Strangers in the House Blu-ray Review: French Masters of Mystery

In a large, shambling, mostly empty mansion, a loud noise clangs upstairs. It is loud enough to awaken Hector Loursat (Raimu) from his drunken stupor. He used to be a brilliant lawyer. But that was before his wife left him some 18 years ago. After that, he quit his job, quit his life, and started drinking himself silly every night. But that noise, it sounded like a gunshot and so he shambles up the stairs to investigate. First, he stops by his daughter Nicole’s (Juliette Faber) room. Together they go upstairs and find a man lying dead in a bed. He’s been shot.

Hector calls his brother who is a prosecutor and he brings the police. They discover that Nicole had formed a sort-of gang with several of her male friends. They met every day at a bar, drank hard liquor, and pretended to be gangsters. They peer-pressured themselves into some light crime. They would steal things, mostly small things like a pumpkin from a neighbor or a little cash from a parent’s store. But sometimes they would steal something big, like a car.

That’s how they ran into Big Louis, the dead guy upstairs. They literally ran into him with the stolen car. Injured, they let him recuperate in that upstairs room. Big Louis was a real gangster and he began demanding that Émile Manu (André Reybaz), the boy who hit him with the car, pay him money for his troubles. He also started getting handsy with Nicole, who had recently started dating Émile. When the police find this information out, they peg Émile for the murder. Hector begins to investigate matters himself, and ultimately comes out of retirement to defend the boy.

Strangers in the House is based on a book by the wonderful and prolific Georges Simenon, with a screenplay by the always interesting Henri-Georges Clouzot. The plot goes exactly where you think it is going to go, but this doesn’t matter one little bit as the film is a delight. Director Henri Decoin tells the story with classic Hollywood filmmaking techniques and drapes it with film noir touches.

Within the first five minutes, I was hooked. It begins by showing us the little provincial French town the tale is located in. Using an incredible mix of miniatures and life-sized sets, the camera flows through the town giving us a feel for the setting. A narrator in a very Simenon voice speaks of the rain currently drenching the town, and of its people.

The story proper begins not with the gunshot but at dinner. In a scene reminiscent of Citizen Kane, we see Hector and Nicole eating their soup on opposite ends of a long table, neither one paying the slightest attention to the other. The cook calls downstairs to Fine (Gabrielle Fontan), the maid who has been with the family for years, to send up the next course. When the dumb waiter gets stuck, the cook curses in anger, then argues with Nicole who promptly fires her. The scene, in a way, sets up the entire movie. Here, we have a battle of classes. Nicole has no fear or shame in shouting at the maid or firing her promptly. Hector is able to live in this large house with two servants despite having not worked for over a decade and drinking himself to death every night. The dead man, we will later discover, is ultimately a victim of the bored bourgeois class. The cook even grumbles about strange noises coming from upstairs, foreshadowing Nicole and her friend’s escapades up there.

It is completely and utterly Raimu’s film. He was one of the most popular French actors at the time, and he is in nearly every scene. He’s wonderful in it. As the drunkard who has given up on life, he stumbles about, slumps in his chair, and stares off into space. Yet there is kindness behind those dull eyes, and a spark, however small, glowing inside them. Eventually, that spark turns into a flame and he’s given a few moments during the trial that ends the film to blaze.

The plot may not do anything new, but it does what it does very well. I’m a very big fan of Georges Simenon’s Maigret books and he’s wonderful at writing characters and filling his stories with beautiful little details. I have no idea what changes Clouzot made adapting the script but I trust his instincts. It certainly includes his tendency to deride certain aspects of French society, but it mostly feels like a Simenon story. During the long courtroom scenes, the film often wanders away as if it recognizes that courtroom dramas can all too often be dull and trite. When a doctor is called upon to testify about how Big Louis died, the camera moves just outside the courtroom where a bailiff complains about how that guy always says the same thing. When one woman gets up to testify and swears to the court her name and age, we hear two spectators laugh, noting that she is much older than she just swore to be.

It is little details like this that make the film such a joy to watch and will make repeat viewings endlessly fascinating.

The film was made in 1942 at the height of World War II. France was already overrun by the Nazis and it was a German-run film company that ultimately put it out. I didn’t notice any particularly pro-fascist sentiment, and it certainly doesn’t feel like propaganda, but I found that bit of trivia interesting. There is one character who initially was called Ephraïm, a typically Jewish name, but when the war was over, his name was changed to Amédée. The film was banned in France for antisemitism anyway.

I watched this film because I love George Simenon and Henri-Georges Clouzot. It made me a fan of Raimu and Henri Decoin. It is a delightful watch and I can’t wait to see what else these artists created.

Kino Lorber presents Strangers in the House with a very nice-looking 1080p transfer. Extras include a few trailers and a very informative and enjoyable commentary from film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson.

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Mat Brewster

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