Georges Franju’s Spotlight on a Murderer pivots on a deliciously ruthless variation of a concept made famous by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. In the opening scene, a descendent of French aristocracy, Hervé de Kerloguen (Pierre Brasseur), paces his opulent bedroom chamber while clad in the robe of a Maltese Knight. Appearing deranged with a wind-up doll by his side, he speaks of a tomb’s importance to maintaining a man’s dignity and buries himself within a secret chamber behind his mirror. This self-entombment causes problems for de Kerloguen’s heirs, who can’t claim their uncle’s wealth until his body is found. Another wrinkle of irony twists the knife even further into the protagonists’ backs: Officials know that de Kerloguen is dead, as he was given 24 hours to live by his doctor before succumbing to heart disease. Yet the family has to wait five years before they can legally declare death without a body, and they have to pay to maintain the estate so as to keep from losing it before they can inherit it. Needless to say, the family begins to get bumped off in the midst of such gothic contrivances, so there will be fewer to claim de Kerloguen’s already imperiled bounty.
This conceit is intensely characteristic of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the writing team who co-wrote Spotlight on a Murderer as well as Franju’s iconic Eyes Without a Face and the novels that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. These are all tricky thrillers that depend mightily, in the tradition of the writing of Edgar Allan Poe and Christie, on a high degree of moral relativity and on a malleable myth of the past that’s cunningly exploited to shape the present. Like Les Diaboliques, Spotlight on a Murderer is set in a posh and rarified yet constricting setting; and, as in Vertigo, a high tower and a suicidal woman play a fateful role in this film. Tonally, Spotlight on a Murderer offers a distinct contrast from past adaptations of Boileau and Narcejac’s writing, though, as it brings to the forefront the comedy that’s latent in Les Diaboliques and Vertigo.
Damned whether they do or don’t, de Kerloguen’s family searches for his body while attempting to turn his estate into a tourist attraction that will hopefully pay for itself should they be forced to wait out the holding period on the inheritance. Meanwhile, we occasionally see the family fighting from the corpse’s point of view, which is paradoxically obscured in plain sight. Franju frames this situation as a symbol of a classist legacy of self-cannibalization that illustrates how the modern bourgeoisie sprang from royalty. In an archive supplement included on this disc, Franju says that Spotlight on a Murderer was filmed at the Château de Goulaine, a 15th-century medieval castle that includes décor from the period of Louis XIV and furniture from Louis VIII, which he recognizes as pivotal to his film’s aura of satiric decadence.
The camera drinks in these aesthetic elements with a sense of prismatic oppressiveness that often dwarves the characters, taunting them with wealth that’s close, remote, and indicative of insulating privilege. De Kerloguen’s family is often squeezed together in busily creepy frames rife with stairways, hallways, candles, antiques, as well as the modern electronics that are wired into the house for the tourist attraction, which entices the public with a myth of a family murder/suicide. De Kerloguen’s estate is one of the great cinematic properties, along with those featured in Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, and Franju emphasizes its unmooring mixture of symmetry and asymmetry in sharply geometric tableaux.
The humor unites the precisely cluttered imagery with the self-consciously busy plot, which abounds in the tropes of drawing-room mysteries, such as creaky rocking chairs, dead birds, and a disembodied voice that torments de Kerloguen’s relatives with hints about their respective pasts. The film echoes And Then There Were None while perhaps helping to pave the way for artful, similarly plotted horror films such Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood, which would inspire the American slasher genre. One particularly elegant murder scene lingers as a potential precursor to the Bava aesthetic, when Henri (Gérard Buhr) is electrocuted by a spotlight that’s suddenly empowered, his body collapsing onto a boat behind him and drifting poetically out into the water. Franju understands, as Bava later would, that it’s the ironic tranquility and attending absurdity of such moments that’re most frightening.
As French critics claimed at the time, Spotlight on a Murderer doesn’t have the searing and neurotic emotional force of Eyes Without a Face, which is partially the point. With Spotlight on a Murderer, Franju staged one of the most beautiful and graceful of all genre parodies, achieving an ideal balance in which horror and humor feed one another in a self-perpetuating loop. Moments of debauched callousness, such as a family member praising the purchase of a funeral wreath as an act of optimism, collide with passages of violent eroticism and tragedy, as when the myth of De Kerloguen’s ancestors collides with the new generation of heirs, sending a woman plummeting to her death in a horror show made brutally literal. Franju’s command of his medium doomed him to be taken for granted in this case, as his film’s playfulness subtly distracts from its underbelly of roiling terror and despair.
The image is crisp and has a robust sense of shadow and depth. Blacks are subtly differentiated, particularly those of the water and trees, and whites are well-balanced. Background clarity is extraordinary, allowing the many nooks and crannies of the castle to come to vivid life. Facial and clothing details are also dense and viscerally tactile, allowing one to parse the fine lines of skin and clothing, which aren’t incidental to a film so concerned with prestige, status, and appearances. The monaural soundtrack is shrill in places, mostly in regards to the score, but that may be the score itself, which is deliberately and comically intrusive at times—especially during the opening credits. But this is a layered mix, with strong bass present in the on-screen sound effects and a fine sonic depth of field. A notably beautiful restoration.
A booklet, featuring essays by Chris Fujiwara, Raymond Durgnat, and Francis Lacassin and Raymond Bellour, collectively discusses the film’s initially poor reputation, its rich and painterly aesthetic, its thematic undertow, and the contributions of the legendary writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. A vintage production featurette from 1960, shot on location and including interviews with Georges Franju and several of the film’s actors, is most notable for the short discussion with Franju and for its blatant and period-specific sexism. The male interviewees are treated with reverence (particularly Franju), while the women are condescended to and flirted with in a manner that’s meant to be charming. This supplement is a little unseemly, then, but provides telling cultural context. The original theatrical trailer and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain, round out a thoughtful but unusually slim Arrow package.
This beautiful refurbishing of Georges Franju’s Spotlight on a Murderer allows the underrated whodunit to assume its rightful place on the cinephile’s mantle, beside the director’s more famous Eyes Without a Face.