Criterion Prediction #46: This Man Must Die, by Alexander Miller
Title: This Man Must Die
Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Michel Duchaussoy, Caroline Cellier, Jean Yanne, Anouk Ferjac, Marc Di Napoli, Louise Chevalier, Maurice Pialat
Synopsis: Widowed writer Charles Thénier (Duchaussoy) devotes himself to tracking the man who killed his only son in a hit and run accident. Fed up with a reluctant police force, Charles conducts his own investigation to find those responsible for the death of his son. After making some connections, he discovers that actress Hélène Lanson (Cellier) was in an unreported accident consistent, and he believes that the vehicle belongs to someone who owns a garage.
Assuming a pseudonym, Charles feigns a relationship with Hélène, whose brother-in-law, Paul Decourt (Yanne), killed his boy. During a trip to their estate, Charles must maintain his composure under his assumed relationship with Hélène and further strategize his articulate plot of vengeance.
Critique: Though predating the French New Wave with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he presided over decades of incisive and expertly crafted thrillers throughout the entirety of his career.
Of course, there are sporadic misfires in this prolific director’s career, but one achievement among his many is the 1969 classic This Man Must Die. At this point, Chabrol was fine-tuning his understated, but precise narratives and his self-styled filmography is identifiably singular. This Man Must Die is the opposite of a “whodunnit”. By subverting preconceived notions of what constitutes a standard thriller, Chabrol peeled away the pale veneer to reveal the macabre actions of so-called respectable people of France’s petit bourgeois culture in this period commonly referred to as his “Golden Era”.
Clearly, his body of work draws from the well of Mr. Hitchcock, but Chabrol’s cinema is one that never descends into imitation, overwrought homage, or flat out mimicry. Hitchcock was known for an expressionistic, visual flare to accentuate his frissons of suspense, whereas Chabrol internalized the theatrical emphasis on the morality (or amorality) of his protagonists, ergo restraint propelled his deliberately paced and existential brand of subdued dramatism.
Chabrol ratchets the mounting tension by modernist intuition; the inversion of theme in his cinema extends beyond our aesthetic notions branching into the technical, psychological and thematic territories. The taut direction of the material is a complimentary marriage of contrasting reconstruction – our protagonist isn’t a wise-cracking punster but a driven Machiavellian avenger who’s at his most comfortable recording passages from Iliad, or articulating his itinerary of vengeance in his journal. Some films of this genre seduce our senses by lulling the viewer as a voyeur, but our participation in This Man Must Die is as active as it is passive. The exterior of this film is sly enough to convince us that the culminating events will pay off with a reveal, or conventional dramatic device; while the story owes to a climactic ascension: the labyrinthine psychology and spurious alliances invigorate this Proustian treatise of vengeance. The earthy locale and rich characterizations flourish thanks to Chabrol’s stock players; Michel Duchaussoy is fine as the stone-faced Charles, but Jean Yanne steals the show as the wholly despicable villain Paul Decourt, a louse so awful you’ll hope the title will deliver on its promise.
Why it Belongs in the Collection? Chabrol’s first two films, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins are historically the most significant in his career; they stand on their own merits as pillars of the nouvelle vague but in comparison they aren’t as entertaining as his later work. From a historical standpoint the inclusion of Claude Chabrol’s first two features in The Criterion Collection gives some long overdue praise to the late master of French cinema but his highest points chart around the time of This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Le Rupture, Nada, Cop A Vin, and The Pleasure Party, all of which can be found on standalone DVDs in North America from Pathfinder Distribution or in a collection from Arrow Films.
Regarding Pathfinder Distribution, these DVDs are modest in the feature department, but they seem to have the capital on Chabrol’s body of work. Should Criterion pursue this route, it might serve them well to purchase a quantity of these movies, after all, if they can afford properties from Paramount, MGM, and United Artists, then Pathfinder should be well within their means.
Luckily, much of Chabrol’s work isn’t tethered to any high profile distributors, and the handful of his movies I’ve collected over the years come from Pathfinder/Arrow Films. For the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Melville, Varda, and Malle, they have broad coverage in the Collection. However, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol seem underrepresented; while Rohmer and Jacques Demy movies are only available in collectors sets.