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Little Brown Dog (2000 - 2015)

QUELLE HORREUR: The Other French Cinema

The Burning Court

The French director Julien Duvivier, after a slow start in the 1920's, came into his own in the early 1930's. He was soon recognized as one of the finest directors of his generation. In 1937, he directed what many consider his greatest film, Pépé le Moko. However, his work — while always professional — was sometimes uneven; and after the Second World War, his career began to falter. A new generation had come to maturity, and they considered Duvivier too old fashioned, too academic... a remnant of the old order that had been destroyed by the war. Nevertheless, Duvivier continued to make movies well into the late 60's. Though there have been periodic revivals of his work, and though he has always had supporters in fellow directors like Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, Duvivier has never received the recognition his admirers consider he deserves.

Through his entire career, Duvivier showed a willingness to consider any project that interested him, whether it was a significant artistic statement or a trivial Hollywood throwaway. He brought the same level of craftsmanship to all of his projects, and his success in commercial films may be one reason why the critics and his successors in the Nouvelle Vague tended to undervalue his work. Yet there is one movie among his late period films that stands out as something of an oddity: La Chambre ardente (1962), a movie that sits somewhere between an art film and a Gothic thriller... not so straightforward as to be easily classified as a detective potboiler, but not quite serious enough — or perhaps not clear enough in what it's trying to say — to come off as some sort of meaningful statement.

La Chambre ardente is based on a novel by the American author John Dickson Carr. Only two of Carr's once-popular novels (along with one short story and one radio play) were ever adapted for the big screen during the 20th century, and the fact that one of them was made by a well-known French director has caused some puzzlement among fans of both mystery stories and French cinema. What (aside from the old saw about prophets in their native land) would have drawn Duvivier to Carr?

Well... consider: Carr, after a slow start in the late 1920's, came into his own in the early 1930's. He was soon recognized as one of the finest mystery writers of the so-called Golden Age. In 1937, he published what many consider his greatest novel, "The Burning Court". However, his work — while always professional — was sometimes uneven; and after the Second World War, his career began to falter. A new generation had come to maturity, and they considered Carr and the writers of the Golden Age too old fashioned, too academic... a remnant of the old order that had been destroyed by the war. Nevertheless, Carr continued to write Golden Age-style detective stories well into the late 60's and early 70's. Though there have been periodic revivals of his work, and though he has always had supporters in fellow writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Boucher, Carr has never recaptured the recognition his admirers consider he deserves. If you think about it, there's an obvious reason Duvivier chose to turn "The Burning Court" into La Chambre ardente...

... it's because the source novel is so damned good. That's all. Anything else is likely to be pure coincidence. And really: isn't that enough?

The Book

With his best work of the 1930's, John Dickson Carr became famous for two things in particular: first was his ability to construct diabolically-clever "locked room" mysteries. True to the principles of the Golden Age, Carr played fair (or mostly fair) with his readers: there was always a perfectly rational explanation for his impossible crimes, and none of his explanations relied on secret passages or exotic death traps. But Carr was able to distract his readers from any common-sense explanation by weaving threads of horror into his stories. Nothing truly supernatural ever occurs in a Carr novel, but ghosts, witches and vampires often hover around the margins of his plots1
1. E.g., "Hag's Nook" and "The Skeleton in the Clock" both have significant scenes in supposedly-haunted prisons; "The Plague Court Murders" includes a particularly grisly ghost story in its tale of a murdered medium; in "The Punch and Judy Murders" and "The Reader is Warned", the murderer seems to kill from a distance using only the force of his mind; and both "The Hollow Man" and "He Who Whispers" contain the suggestion that the killer is some sort of vampire.
, giving them a remarkable atmosphere.

The second thing that distinguished Carr, and helped establish his unique reputation, was his skill at comedy — often very low comedy. "The Blind Barber" and "The Arabian Nights Murder", both featuring the detective Gideon Fell, are two of the funniest murder mysteries ever written; and critics at first assumed that Carr's pen-name "Carter Dickson" (under which he created the Sir Henry Merrivale series, which became more comedy and less mystery as the years went on) was really an alias for P.G. Wodehouse.

