An ancient curse, a modern crime!
vt The Burning Court; vt Das Brennende Gericht; vt I Peccatori della Foresta Nera
France, Italy, West Germany / 109 minutes / bw / International, UFA-Comacico, Taurus Dir: Julien Duvivier Pr: Julien Duvivier, Yvon Guézel Scr: Julien Duvivier, Charles Spaak Story: The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr Cine: Roger Fellous Cast: Nadja Tiller, Jean-Claude Brialy, Perrette Pradier, Édith Scob, Walter Giller, Duvallès, Héléna Manson, René Génin, Claude Piéplu, Dany Jacquet, Gabriel Jabour (i.e., Gabriel Jabbour), Laurence Belval, Antoine Balpêtré, Claude Rich, Carl Brake.
The celebrated John Dickson Carr mystery novel upon which this is based was at the time somewhat controversial, because its solution more than hinted that the supernatural was involved; for obvious reasons, this was regarded by mystery buffs as breaking the rules. (I remember reading the novel many years ago, and I’m surprised that this element didn’t trouble me. In my mystery reading I’m usually pretty prim about such infractions.) The conclusion to the movie, too, breaks the rules of straightforward mystery plotting, albeit in a different way—one that may well infuriate some viewers.
The movie starts with a scrolled and spoken preamble:
“On July 17, 1676, Marie d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, accused of witchcraft practice[s] and convicted of having poisoned her father, her two brothers and numerous other persons, was burnt at the stake on a Paris square, after having had her head cut off. Her ashes were thrown to the wind. Before her death she cursed the lover that betrayed her and all his descendants. The following tells the story of that curse.”
Today (i.e., in the early 1960s) Mathias Desgrez (Duvallès), the last direct descendant of Emile Desgrez—the cop who disguised himself as a priest to infiltrate the convent where Marie was hiding, became her lover and then turned her over to the authorities—is living near-eremitically in the grand chateau he built in the Black Forest for his wife, who alas died young. The only people he sees with any regularity are his nurse, Myra Schneider (Tiller), his housemaid, Frieda Schiller (Jacquet), his married housekeeper and gardener, Augusta Henderson (Manson) and Frédéric Henderson (Génin), and a neighbor, Dr. Hermann (Balpêtré), a genial doctor stripped of his license some years ago for performing an abortion. The two old men have fun exploring the occult together, although there’s never really too much suggestion that their investigations are getting anywhere.
Mathias (Duvallès) has an uncommon interest in his visitor Marie.
This weekend, however, there are houseguests at the chateau. Mathias has asked his two nephews, Stéphane (Rich) and Marc (Brialy), to come for consultations that are presumably to do with the inheritance that both of them are desperate to get their hands on. Stéphane, the wastrel of the family, makes no secret of his greed, and indeed has no qualms about trying to touch the old boy for a cash advance on the inevitable. Marc, a lawyer whose practice seems to be going not so well, the less demonstrative and outwardly more respectable of the two nephews, is just as keen on the money, as is his wife Lucy (Pradier). She can’t stand the old man and apparently the feeling’s mutual; it’s only because of the money and her love for Marc that she agrees to stay at the chateau.
Mathias (Duvallès) and Marc (Jean-Claude Brialy) do some bonding
Also invited for the weekend are journalist Michel Boissard (Giller) and his wife Marie D’Aubray Boissard (Scob). Michel wants to write about the curse and its implications down the ages for the Desgrez family for the pop-history magazine for which he works. The only reason Mathias has agreed to be interviewed by him is that Marie is the direct descendant of that 17th-century poisoner whose burning at the stake started the whole centuries-long affair off.
Michel (Walter Giller) squints at a roadhog behind him, not yet knowing that it’s Stephane.
The grandeur of the chateau.
Michel (Walter Giller), Stephane (Claude Rich) and Marie (Édith Scob) acquaint themselves with the chateau.
In the middle of the visitors’ first night, Marie goes to Myra and begs from her a sleeping pill. While Myra is distracted by her patient, we see Marie sneak a few extra does from the medicine cupboard. The next morning Michel sleeps far later than normal. Can it be that old habits are still alive in the d’Aubray family?
