Black Forest Gateau

Or do I mean “chateau”?

Duvivier time! LA CHAMBRE ARDENTE — THE BURNING COURT — from a novel by John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery — has very little reputation, and it doesn’t quite gel in a plot-character-theme way, but it has some set-piece scenes that are as fine as anything in JD’s oeuvre (French for egg) — a misty nocturnal exhumation; an open casket funeral with guests waltzing round the deceased; an arboreal chase scene. Working with usual collaborator Charles Spaak, JD unpicks much of Carr’s plotting, and the impossible crime at the story’s centre (a figure in period dress is seen administering a fatal glass of eggnog before vanishing through a wall) is actually pretty easy to guess a solution to — but the film’s ending is still a dark surprise. A few characters do seem to be cut adrift by the narrative reworking, with a bland pipe-smoking hero particularly useless to the story.

The film this most resembles is Franju’s PLEINS FEUX SUR L’ASSASSIN, with its ancient country house setting, historical murder backstory, hints of the supernatural. Duvivier even has regular Franju collab Edith Scob on hand, lending her masklike beauty to the eerie going-on, along with the glamorous Nadja Tiller and the always-welcome spannerlike face of Helena Manson, a nasty nurse in Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU.

Curious parties are recommended to Carr’s The Hollow Man AKA The Three Coffins, which features two impossible crimes, one of which has a dazzlingly brilliant solution, and also a chapter in which overweight ‘tec Dr. Gideon Fell lays out all the possible solutions to the locked-room genre, simultaneously thrusting the answers to the mysteries at hand under our noses, and whisking them away before we figure things out.

Here are some of Carr’s crimes —

In The Hollow Man, witnesses in a snowy street hear a cry of “The next bullet is for you!” followed by a gunshot. Turning, they find a man slain in the middle of the road, a pistol lying some distance from the body. Nobody else is around, and no footprints except the victim’s are found in the snow, yet examination shows he was shot at extremely close range…

In The Sleeping Sphinx, I think it is, a crypt is found where tremendously heavy coffins have been moved about at random, and no footprints mar the smooth sand on the floor. This mystery has little to do with any crime, but it’s fun.

There’s one in which a curse predicts that a man will be stabbed with an awl. He turns up dead, a small round puncture wound in his body, no visible weapon, and he’s in a locked room with only a metal grille offer any access to the outside world, and the grille is too high for the victim to have reached…

In The Judas Window, a luckless hero is found unconscious with a dead man who’s been impaled through the chest by a crossbow bolt, seemingly from a high angle. Locked room. No accessible windows, hidden doors or usable chimney. Although the title is a clue.

Can you find the solutions? Everything is as I’ve told you, pretty much, with no secret entrances or supernatural gimmicks.

11 Responses to “Black Forest Gateau”

  1. Lovely scene. I recall this was well-reviewed when it opened stateside.

    Jean-Claude Brialy, alas, is no longer with us. But Edith Scob is very much alive and kicking, most recently in Olivier Assayass’ Summer Hours

  2. The Great Duvivier Revival continues: I have a couple more of his at home to watch, but haven’t ever encountered this one. I was a completed John Dickson Carr obsessive for a while – at a time when it was very hard to find some of his key books, to the misfortune of my student bank account – so can’t in good faith make guesses when I know the answers to the above! As I wrote recently, you have a knack for pointing me to French films that take place in old dark houses of one kind or another…

    I just watched the wonderful “Un Revenant,” which you sent me a couple of years back: if you feel like leading the charge for another revival it seems to me you could do a lot worse than that film. I just got my hands on Christian-Jaque’s “L’Assassinat du Pere Noel,” your seasonal pick last year, and must watch that next.

  3. Duvivier’s “La fête à Henriette” is another one worth seeing.

  4. I’m in touch with a certain party about making some fan subtitles for that one. Hoping Mr Wingrove will be able to lend a hand.

    I think Christian-Jaque is worthy of reappraisal too, along with Autant-Lara and Yves Allegret. Hope to get around to writing more about all of them soon.

  5. Autant-Lara tends to get credit for a couple of his 1950s films – e.g. the wonderful “La Traversée de Paris” – almost despite his presence in the titles, as though he really didn’t do a lot beyond shouting “moteur.”

    I’m not sure which film you’re working on the fansubs for, but if you need assistance with French, I can help.

  6. I’m on board with Autant-Lara and Yves Allegret. Christian-Jacque less so, though I adore The Legend of Frenchie King starring Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale and

    (wait for it)

    Michael J. Pollard.

  7. I like Claude Autant-Lara’s “En cas de malheur”, with Jean Gabin and Brigitte Bardot.

  8. La Fete a Henriette is the one that’s being subbed. I’ll mention you to the guy organizing it, Gareth.

    CJ may be less major or have fewer real masterpieces, but he did some beautiful stuff. Frenchie/Les Petroleuses partakes of his striking visual sense.

    Nobody want to have a guess at those impossible crimes? Where’s Jenny when we need her?

  9. LES PERTOLEUSES is great campy fun, but not Christian-Jacque at his best. If you can, try to see his magnificent CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA (Gerard Philipe and Maria Casares) or his wondrously lurid LUCREZIA BORGIA (Martine Carol and Pedro Armendariz).

    Both films typify the ‘cinema de papa’ school of old-style quality French cinema, so viciously condemned by the likes of Francois Truffaut – mainly because Truffaut realised he was incapable of making anything so stylish or entertaining!

  10. I think in the case of Charterhouse the objection probably had something to do with the literary source. And Sins of the Borgias was no doubt seen as hideous commercial trash, tantamount to pornography. Which it is, much to its credit!

    Les Petroleuses has the most fantastic catfight EVER, and the idea of a western saloon where everyone drinks red wine is just hilarious.

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