Carr's penchant for creating impossible-crime puzzles is put to good use in "The Burning Court", as is his ability to suggest the uncanny — in this case, involving witchcraft, reincarnation and a curiously restless corpse. But unusually enough, the locked room mysteries of "The Burning Court" aren't as integral to the plot as they would be in Carr's other novels, particularly his series entries. And Carr's boisterous sense of humor is entirely absent.

The book begins with a quote from Shakespeare; Carr's opening suggests a nearly-identical passage at the beginning if an M.R. James ghost story. This resemblance is intentional. Carr soon abandons the James riff and gets on with the exposition of his story, but readers acquainted with classic ghost literature have a good idea what's in store for them. A bland young man named Edward Stevens, editor at a New York publishing house, is on his way home to the suburbs of Philadelphia for the weekend. He's got a copy of the newest book by true-crime writer Gaudan Cross with him on the train, and to pass the time he starts to read the first chapter. The book as a whole is devoted to famous women poisoners, and the first murderess to be profiled is one Marie d'Aubray, sent to the guillotine in he mid-19th century.

This makes the stolid Stevens furrow his brow: his wife's maiden name was Marie d'Aubray. Readers may also recognize the name "Marie d'Aubray" as being that of the infamous Marquise de Brinvilliers, the 17th century poisoner who was tortured and burnt alive; she also pops up in Conan Doyle's macabre story "The Funnel". Stevens does not make the connection to the earlier Marie d'Aubray until later. But the coincidence that does bring him up short comes to him when he sees an 1861 photograph of the later Marie d'Aubray. As Carr says to close his own first chapter: "He was looking at a photograph of his own wife".

That's troubling enough; but things get even less comfortable for poor Stevens. Later that night, after he gets home, his friend and neighbor Mark Despard comes to see him for an urgent interview. Mark's uncle and surrogate father Miles Despard had died a few weeks before, and had been interred in the old family crypt behind the historic Despard house. Mark has suffered under the growing suspicion that his uncle didn't die of gastroenteritis, as everybody had thought. He thinks he was poisoned. He's discovered some evidence — including a cup with traces of arsenic in it, and a dead cat — that seems to point to his ne'er-do-well brother Ogden. Mark wants Stevens to accompany him and his friend Dr. Partington (a physician struck off the register years back for performing an abortion) to break open the concrete paving over the entrance to the family crypt, open the old man's coffin, and take a sample of his internal organs. Tonight — while Ogden, Mark's wife Lucy, and his sister Edith are all out of the house. Secrecy is important, as Mark definitely doesn't want the police involved.

Bad enough. But worse developments are to come. For instance, it turns out that the Despard family was originally named Desprez, and it was an ancestor of Mark's that posed as a monk and tricked the Marquise de Brinvilliers — the original Marie d'Aubray — into being caught. Miles Despard's death has ominous echoes of a legendary family curse put on them by the dying d'Aubray... especially since the Despard's cook is repeating a silly story of having glimpsed a woman in 17th century clothes in Miles' room the night he died, who gave him something to drink and then walked straight through a doorway that had been bricked up for two centuries.

Then the photograph of the 19th-century Marie d'Aubray disappears from Stevens's briefcase.

On top of all that, once the men break through the undisturbed layer of concrete over the crypt, they find Miles Despard's coffin is empty. Where the old man should be, they find only a relic of Pennsylvania Dutch superstition: a piece of string knotted nine times.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the rest of the Despard family starts showing up, claiming the police summoned them. Mark points out that this isn't how the police normally operate. But then the police themselves show up, in the form of no-nonsense detective Frank Brennan, telling Mark his family summoned him. All the while poor Stevens fights to prevent anybody from connecting the rumors of poisoning to his Marie d'Aubray. The trouble is, Marie is starting to act so suspiciously that Stevens begins acting suspiciously, and soon absolutely everybody in the story has had a convincing murder case built up against them. And the body of Miles Despard hasn't even been found yet — though it tends to pop up with curious liveliness.

