Milestones for the Masters of Suspense: Psycho’s 50th, Inspector Bellamy


Inspector Bellamy, the last movie Claude Chabrol finished before his death last month at 80, may only occupy a high middling position in the prolific director’s 80-film oeuvre, but it’s loaded with the virtues that characterized his remarkable career. A serious entertainment that opens with the sound of someone whistling in the graveyard, it’s an ostensive crime film at once symmetrical, surprising, and knowingly cinephilic. Like the thrillers of Chabrol’s idol, Alfred Hitchcock, Bellamy would likely improve on a second viewing—not that I plan to give the ending away.

Paris’s celebrated police chief Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu, in his only picture for Chabrol) is introduced rusticating with wife Françoise (Marie Bunel) at their comfortably bourgeois country home in the Provençal town of Nîmes. But can a born sleuth ever truly take a vacation? The inspector is attempting to solve a crossword puzzle when he’s interrupted by the presence of an agitated mystery man (Jacques Gamblin) lurking about the garden. Françoise vainly tries to protect her husband’s privacy, but, once the mysterious stranger makes the unlikely confession that a recent car-crash fatality was in reality “a sort of murder” that he contrived in the service of a murky insurance scam, the game is afoot.

Chabrol said that he conceived Inspector Bellamy as a portrait of Depardieu and—embodying the bluff, hearty Bellamy in every sense—the iconic actor has the confidence of his bulk; he’s a walking, if perpetually winded, Rock of Gibraltar, and his reassuring presence provides the movie its ballast. Not unlike his obvious model, Georges Simenon’s Chief Inspector Maigret, Bellamy is a domestic cop whose professional nosiness is exceeded only by his fondness for life’s little pleasures—eating, smoking, and patting Françoise on the rump. He drinks, too, especially after his ne’er-do-well kid brother, Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), shows up—a dark, little cloud on the Mediterranean horizon.

Bellamy methodically addresses the mystery man’s mysteries—interviewing the guy’s middle-aged wife and young mistress, among other relevant parties, and empathizing with them all. In one of the movie’s running gags, Bellamy completely ignores Nîmes’s oft-referred-to-but-never-seen top cop; in another, the vacationing inspector is treated by the villagers as if he were . . . Gérard Depardieu. (“It’s a pleasure to be questioned by a star,” one suspicious cutie purrs, while another young woman simply exclaims, “You’re famous!”) Bellamy, however, does not fool around. He entertains his wife with the particulars of the continuously evolving case, which, as in Hitchcock, involves transference of guilt—it’s about “a guy who wants to kill a guy who wants to die.” Still, the movie’s real dramatic tension arises from Bellamy’s fraught, increasingly complicated relationship with Jacques.

For much of its 110 minutes, Inspector Bellamy is a pleasant, deceptively light divertissement in which the mutually resentful brothers spend considerable time arguing over nothing. The alert viewer may note, however, that Chabrol is carefully dropping clues that have less to do with the mystery man’s plot than with the personality of the self-described Good Samaritan; perhaps because of his acknowledged “soft spot for murderers,” Bellamy decides to help the man out of his jam.

Though there’s a massive joke that’s casually tossed off as the movie builds to its ending, this is hardly Chabrol’s most overt comedy. Nor does Inspector Bellamy appear, at first glance, to be one of the filmmaker’s characteristically mordant assaults on bourgeois pretension. Of course, appearances can be deceptive. It’s not for nothing that Chabrol ends with a quote from W.H. Auden’s “At Last the Secret Is Out”: There is always another story—there’s more than meets the eye.

It was Chabrol, with fellow Cahiers du cinéma critic Eric Rohmer, who wrote the first serious book on Hitchcock, ending with the assertion that “in Hitchcock’s work, form does not embellish content, it creates it.” Nowhere is this mastery of cinematic language more apparent than in Psycho, revived this week at Film Forum on the occasion of its golden anniversary.

This low-budget shocker would be Hitchcock’s greatest hit, as well as the most innovative and influential Hollywood movie in the near 20 years since Citizen Kane (also scored by Bernard Herrman). However volcanic its effect on the media landscape, Psycho was an idea whose time had come. Two equally visceral (and poetic) horror films—Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—were also produced in 1960. Meanwhile, accepted motion-picture protocol was violated by a cluster of movies appearing around the same time as Psycho: Underground movies like Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures pulverized existing taboos regarding the representation of the body; Godard’s Breathless and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo reveled in new attitudes toward crime and violence; Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which confounded Cannes the same month Psycho upset the U.S., practiced a similar disorientation in doing away with its leading lady mid-movie.

Actually, nothing prepared anyone for the spectacle of a psychotic momma’s boy living in a haunted mansion with the preserved cadaver of the woman he murdered 12 years before. Relocating horror to the heart of the American family, Psycho was blatantly ironic from beginning to end. Psycho epitomized Hitchcock’s notion of directing audiences (rather than actors), and early viewers responded with screams and laughter; the mayhem caused one New York theater to call the cops and others to call for censorship. Yet, just as with Charlie Chaplin and The Godfather, the movie’s greatness was soon recognized—and not only by Cahiers du cinéma, Andrew Sarris, and the teenagers who, years before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, turned Psycho’s showings into rituals. Even Bosley Crowther, the ineffably square New York Times critic remembered mainly for his doomed campaign against Bonnie and Clyde, praised Psycho, put it on his 10 best list, and defended the movie against irate letter-writers—not just as entertainment, but as art.