Spotlight on a Murderer
Whether it’s Agatha Christie or the likes of Law & Order and NCIS commanding TV schedules today, the murder mystery is one of the dominant genres in narrative media. Literally, every conceivable police department has been imagined in every major city, then there are the do-gooders who do a bit of sleuthing on the side. The breadth of the cultural imprint is immense that you’d think it would be ripe for parody and satire, but no, nothing. That is until you look backward at Georges Franju (Eyes without a Face) and his third film, Spotlight on a Murderer, which does the same thing as all those touchstones only without the mystery.
The terminally ill Count Kerloquen (Pierre Brasseur) vanishes without a trace and unless he is found immediately it will take five years before he can be legally declared dead, a situation that forces his many heirs to manage the upkeep of his chateau will no financial or legal aid. They all set about transforming the massive, Gothic abode into an elaborate son et lumière tourist attraction, while the group is managing their fellow inheritor’s start turning up dead. To return to that earlier comment about the film being altogether evasive of mystery, Spotlight on a Murderer and its characters have little real concern whether people are dying or not – after all fewer survivors mean a bigger share. Instead, Franju and Les Diaboliques and Vertigo scriptwriters, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, concern themselves with the decadence of the film’s personalities.
Consequently, we have a deliberately paced film whose priority is the building of characters, which in itself is a pleasant deviation from the norm. Tradition dictates that the murder mystery is positioned in a comparable arena to slashers or Giallo, in that these are films whose value is derived from the hand of death slowly picking off key members of the cast and the eventual contrivances that explain it all. Contrast this to the infallibility of the investigators found elsewhere and we have an absorbing deviation from Franju. As welcomed a genre satire as this is, the whole idea of a film which analyses the characters flaws inherent in the middle and upper classes is a little dog-tired, particularly in French Cinema. Fortunately, key players such as Jean-Louis Trintignant keep the momentum moving with his secretive relationship and the implications that in this situation being resolved.
Up to this point, I may have unintentionally implied that Spotlight on a Murderer is a lame duck, on the contrary, this is the director who brought us one of the most singularly powerful icons of the horror genre in Eyes without a Face. And while unfair to compare his other work to that apex, this, his third film, still has moments of impeccable tension. In the setting up of the tourist attraction there is an installation of a piece of kit that flashes whenever someone in a certain room and in the explaining of this device, with all the inheritors in the room, the light starts flashing moving from room to room before finally settling in the master bedroom. When a few people chase this signal down all they find is a lightly swaying rocking chair. Even at this stage of his career, Franju displays a talent for abstract dread. The other and the more show-stopping set piece is like a certain scene from Richard Donner’s The Omen in which a school teacher leaps to her doom claiming “It’s All For You Damien!”. Whether Spotlight for a Murderer influenced The Omen remains to be scene, nonetheless, the originator hits with plenty of impact on its own with the massive Gothic castle lit up making a grand display of the whole incident.
With its effortless cinematography and playful satire housed within a stunning Gothic playground, Spotlight on a Murderer is a fascinating left turn in the face of expectations. French cinema of the 50s and 60s was defined by its movements (new wave), so any film or filmmaker that flies in the face of that works wonders for me. Arrow Academy work further wonders with this release with a restoration that breathes life anew into this 56-year-old film with the sort of naturalism that has seen the arrow brand become globally renowned. Also, doesn’t hurt that Peter Strain’s newly commissioned sleeve art is the most striking of the year so far.