Each section of the book — labeled "Indictment", "Evidence", "Argument", "Summing-Up" and "Verdict" — proposes a different, nearly-convincing solution to the mystery, and a different dead-cert suspect. But each proposed solution, however neat, gets dashed to pieces by the end of the section. Ultimately the author Gaudan Cross — one of Carr's most memorably unpleasant characters — steps in and untangles the seemingly-supernatural mystery. The novel closes with a very brief epilogue that lifts "The Burning Court" out of the comfortable realm of detective fiction and puts it in a category all by itself.

The Movie

An important note: if you are going to watch the movie, you should probably read the book first. Certain details, particularly the baffling ending, will be slightly clearer to you if you do. An even more important note: if you are going to read the book, don't watch the movie first — not under any circumstances. The nature of the crime and its explanation have been changed considerably from the book to the movie, but there's still enough given away in the course of the film that it could ruin your trip through the labyrinth of "The Burning Court" for the first time. I will try not to reveal anything particularly essential to either the book or the film in the review that follows.

The first remarkable change that Duvivier's film brings to the story is a change of locale: from an ancient house in the then-rural Philadelphia suburbs near Ardmore, to a castle in the Black Forest of Germany. Edward Stevens, editor, has become Michel Boissand, historian — not that there was anything wrong with a man named Stevens being (cough) bewitched back in 1962, but the change is probably for the best. Boissand and his wife have journeyed to Bavaria to examine some startling documents in the library of an eccentric old man named Matthias Desgrez... obviously the Miles Despard character, though there is now no reason for the family to have anglicized their name. The old man did not appear in the novel — well, alive, that is — except in flashback and reported speech.

Mark Despard has turned into Marc Desgrez (Jean-Claude Brialy, A Woman is a Woman), and his wife Lucy is now Lucie (Perrette Pradier, The Seven Deadly Sins) — that was easy enough. Ogden the black sheep is now Stéphane (Claude Rich, The Bride Wore Black), but in spite of the name change he's easily recognizable to anybody who's read the novel. The Hendersons, the Despard Family's servants, are (oddly enough) still the Hendersons in this Francophone house in Germany. Dr. Partington has become Dr. Hermann, still under a cloud of scandal. But the Partington role has been greatly simplified: one major character has been removed from the story for this purpose; and rather than fill the crucial role that was assigned the doctor in the novel, Hermann instead takes on some of the actions of Gaudan Cross, who does not appear in the film. Finally, as far as members of the household are concerned, there's the old man's nurse: in the novel, she was a dowdy middle-aged woman who barely appeared in the story at all; but in the movie, she's played by the lovely Nadja Tiller (The Dead are Alive), and — probably because she's played by the lovely Nadja Tiller — she has a much bigger role.

But Marie d'Aubray is still Marie d'Aubray (Edith Scob, Les Yeux sans visage). Though the 19th-century Marie d'Aubray isn't mentioned in the screenplay, the Marquise de Brinvilliers and her curse still loom large in the family's history. The current Marie is acknowledged from the outset to be an actual descendant of the original Marie d'Aubray. It's this curious fact that's made the reclusive Matthias Desgrez agree to see an outsider like Boissand at all, for the material in his possession all relates to the betrayal, trial and execution of Marie d'Aubray, Marquise de Brinvillers.

Old Matthias suffers from what appears to be gastroenteritis, and needs constant care. He's a bitter old misanthrope anyway, and prefers to hide in his room — especially when that good-for-nothing Stéphane shows up, hoping to maneuver himself back into the old man's will. But Matthias takes a strange, almost fatalistic interest in the new Marie d'Aubray. When she arrives, he gets dressed up and shaves for the first time in a long while, and even takes the unprecedented step of going outside the mansion to sneak up on Marie for a hurried conversation.

Marie is taken aback by the old man's curious attitude. She confides to her husband that everybody in the house makes her profoundly uncomfortable. Unable to sleep her first night in the castle, Marie goes to Nurse Schneider to ask for a sleeping pill. While Nurse Schneider is dispensing the pills, old Desgrez suffers a terrible attack, and the nurse runs to comfort him. We don't actually see the old man's attack, but we hear it in gruesome detail. Evidently the old man is in worse shape than he seemed.

