The Marcoux family -- husband, wife, daughter, son -- live at their vineyard in Provence. Henri Marcoux, 45, is weak, with a lovely young redheaded mistress who lives next door. Therese Marcoux is possessive, sly and goes to Mass quite often. She tells her husband she'll turn a blind eye to the mistress as long as there's no scandal and he throws out the lout who has become their daughter's boy friend. They are not a loving pair. "Listen to me, Henri," she tells him, "accept my offer or it's good-bye to the redhead. I swear on the heads of my children I'm not joking. Either Laszlo leaves tonight or you never see your redhead again!" "Who do you think you're talking to?" he screams at her. "I'm your wife, Henri!" "You're nothing to me," he says, with his face just inches from hers. "You make me want to vomit. You're hateful, ugly, stupid, uncultured, hypocritical, mean...old! So old!"
We shouldn't forget that their daughter is vapid. Their son is unpleasantly odd. He favors Mozart and Berlioz and conducts the music himself. He sometimes speculates about the maid and about his sister. The young maid enjoys leaning out her upstairs window in only her bra to tease the gardener and welcome her boy friend, who delivers the milk each morning. And Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is usually around, loud and coarse. When he eats a soft-boiled egg he leaves more yolk on his face than there is on the plate. He's the kind of jocular, sardonic drunk you don't want to sit next to at a bar.
When a murder occurs, the only question is which one of the above will have been on the receiving end and which one did he deed. They're all reasonable suspects for either role...which, for me, is the problem with this movie. This was Claude Chabrol's third film and his first in color. He plops the characters down for us to observe, but often assumes that we're adult enough to figure out for ourselves such idle things as specific motivation. That all the characters lack either warmth or, in some cases, much intelligence, adds a layer of distance to this film. On the one hand, the set-up works nicely. For the first thirty minutes Chabrol gives us little vignettes of the family members and their relationships. These vignettes are so amusingly unpleasant I was hoping a solid, sly black comedy might emerge. But then the story started. There's little dynamic in a middle-aged, weak man going ga ga over, I mean falling in love with, a lovely, compliant and well-built red head. The aggressive unpleasantness that sums up Belmondo's character, which Chabrol ultimately uses as a device for truth telling, left me cold. Belmondo at 26 brings the energy this movie generally lacks, but Laszlo is a pain in the neck. (It doesn't help that, at certain angles, the young Belmondo resembles the young George Hamilton.) And perhaps it was because this was Chabrol's first color film, but he seems at times to have fallen in love with color as a way to underline romance. In the middle of the movie there is a long, romantic walk through the green-dappled woods by our lovers. They come across some poppies, sink to the ground and start some serious fumbling with their clothes. Then the camera slowly pans up to a vast field of orange poppies, then to a blue, blue sky...with the music soaring. This is Chabrol? The conclusion is arrived at only after a long narrative flashback that leads up to our witnessing the murder. Homicide shouldn't be bland, but this one was.
If you're fond of Chabrol, as I am, you'll want to see this as an example of Chabrol still learning to bicycle with the training wheels on. It's testimony to his talent and craftsmanship that they didn't stay on for long.
The movie was based on a novel by that great American short story writer, Stanley Ellin. He was one of the masters of the form, but because he wrote mystery short stories he never rated the sort of literary awe given to writers like the two Johns, Cheever and Updike. To find out just how good a short story writer Ellin was, buy a copy of The Specialty of the House and Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales, 1948-1978. You might grow weary of suburbanite angst, but I'm willing to bet you'll treasure Ellin.