Saturday, August 22, 2020


The Burning Court (1962) d. Julien Duvivier (France/Italy) (110 min)

A collective of family members gather at an ailing relative’s secluded country estate to discuss matters of finance, only to have their host abruptly shuffle off this mortal coil under less-than-natural circumstances. However, what starts off as a standard “inheritance murder mystery” quickly becomes something significantly chewier; seems that the late Uncle Mathias (Frederic Duvalles) was the last remaining descendant of a policeman who brought a supposed witch to justice in the 1600s, said sorceress cursing his family line with her dying breath. Along with two squabbling brothers, Marc (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Stephane (Claude Rich), understandably eager to get their hands on the family fortune, further thickening the pot is mystery novelist Michel (Walter Giller), down for the weekend to interview Mathias about his dark lineage. And wouldn’t you know it, Michel’s wife Marie (Edith Scob) just happens to be the last remaining descendant of the witch in question… who was also named Marie. The end result is an “old cursed house” supernatural horror whodunit where the suspects are plentiful, one of whom could be an actual ghost!

Confession: I was completely unaware of this film’s existence until Jon Kitley pushed it into my hands a few months back, having acquired it himself during an online Sinister Cinema sale. Doing a little research, I discovered that it was sourced from a celebrated mystery novel of the same name by celebrated mystery writer John Dickson Carr and adapted (along with Charles Spaak) by celebrated French director, Julien Duvivier, none of whom I had heard of before! With all this celebrating going on, I was suddenly feeling very ignorant, I gotta say.

Learning that Duvivier (La Belle Equipe, Le Golem, Pepe le Moko, The Little World of Don Camillo) was well steeped in the noir genre comes as no surprise; many scenes are cloaked in shadow and the lighting (courtesy of cinematographer Roger Fellous) within the mansion’s vast interiors is richly atmospheric. (When a glass of poisoned egg nog is slowly carried upstairs, one is immediately reminded of the famous shot from Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious featuring a similarly lethal dairy beverage.)

Speaking of Hitch, Fellous’ camerawork is extremely lively, with the engaging opening countryside car chase giving way to a far more somber, elegiac affair, filled with extended tracking shots around corners and through darkened hallways. Of course, there is also the central moment where we, along with the old housekeeper, witness the fatal egg nog administration and then see its bearer, a mysterious woman dressed in period garb, seemingly disappear through a brick wall.

Two other notable scenes that lodge in the memory are that of a waltz performed by elegantly dressed mourners around Mathias’ coffin and another where the recently deceased – having mysteriously vanished from his exhumed coffin – reappears in a most unlikely setting. These scenes are enhanced enormously by the legendary Georges Auric, who had worked his similarly haunting musical magic the previous year for Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Auric’s other credits include Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Georges Franju’s The Wages of Fear, Roman Holiday, The Lavender Hill Mob, Moulin Rouge (1952), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956) starring Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida.

What is surprising is how little focus is given to the modern-day Marie, who we would naturally assume to be the leading suspect, considering her ancestry. (Having not read the original novel, I can’t speak to whether this is Carr’s doing or the screenwriters.) Instead, the evidence leans toward the “respectable” Marc’s wife Lucy (Perette Pradier), who has problems of her own, including a cheating husband and debt to a jeweler. Since we are never convinced that it’s really her, an “innocent  woman wrongfully accused” air is slyly introduced to the proceedings.

I’ve not yet mentioned the housekeeper character of Myra, which might seem odd considering that the stunning Nadja Tiller (Miss Austria 1949 and 1951) is our top-billed performer. Myra exists on the outskirts of the main narrative, influencing but not driving the action until the third act, but every time the luminescent actress appears, she makes an impression. Continuing in the vein of “things AC did not know until now,” Tiller was a mainstay of the European film industry in the 1950s and '60s, though she never made much of a splash Stateside.

Her real-life husband Giller plays our mystery writer Michel, and he is paired opposite Scob, famous to horror fans through her appearance in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face three years earlier. With her fragile hysteria, Scob’s Marie reminds one of Julie Harris’ Eleanor in 1963’s The Haunting (in that she is so perpetually distraught throughout, no one would honestly believe she was involved in any wrongdoing). The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably, with Rich particularly enjoyable as the petulant wastrel Stephane.

Running nearly two hours, The Burning Court ends up feeling a little leisurely in its unfolding, with numerous set-ups and misdirects, and the abrupt ending – where the murderer basically walks into a police station and confesses seconds before the final fade-out – is less than satisfying. One suspects that slightly brisker pacing and a punchier conclusion would have gifted the film with a more celebrated reputation, but even with these minor flaws, it's a splendid undiscovered gem well worth seeking out.

The Burning Court is available now on DVD from Sinister Cinema (with no extras) and can be ordered HERE:

No comments:

Post a Comment