Filmmaker Retrospective: The Suspense Cinema of Henri-Georges Clouzot

Henri-Georges Clouzot

Famously called “the French Hitchcock”, Henri-Georges Clouzot did have a lot in common with the English director. Most of their films were acclaimed suspense thrillers, and they were very demanding with their actors, often resorting to physical violence. Besides, both had a thing for blonds. Clouzot’s films, however, were darker, showing the evil in everyday men and women, plus the violence one could resort to when doubt was created in his/her mind.

Clouzot was born in Niort, France in 1907. At the age of eighteen, he went to Paris to study Political Science, where his talent for writing got him noticed by magazine editors. He was then hired by producer Adolphe Osso who sent him to Germany where he translated scripts for foreign productions.

Once in Germany, Clouzot was influenced by the films of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, eventually going on to make his first short film in 1931. He was then fired in 1934 because of his friendships with Jewish producers.

In 1935, Clouzot was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to Switzerland. Bedridden for nearly five years, it kept him from military service. In these times, he learnt about the different aspects of storytelling, which would later help his career. He returned to France in 1939 and started working there as a scriptwriter.

After making films for nearly twenty years, Clouzot’s reputation in France took a hit due to the rise of the French New Wave, who openly criticised his films in published articles. Clouzot took this to heart and became severely ill after the failure of Inferno, making just one more film before dying in 1977.


1. The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942)

L'assassin habite au 21

Clouzot’s debut is about a police inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay), who in order to catch Monsieur Durand, a murderer who leaves a calling card on his victims, assumes an identity as a priest and rents a room in a house at No. 21 Avenue Junot. He was informed one of the other tenants there is the killer. After that, the film becomes a run-of-the-mill whodunit movie interspersed with humor.

The film starts with a long tracking shot brilliantly lit by Armand Thirard, which shows the murderer killing another person with a blade hidden in his cane.

Wens interacts with all the other tenants, trying to learn anything that is helpful. Pierre Larquey plays a tenant to whom life hasn’t been very fair. Both these two actors would star in Clouzot’s next venture, an atypical mystery film. The film was co-written by Stanislas-André Steeman, who would later go on to collaborate with Clouzot once again.

The shooting of this film started Clouzot’s reputation as a difficult director to work with. He made drastic changes in the script without the approval of his co-writer. There were also confrontations between him and the actors, including Pierre Fresnay.


2. Le Corbeau (1943)

Le Corbeau

Clouzot’s second film translates to “The Raven”. It’s about the people of a small French town (referred in the film as “here, or elsewhere”), who start receiving anonymous letters signed by someone using the name Le Corbeau. These letters are accusations that people are partaking in various activities they shouldn’t have been involved in starting from petty crimes to murder. This starts dividing the townsfolk and eventually causing them to turn on one another.

This, despite its seemingly straightforward plot, however, is not a typical “whodunit” movie. The lives and interactions of the townsfolk add a lot more seriousness to the film and the savage accusations in the letters sometimes makes the viewer forget about the letters entirely.

The film landed Clouzot in hot water. It was produced by a Nazi-run German production company (Continental Films) which was established in France during World War II. Also, the film had been perceived as showing the French to be immoral and hinting at anti-Christianity. Due to the reactions caused by this film, Clouzot was initially banned for life from directing in France and the film was also banned, but both bans were lifted in 1947. The film was remade by Otto Preminger as The 13th Letter.

The film was loosely based on a famous anonymous letter case that started in the town of Tulle, Limousin in 1917. Anonymous letters had been sent by somebody signing “the eye of the tiger”.


3. Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

This film marks Clouzot’s return to filmmaking after his ban. The title refers to the division of the Police judiciary in Paris where part of the film takes place.

Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a singer and aspiring actress married to her accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier). When he finds out Jenny has been meeting an old businessman with a bad reputation to further her career, his anger gets the better of him. From then, the consequences are shown.

Set in post-war France, the film shows that when jealousy and doubt once enter a person’s mind, it can force the person to do things he/she wouldn’t do otherwise. Bernard Blier, who played the husband, does an excellent job starting out as a quiet, introverted accompanist to a man who questions everything his wife tells him and has trouble sleeping because his disturbed mind won’t let him. Clouzot’s regular Pierre Larquey also has a small role.

Légitime Défense, the book by Stanislas-André Steeman on which the film was based, was out of print. Clouzot and co-writer Jean Ferry wrote the film by recalling it from memory, causing it to deviate significantly from the original novel (including the introduction to a lesbian character), which greatly angered Steeman.

Clouzot won Best Director at The Venice Film Festival in 1947. The film was well-received in France when it was initially released and its subsequent re-release in 2002 where it was hailed as one of the greatest French thrillers of all time. This was also the last time Clouzot and Suzy Delair would work together. She ended their professional and 12-year romantic relationship after the completion of this film.


4. Manon (1949)

Manon (1949)

This film is based on the 1731 novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost. Clouzot updated the setting, making it a story about a French Resistance fighter who rescues a woman from villagers who are convinced she is a Nazi collaborator set in WWII.

The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Considered to be one of Clouzot’s best films, it is difficult to watch now with the only copy available on being described as unwatchable.