Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Paul Vecchiali’s The Strangler

If the French police departments’ records had been computerized in the early 1970s, they might have caught on to Emile much sooner. As a child, he witnessed a strangulation using his own knit scarf. As an adult, he commits similar murders with identical scarves. Each woman he kills is a depressed and lonely, so he truly believes he is doing them a favor, as he explains to Inspector Simon Dangret, each time he calls him. He might be right, because everyone is basically lonely and neurotic in Paul Vecchiali’s freshly restored The Strangler, which opens today at Anthology Film Archives.

Obviously, what young Emile witnessed had a traumatic impact on his emotional development, but Vecchiali implies he was a slightly weird kid even before. He is keenly observant, singling out potential victims who are on the brink of suicide anyway, so Emile just relieves them of the burden of such a heavy responsibility. After a bad breakup, Anna Carre assumes she could be next, so she approaches Dangret, suggesting herself as bait.

Dangret is a police inspector masquerading as a journalist, who takes to the airwaves, offering to give the killer a fair hearing. Soon, Emile starts calling Dangret and even agrees to meetings with the presumed journalist, under conditions he tightly controls. Meanwhile, Carre will not take no for an answer, so Dangret agrees to an unlikely sexual relationship instead.

It is easy to see how the under-screened
Strangler might have influenced a whole lot of more famous serial killer movies. The press materials refer to it as a French “Giallo,” which might be overstating matters, but it is easy to believe it could have been a source of inspiration, particularly in the way all three main characters eventually develop relationships with each other, which are symbiotic and voyeuristic.

Some critics also claim it as under-heralded classic of “queer cinema” as well. If they want to read that into Emile’s anti-social homicidal behavior, that’s their right, but why would they even want to? Regardless, you can watch
The Strangler without feeling Vecchiali is beating them over the head with ‘isms and identity politics.

Clearly, this is not a whodunit, but the central trio’s weird kabuki dance of death makes for a compelling psychological thriller. Craggy Julien Guiomar definitely has a hardboiled Lino Ventura thing going on as Dangret, which is very cool. Jacques Perrin is twitchy and sad as Emile, constantly reminding viewers how broken he is. Eva Simonet (Jacques Perrin’s sister, a thesp-turned-publicist) is flaky, but also dangerous portraying Carre, very much in the tradition of a Godard femme fatale.

The Strangler
would make a great (albeit somewhat disturbing) double feature with Hitchcock’s Frenzy (probably his final true masterpiece). That is definitely high praise, but this is a distinctive work of cinema. You can see pieces of its DNA in subsequent films, yet it is still very much its own thing. Highly recommended for fans of Euro thrillers, The Strangler opens today (11/15) in New York, at Anthology Film Archives.