to Eyes without a Face.
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