The following day Marc, Lucie and Stéphane are busy preparing for a costume ball held by a neighbor a few miles away. Stéphane has taken the extraordinary step of dressing up as the Marquise de Brinvilliers, and in that ludicrous disguise he goes wheedling to his Uncle for money. Matthias is disgusted and storms back to his chamber. Nurse Schneider prepares the old man's evening eggnog and leaves it on top of the refrigerator, expressing the desire that Mme. Henderson should take it up to Matthias at eleven, in the nurse's absence. Marc is confused: why would Nurse Schneider be gone tonight, at the same time everyone else except the Hendersons and the Boissands are away the dance? The nurse calmly points out that she'd asked for this night off months ago; Marc insists she cancel her plans, and when the nurse tells him that's impossible, Marc fires her on the spot.

This leaves poor Mme. Henderson to take up the drink. But when 11 o'clock comes 'round, and the old housekeeper goes to fetch the eggnog, the glass has disappeared from atop the refrigerator. Mme. Henderson sees a woman dressed in seventeenth century costume carrying the glass up the stairs, and assumes it's Lucie Desgrez returned early from the dance. She follows the figure up to Matthias's room; but her suspicions are raised when the woman fails to answer her when she calls out. When Mme. Henderson reaches Matthias's room, the doors are closed and locked. The housekeeper peers through the curtains on the French doors, and sees the oddly-dressed woman hand Matthias the glass. The old man drinks. Then the mysterious woman seems to walk straight through a wall and disappear into the darkness.

The next morning, Matthias is dead. His doctors assume he has been killed by an attack of gastroenteritis. But... who was the woman in seventeenth century clothes, and how did she manage to walk though a stone wall? Why did Matthias die on the one night his nurse wasn't there to help him? Is there any significance to the fact that this time, a Desgrez is dead... and Marie d'Aubray is still alive?

These are just a few of the questions that occur to Stéphane after the reading of the old man's will. It turns out that his brother Marc inherits everything — and that makes Stéphane furious. Surely Marc knew what was in Matthias's will — surely it was in his best interests to see that the old man dropped dead before Stéphane could work his way back into his good graces. Stéphane takes the empty glass of eggnog, broken by Marc in an apparent accident, and has it analyzed... the results reveal traces of arsenic. He interrupts the old man's very bizarre funeral to confront Marc with his evidence. Marc is appalled — not just by his brother's accusations, but by the attendant scandal. He pressures Stéphane to keep quiet until he can persuade Dr. Hermann to perform a secret autopsy — it's no good going to the police until they're certain, and the old man's body is probably full of all kinds of medicinal chemicals anyway.

That night, a somber party — consisting of the brothers Desgrez, Dr. Hermann, Boissand and old Henderson — descends into the crypt amid swirling mists. Marie watches from the house... she seems to see mysterious shapes stalking through the fog. Sure enough, there does seem to be a man creeping around the crypt. Just as Marc is about to open the coffin (and, as in the novel, to discover it's empty, except for a mysterious string tied in nine knots), Marie comes running in, crying that she's seen Matthias walking outside...

Edith Scob in 'The Burning Court'

Superficially, La Chambre ardente is an example of what's sometimes called a "French-style" mystery (appropriately enough): rather than follow Carr's model ("English-style") and save the revelation of the murderer for the very end of the story, Duvivier's film reveals the killer's identity early in the film. The mystery and the suspense come less from clues and alibis than they do from the character of the assassin, and the way (s)he attempts to escape from the investigation. In the film, it's Stéphane (Ogden) rather than Marc (Mark) who first becomes suspicious, and has the contents of that fatal glass analyzed. Thus, in marked contrast to the book, it's Marc who first becomes the Most Likely Suspect. Gradually suspicion begins to fall on a different character (exactly as in the novel) — but in the movie, unlike the book, we have a good idea of who's really responsible, and this makes that particular character's predicament seem even more horrible. Carr's Detective Brennan is vaguely recognizable in Duvivier's sardonic Inspector Krauss, though in both versions of the story the police are very much peripheral to the real action. And thinking of "peripheral", Boissand and Marie d'Aubray themselves seem to have a greatly reduced role in the goings-on — Boissand becoming the bewildered onlooker that reconnects us to the "normal" world outside the castle, and Marie apparently serving more as an otherwordly symbol of fate than a participant in the drama.

