Count Hervé de Kerloquen (Pierre Brasseur) is told he won’t live through the night. Before he expires, he slips into a hidden room deep within his castle. The next day, his seven cousins show up at the estate to claim their inheritance only to be told they will have to wait five years. While the doctors are sure he died during the night, no one can find his body so the law considers him only missing.
The cousins cannot afford the upkeep on the castle and its many lands for that long so they launch a desperate search for the newly deceased. Eventually, they hatch a plan to pay the bills. They will create a son et lumier (“sound and light”) to bring in tourists to the historic castle. They'll rig the rooms with motion detectors and a sound system that will describe the significance of the castle. Plus, there will be a light show with a sort-of play about a countess who used to live there, her lover, and her jealous husband.
As one might guess from the title (and it being directed by Georges Franju, who had just directed the spectacularly spooky Eyes Without a Face the year prior), things do not go as planned. The motion sensors detect people who aren’t there, the castle makes eery noises and the cousins keep dying off one by one. The police chalk all the death up to random accidents and fate, but at least some of the family fear foul play.
The story is straight Agatha Christie; the filming is part Hitchcock at his most arty, part Orson Welles at his most staid. The results are decidedly mixed. Written by Pierre Boileu and Thomas Narcejac, who had a hand in writing the aforementioned Eyes Without a Face plus Vertigo and Diabolique). It has those films' trademark mystical, moody temperament but none of the excitement.
Franju films it with a detachment that makes it more moody than thrilling, more atmospheric than truly scary. The castle becomes its own character. Filmed on an actual 15th century castle in Brittany, it is both beautiful and menacing. We see the exteriors mainly at night with sharp angles, stark lighting, and deep shadows. The interiors feature long hallways that stretch to eternity, a labyrinth of rooms and narrow staircases spiraling up the high towers.
It's heavy on mise-en-scène but light on emotion. Even the deaths fail to disturb anyone, including those who might get it next. There is a long scene towards the end in which we get to see almost the entire stage show. The audience sits outside the castle in chairs as a narrator tells a story (one we are told in the film at least three times). There are no actors for this tale, only sound. We hear hooves clop, knights walk, and doors slam. Lights illuminate different parts of the castle as the camera follows. It builds to a moment of high drama (though not a surprising one), but it takes so long to get there I found my fingers reaching for the fast forward button.
Spotlight on a Murderer is worth the seeing for the cinematography and its eerily beautiful use of the castle, just don’t go in expecting a real fright.
Arrow Academy has done a nice job of cleaning it up and transferring it to high definition. Filmed in stark black and white, the clarity is pleasing and the contrast sharp. There are a few minor flaws, but I chalk that up mostly to the location shooting. The audio sounds decent with the dialogue being clear and the score voluminous.
There is only one extra of note but it's a good one - an archival television show from 1960 interviews Franju on location and its a good one. There is the usual nice booklet with three essays on the film and Franju in general.