That weekend there’s a costume ball in a neighboring chateau. Most of the guests dress themselves in 17th-century garb; Stéphane even opts for drag. It’s Frieda’s night off and, somewhat to everyone’s disconcertment, Myra announces that she, too, has the night off, by longstanding arrangement—she’s going to the flicks with her pal Elsa Braun (Belval). It’s left up to Augusta Henderson to administer Mathias’s regular 11pm dose of eggnog, which Myra has prepared and leaves on top of the refrigerator.
Myra (Nadja Tiller) puts the glass of eggnog on top of the fridge, nice and convenient for the murderer.
Stephane (Claude Rich), dressed in drag for the ball, tries to scrounge “just an advance) from Mathias (Duvallès).
At the last minute Marie cries off from the ball, claiming a headache.
Come 11pm and Augusta goes to fetch the eggnog. But someone has beaten her to it—a woman dressed in historical garb whom Augusta sees only from behind while following her up the chateau’s long, gracefully curving stairs to Mathias’s room. There the woman locks the door behind her, and Augusta is reduced to peering through first the keyhole and then a gap in the door’s curtain as the woman feeds Mathias the eggnog. But it’s what happens next that terrifies Augusta: the mysterious woman walks directly away from where Augusta is watching and seemingly melts straight into the far bedroom wall!
An aghast Augusta Henderson (Héléna Manson) sees . . .
. . . a woman seem to walk through a wall.
The following morning Mathias is found dead. Just another attack of the kind he’s been having for years, decrees genial family physician Dr. Baxter (Brake). We very soon know better, however. For years Marc and Myra have been lovers, even before Marc’s marriage to Lucy; and more recently Myra has been feeding the old man arsenic in his nightly eggnog. Obviously last night’s dose was the culminatory one.
Yet who was the mysterious woman who administered that dose? Myra insists, even to Marc, that she was at the cinema with Elsa. Augusta believes the woman she saw was Lucy, because the dress the woman was wearing matched Lucy’s party costume. Yet Lucy was at the ball all evening until long after 11pm.
The light of love fills the eyes of Myra (Nadja Tiller) as she gazes at her Marc.
Or was she? Late in the evening she received a mysterious phonecall luring her out into the neighbor’s gardens with promise of evidence of Marc’s infidelity. It was a fool’s errand, she says, because there was no one there; yet she was gone long enough that she could just have made it home in time. And when Marc discovers that Lucy is heavily in debt to jeweler Jacob Kremer (Jabbour) things begin to look even grimmer for her: she really needs Marc’s share of the inheritance.
Mathias’s will leaves everything to Marc except a small pension to Stéphane—about enough to pay for his cigarettes, he snarls—and states that surviving friends and relatives must waltz around his coffin before he’s buried. In a scene that’s somehow vaguely reminiscent to the modern viewer of a slightly later movie, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) dir Roger Corman, with Vincent Price, the mourners do exactly this. And then the group forms a parade, led by the bearers of Mathias’s coffin, to the family mausoleum; this time the reminiscence is perhaps of the parade in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le CORBEAU (1943; vt The Raven; vt The Crow).
Dr. Hermann (Antoine Balpêtré) tries to lift the curse from Marie.
The ceremony is interrupted by Stéphane, who has had the remains in the eggnog glass analyzed: there was arsenic there, and he believes Marc and Lucy were conniving to murder the old man. After some argument, Marc agrees to Stéphane’s suggestion that the body be exhumed so that old Dr. Hermann can do an illegal autopsy to determine the truth, but, when most of the houseguests go to the mausoleum late one dark and stormy night, they discover the coffin empty and only a little piece of oddly knotted twine left in its stead.
The next morning there arrives on the scene L’Inspecteur Krauss (Piéplu)—to whom I’d suggest Claude Chabrol’s Inspecteur Lavardin, as in POULET AU VINAIGRE (1984), owes quite a debt. He knows far more about the family and its secrets than seems possible, including about last night’s abortive exhumation, and he’s certain he has a case of murder on his hands . . .
Lucy (Perrette Pradier) being harassed over the phone by the jeweler Kramer.
