An image of a guillotine looms under the opening credits. And indeed, La tête d’un homme (1933) was Julien Duvivier’s darkest work to that point. Based on a book by Georges Simenon, the film stars Harry Baur as the great French author’s iconic sleuth, Inspector Jules Maigret, investigating the murder of an elderly American woman in Paris’s Montparnasse. As the viewer is aware from the film’s detailed setup, the death has links to the woman’s nephew, the sole beneficiary of her fortune; a sinister, tubercular medical student; and a petty thief. It’s up to Maigret, inhabited by Baur with his customary sly restraint, to unravel these various threads. La tête d’un homme is a policier, but an unorthodox one. Unlike Maigret, we meet all the criminal elements early, in a deviation from the book; Duvivier, who also cowrote the screenplay, wanted the film to be less a mystery than the story of the psychological struggle between the inspector and his prey (…) Both actors were inspired selections, and the penetrating way they are captured in close-up as their characters descend into their game of cat and mouse is among the film’s purest pleasures. Adding to the sense of existential mystery is the use of offscreen sound, including the wolf howl that accompanies the revelation of the murdered corpse and, near the film’s extraordinary climax, the haunting song that emanates from an apartment next to Radek’s. The oddly hollow but gorgeous voice belongs to the music hall singer Damia, seen later, in a breathtaking slow tracking shot, singing on her bed. — Michael Koresky

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