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Another "victim" of the French Nouvelle Vague - a distinguished film director who found himself unceremoniously falling out of fashion within critical circles - was undoubtedly Julien Duvivier. Admittedly, his best work was behind him by then in such classic films like PEPE LE MOKO' (1937), UN CARNET DE BAL (1937; one of Michael Caine's favorite films!) and PANIQUE (1947; a rumored upcoming Criterion DVD release) but, if this obscure but richly rewarding suspenser is any indication, his cinematic and narrative skills did not desert him with age.
Apparently, the original source novel by John Dickson Carr is a celebrated (and much more sophisticated) literary piece but even if this film adaptation (by renowned screenwriter Charles Spaak) constitutes an oversimplification, one cannot deny the fact that it is highly polished entertainment nevertheless. The plot ingeniously combines two prolific subgenres in the horror film lexicon, "the old dark house" and "the witch's curse", dealing as it does with an 18th Century witch being deceived by her lover - a policeman dressed as a monk! - thereby unleashing a vengeful curse on his ancestors which decrees that every subsequent head of the family dies a violent death. This event is not depicted in the film but merely referred to throughout and we immediately jump into the present with a female ancestor of the witch - played by the beautiful Edith Scob from Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959), here with her hair bleached blonde
being invited with her novelist husband to a château in the country
which, as it happens, is owned by the ancestors of the witch's duplicitous lover. The latter are a despicable bunch of amoral opportunists with the two young heirs greedily awaiting the demise of their cantankerous 75-year old uncle which could occur at any moment. One night, every member of the household (including his nurse) desert the old man for their own egotistical purposes and Scob and her husband volunteer to stay home and watch over him themselves...
Apart from the illustrious trio in the behind-the-camera personnel (Duvivier, Spaak and music composer Georges Auric), the film boasts atmospheric lighting by Roger Fellous and a cast of willing performers: the afore-mentioned Scob, Jean-Claude Brialy (as the more level-headed of the two heirs), Claude Rich (as his worthless playboy brother), Nadja Tiller (as the lovely nurse who, ultimately, is not as loyal as she makes out to be), etc. There are elements of the supernatural (when the murderer is seen passing through the walls of a closed room by the housekeeper or when the body vanishes from the interred coffin and reappears sitting in a chair in the family chapel) and black comedy (when the mourners at the funeral waltz around the still open coffin at the deceased's own request) involved which only add to the fun. It would be a mistake to reveal more of the twists and turns the plot takes in the second half of the film - which also introduces the character of a no-nonsense police inspector - but I'll say only that it all ends rather too abruptly perhaps (immediately after the ironic final revelation) leaving the fate of some of the major characters pretty much unresolved.
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