That takes us to about two-thirds of the way through the movie; believe it or not, that’s only the setup! It seems obvious, even to Myra herself, that Myra must have been the killer, yet is it so obvious after all? Lucy’s well in the frame, as is Marie—and even the crossdressing Stéphane. And how could the perpetrator, whoever it was, walk straight through a solid stone wall?
This movie has strengths beyond counting. Leaving aside the trompe l’oeil sequence of the woman melting into the wall, the most memorable sequence is surely that of the gloomy waltzers orbiting Mathias’s open coffin. (It’s slightly let down by the fact that the Strauss-playing string sextet bizarrely sound like a full orchestra.) We watch much of it from aloft as the dancers trace out patterns that would perhaps have been invisible to them at ground level; I was reminded of a sequence in Jacques Tati’s Trafic (1971) where people moving around in the vast, hangar-like space being readied for an auto show seem to us to be performing some kind of structured ritual dance even though, so far as each of those individuals is concerned, they’re merely moving at random. At the end of the sequence the dancers fade into invisibility, almost as if they were ghosts that we were watching rather than living human beings. The effect creates a real frisson of strangeness.
Waltzing around the coffin.
The march to the mausoleum is another splendid sequence, and we shouldn’t forget the long and wonderfully fluid take as Marie leaves her and her husband’s bedroom late at night to go to a distant part of the chateau to beg a sleeping pill from Myra. There was no real need for director Duvivier and cinematographer Fellous to do it that way; the fact that they chose to is one of the factors that sets this movie apart from most other psychological thrillers. Another is the soundtrack, by the great Georges Auric.
The funeral parade.
The voice of Nadja Tiller was dubbed by Jacqueline Porel (1918–2012); among actresses for whom Porel habitually dubbed in French releases were Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Maureen O’Hara, Maggie Smith and Shelley Winters. She was also a prolific stage and movie actress. I talk about Tiller a bit more in this site’s entry on Labyrinth der Leidenschaften (1959).
Myra (Nadja Tiller) spells out a few home truths to Marc (Jean-Claude Brialy).
The other performer with whom the camera falls in love in this movie is Édith Scob. Her breakthrough came in 1959 with Les Yeux sans Visage (1960; vt Eyes Without a Face) dir Georges Franju, with Pierre Brasseur and Alida Valli. Rather in the same way that Claude Rains’s big break came in a movie during which, quasi-paradoxically, for the most part he couldn’t be seen, The Invisible Man (1933), Scob spent much of Les Yeux sans Visage with her face hidden behind a mask. Delightfully, she’s still at work today. Of especial noirish note in her filmography is THÉRÈSE DESQUEYROUX (1962; vt Therese). A couple of her more recent movies are likewise discussed in A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: L’HOMME DU TRAIN (2002; vt Man on the Train) and JE TE MANGERAIS (2009; vt You Will Be Mine; vt Highly Strung).
Marie (Édith Scob) is initially nervous of Dr Hermann.
Marie (Édith Scob), healed?
In both Hollywood and more especially his native France, director Julien Duvivier made many movies that are now considered classics—often with Jean Gabin—although his name nowadays tends to be overshadowed by those of the darlings of the Nouvelle Vague, a movement that rather eclipsed the latter part of his long career. Here’s a selection of his movie from my encyclopedia: La TÊTE D’UN HOMME (1933), La BANDERA (1935), PÉPÉ LE MOKO (1936), DESTINY (1944), PANIQUE (1947), L’AFFAIRE MAURIZIUS (1954), VOICI LE TEMPS DES ASSASSINS (1956), MARIE-OCTOBRE (1959), BOULEVARD (1960) and CHAIR DE POULE (1963); I could well have included a few more of his offerings, including, arguably, this one.
Note the numberplate.
There are plenty of spooky effects in La Chambre Ardente, all of them rationalized by the end of the movie—or are they? L’Inspecteur Krauss doesn’t seem entirely convinced, and indeed the movie ends in a startling equivocation. Me, though, I’d tend to go along with the interpretation encouraged by what Michel says at one point in an attempt to reassure a highly nervous Lucy: “The dead are gentler than the living. They never hurt anybody.”
On Amazon.com: The Burning Court (DVD)