Carr's two main puzzles — how did a woman apparently walk though a wall, and how did the body disappear from the coffin? — are presented and solved in a manner very similar to the book, though the latter problem has been considerably demystified. Just as in Carr's novel, the old man's cadaver makes a sudden and shocking reappearance, though the incident is considerably more disturbing in the book. And just as in Carr's novel, the film ends with an unexpected additional death, though both the character and the circumstances are completely different.

Again in keeping with the source novel, Duvivier throws in an epilogue that calls our understanding of the entire story into question. However, Duvivier's final twist comes in the form of a single sentence, rather than a concluding chapter. If we go back and watch the film again very carefully, paying particular attention to characters who seem oddly extraneous to the story, we can see that Duvivier has been just almost as fair to his viewers as Carr was to his readers2
2. Though I should point out, too, that Carr suggested that there was an unambiguous "real" solution to "The Burning Court", that was hidden somewhere in the text. Nobody's figured out what he meant. He may have been kidding.
. But there are problems: first, Duvivier has been a little too subtle with his suggestions of a different "real" story behind the one we've seen on the surface, and his revelation of this possibility is much too abrupt. The viewer has just enough time to process the sudden shock — and then the movie ends. The second, potentially bigger problem is this: although there may be some lingering doubt about who it was that actually administered the poison to the old man — who it was that dressed as a woman from the seventeenth century, and apparently walked through a wall — there is absolutely no ambiguity at all about who actually put the arsenic in the eggnog. Thus it really doesn't matter who the "real" killer turns out to be — the person we've been convinced is the killer all along is morally the guilty party, even if (s)he didn't actually carry the cup upstairs (or did [s]he?)...

The funeral scene

There are other problems as well. For example, Duvivier is really at his weakest when he is striving most for a bizarre effect — I'm thinking here of the funeral scene, a radical departure from the novel, in which Matthias Desgrez's body is laid out for viewing while the mourners are encouraged to waltz around the coffin. The scene is beautifully filmed: the camera swirls along with the dancers, 'round and 'round the casket... but as memorable as it is, it doesn't seem to fit organically with the rest of the story. It doesn't help that the Strauss waltz we hear on the soundtrack, played by a full orchestra, is supposed to be coming from a string sextet on the balcony. The same holds true for the cortège from the house to the crypt, preceded by a small brass band: on the soundtrack we hear a full military ensemble, easily six times the size of the marching band we see on-screen, playing Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". It's bizarre, yes, but it's not very convincing, and very far removed from the undercurrents of unease that Carr was able to evoke. Far more effective is the quiet, beautifully-observed moment between those two scenes, when Marie — who for some reason has become terrified of the whole family Desgrez after Matthias's death — sees a fly land on the dead man's unmoving face, just as the lid of the coffin descends.

Overall, though, La Chambre ardente is very much worthy of its source, and like its source it occupies a space between art and escapism that puts it in a category all by itself. The scene in the crypt, while less mysterious than in the book, is every bit as chilling; and since Duvivier is far less concerned with keeping us guessing about the identity of the killer in his version, he's able to develop his characters in ways that Carr (by necessity) could only imply. Duvivier's adaptation may not be quite in the same league as his 1946 adaptation of a Simenon novel, Panique, which is a bleak masterpiece (fully the equal of Patrice Leconte's better-known version of the same story, Monsieur Hire [1989]). As French mysteries go, it may not reach the same heights as the best of his nouvelle vague rival Claude Chabrol, though Duvivier's take on Carr certainly holds its own against Chabrol's attempt to adapt Ellery Queen, Ten Days' Wonder (1971). Still, the Age of Video may yet gain this movie the attention it deserves, for this is a film that both demands and sustains repeated viewings. I hope some day the movie will get a decent modern video release outside of France — a decent English dub exists, so that should help it gain a wider audience. Such a re-release might help bring new attention to the best of John Dickson Carr, and that would be a welcome development, too.

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