Backlog #9: This Man Must Die (1969)

A proper gripping film, this. It’s an adaption of a novel rather than an original idea, so its tones and lines are more straightforward and clear-cut than in Chabrol’s other psychological thrillers. It’s also a good deal more elegiac: death is a presentational theme as well as a narrative presence (and the cool and incomparably classy figure of Stephane Audran is not involved).

The beginning is awesomely morbid; a sports car speeding along a country lane, with Katheen Ferrier’s haunting voice arriving through the stereo, passes through a village and hits and kills a young boy, before speeding off. The victim’s father, Charles, a calm, sober and respectable man who appears to be a widower, surrenders to his grief and then an urge for revenge. He painstakingly and logically uncovers a lead to the car’s passenger: a television actress who (a little surprisingly) falls for him and unknowingly leads him to his goal.

This detective work is allowed the first half of the film; any longer and it perhaps would have dried up the narrative. Once we have located the killer, all that there is to do is for the father to take his revenge. However there are three spectacular twists; the one I’ll mention is the first, where the father, on close acquaintance with his prey Paul, discovers that he is indeed a spectacularly unpleasant man and despised by all who know him. As a result Charles’ self-pity and quiet rage becomes confused with a pity for the other man. He becomes hesitant, allowing the goalposts to change and he loses control of the situation.

This Man Must Die is a superb film. I particularly liked its Brittany setting, the stylish focus of the cinematography and the acting (particularly Michel Duchaussoy as Charles and Jean Yanne as Paul, who shows that actors love playing bastards). The elegiac tone I state above moves the viewer; however this is placed alongside the variation of genre tropes and moral ambivalence that Chabrol brought to his thrillers. It’s a more traditional thriller than La Femme Infidele and equally strong.

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