Spotlight on a Murderer (1961) Blu-ray Review: Illuminating French Proto-Slasher

To the trained eye of an advanced mystery movie sleuth, spotting the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac as the authors of the film you’re about to experience is a darn good indication you’re in for a treat. Sure enough, Georges Franju’s 1961’s mystery, Pleins feux sur l’assassin ‒ which shall be referred to henceforth by its English title, Spotlight on a Murderer ‒ is such a treat. While it may have only been the third feature film for the late visionary filmmaker, Spotlight on a Murderer should serve as an inarguable example of just how far one can raise the bar by stepping out of the limelight a bit (so to speak).

Previously, Franju ‒ along with the writing team of Boileau-Narcejac, whom I should probably point out were the magnificent minds responsible for the stories which would later be adapted into Diabolique and Vertigo ‒ helped to forever change the face (so to speak) of European horror for years to come with the iconic and celebrated classic Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face). Indeed, much like their former collaboration together, Spotlight on a Murderer would undoubtedy serve to “inspire” a number of various filmmakers (mostly of the exploitation persuasion) for decades to come. Albeit for entirely different reasons.

Essentially, Spotlight on a Murderer fuses more “fashionable” whodunits of the past with a subtle element that would soon inspire the Italian giallo wave, but which could be best described as being akin to that of a “proto-slasher”. Lo, while we aren’t treated to the sight of Eyes Without a Face star Pierre Brasseur in search of fresh faces to graft atop his disfigured daughter’s kisser here, M. Brasseur still gets to play a madman just the same. This time, he’s the eccentric elderly Count of an estranged family; his top-billing feeling like a much more honorable example of the American exploitation film industry’s tendency to use a marquee-value guest star.

But that’s beside the point. After the spotlight fades from Brasseur’s terminally-ill character (as well as Brasseur himself), his various estranged nieces and nephews appear, ready to inherit a giant castle and the millions of francs that come with it. Alas, the assortment of greedy, amoral, and just plain eccentric men and women (it isa French flick, after all!) discover their rich (and supposedly dead) uncle has vanished into thin air. Mysteriously, at that. This, in turn, opens up a unique legal loophole: since there is no body, the heirs cannot claim any of their inheritance for five years, wherein the missing dead man can finally be declared extinct. Officially.

But that’s not the only setback the family has to endure: they must also pay for the various taxes and upkeep the huge estate holds for those seeking a quick fortune ‒ and their despondent financial situation means nary a one of ’em can so much hock a candlestick from the mansion to help. Of course, none of those woes compare to another aspect the relatives never thought to think about: the notion one of them may be bumping off the others via a series of bizarre accidents. And once you see how effectively the (rather unexpected) first death scene is executed (so to speak), you too will undoubtedly feel the lethal love Franju and Co. show us.

Sporting a beautiful atmosphere and an intriguing cast of characters who are so odd, they’re very relatable (so to speak), Spotlight on a Murderer has finally received a chance to shine in the US thanks to the efforts of Arrow Academy. Likewise, the film is an excellent opportunity to see the superb casting of French and European greats such as Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jean Babilée ‒ to say nothing of the unbeatable combination of beauties Pascale Audret and Marianne Koch ‒ all of whom handle their roles with unrestrained grace and dignity.

Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Spotlight on a Murderer was recently restored by Gaumont for a High-Definition release, and Arrow Academy’s transfer of this fairly obscured (in America, that is, since we generally only remake or outright rip-off French films here) selection is worthy of a spotlight in itself. The original French audio track receives a splendid LPCM 2.0 Mono mix, which never deters from dialogue or Maurice Jarre’s excellent score. Extras for this Blu-ray/DVD Combo include a half-hour French TV piece from ’60, the original (French) trailer, reversible artwork, and a collectible booklet limited to first pressings only.

Laced with an underlying dark sense of humor which can only be described as French, Spotlight on a Murderer is truly a one-of-a-kind filmic outing. It certainly left quite the impression on my deranged mind ‒ just like it obviously did with many a filmmaker following its premiere in 1961. Between Franju’s direction, Marcel Fratadel’s gorgeous cinematography, and several very Boileau-Narcejac twists, there’s definitely a lot going on here ‒ be it in the shadows or under the actual Spotlight itself. Plus, where else can you see a delightfully drunken Jean Babilée walk around shooting black birds with a dueling pistol whilst spouting something profoundly esoteric?

OK, so you could probably see that in just about any French film, but that doesn’t mean one should take the Spotlight off of this Murderer ‒ as this one definitely possesses the perfect formula to knock ’em dead (so to speak).

Highly Recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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