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August 25, 2023

Strangers in the House


Les Inconnus dans la maison
Henri Decoin - 1942
KL Sudio Classics BD Region A

It has been four years since Henri Decoin's Razzia sur la Chnouf was made available on home video in the U.S. With this new release only the second from a lengthy filmography, Decoin remains very much a subject for further research as Andrew Sarris might have put it. Even though Decoin is not named among his French director peers as being part of "cinema de papa", Strangers in the House comes close to being part of the so-called tradition of quality. The film is a combination murder mystery/courthouse drama from a novel by Georges Simenon. The screenplay was by Henri-Georges Clouzot, still relatively early in his career. Even though the film was produced during the Nazi occupation of France, there appears to be what might be read as subversive moments in what otherwise appears to be an apolitical thriller interjected with some comic moments.

The film begins with off-screen narrator, Pierre Fresnay, and an overly poetic description of a small town during one very rainy night. The former lawyer, Loursat, and his daughter, are eating dinner. The narrator points out that the dour looking Loursat has let his legal practice slide along with care for his large house, ever since his wife left him eighteen years earlier. It is not stated, but implied that the wife left soon after the daughter, Nicole, was born. Loursat has settled into a life of indifference, remaining in the house, chain smoking and drinking whole bottles of wine. An unknown single cracking sound causes Loursat and Nicole to explore the dilapidated upper floor of the house where the body of a dead man is found. The biggest mystery is who killed the local gangster known as Big Louis. The suspects are a group of young men in their late teens, a quartet that also counts Nicole as part of their gang. The title refers not only to the various people, known and unknown, that made their way into the Loursat house, but also the strained relationship between Loursat and Nicole.

What unfolds is a series of connections between cousins and various in-laws that ties everyone in the trial that makes up the final third of the film. The gang members petty criminality is more of an act of rebellion against filial piety. Loursat is sufficiently roused from his state of constant inebriation to act as the defense lawyer for the young man railroaded into being convicted for the murder of Big Louis. Loursat's socially conscious speech to the jury seems shoehorned in as a way to justify the film's existence, but is only a slight detour to the resolution of the mystery and Loursat's return to his dissolute self.

Strangers in the House stars Raimu, the French actor best known for his role as Cesar in the 1930s film version of Marcel Pagnol's "Marseilles" trilogy. Howard Berger and Nathaniel Thompson provide a commentary track that discusses French films during the occupation and courtroom dramas. The blu-ray was sourced from Gaumont's 2K restoration made in 2018.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 25, 2023 06:16 AM