The Strangler

(Paul Vecchiali, France, 1970)

BY MARGARET BARTON-FUMO | November 15, 2023

When Paul Vecchiali passed away early this year at the age of 92, he left behind a prolific legacy of films. An established director and the founder of the progressive production company Diagonale, he died more highly regarded in Europe than in the U.S., where he was practically unknown among other post-’68 French filmmakers. The distributor Altered Innocence is looking to correct that oversight by releasing a restored version of Vecchiali’s landmark third feature, The Strangler (1970). Retrospectively hailed as a French giallo, the film expertly toggles between genres, leaning into melodrama one moment and horror the next. Following a mild-mannered produce seller, Émile (Jacques Perrin), who strangles lonely women by night, Vecchiali’s script presents a highly empathetic serial killer who is personally tuned in to his victims’ woes.

Working with cinematographer Georges Strouvé, Vecchiali the director is equally attentive, as their images of Émile’s victims—wide-eyed, tear-streaked and zombified—are the most arresting in the film. Sometimes frozen in place and lit up as if they were on stage, all of the women in The Strangler are innately theatrical, visibly lost in thought as if they were destined for another world—and it is Émile’s responsibility to deliver them from this one.

Simon Dangret (Julien Guiomar), aka Inspector Thierry, is the second of three main characters in the film. Appealing to Émile under the guise of a journalist via television and radio, he implores the murderer to contact him for an innocent chat. His reasoning is vague and his method highly unorthodox, but, as it turns out, Dangret is secretly working with the police to catch the killer. Émile does eventually reveal himself, but Dangret, hopelessly fascinated by this soft-spoken man, hesitates to arrest him, adding another wrinkle to Vecchiali’s strange character study.

Finally, there is Anna (Eva Simonet) rounding out the film’s leading trio. Terminally sad but with plenty of grit, she throws herself at Dangret, presumably to help him bait and catch Émile, although her motives are complicated. Anna is in many ways the face of the film, a beacon for both of the leading men as well as Émile’s ultimate victim. She uses her agency as a woman and an object of desire to locate Émile, to whom she is ineffably drawn. Anna is a complex character in an offbeat narrative. Subverting Dangret’s expectations of a submissive, melancholic woman, she blends well into this genre-bending film disguised as a straightforward detective drama.

Formally, The Strangler is also profoundly weird. The plot progresses in a linear fashion, but the film’s style is ahead of the curve, with a fluid, roving camera and repeated, inexplicable inserts of a silent POV shot barreling down a city street. One scene at the police station involving Dangret and his superior cuts jarringly between an interior and a hallway, while other shots are filmed bumpily from a moving vehicle. The second half of the movie also contains a dreamlike sequence, in which Émile witnesses/remembers (or more likely imagines) several incidents of extreme violence—with men in garish masks and naked victims being viciously assaulted—that again situates the action briefly within the horror genre. Endlessly colorful with plenty of eerie night shots, The Strangler offers a masterclass in mood, with style to spare.

The most memorable aspect of the film, even above technique, is its supporting characters. Seemingly drawn from real life, The Strangler is populated with street hustlers and day merchants, petty thieves, a nightclub singer, and ladies of the evening. When Émile attempts to murder one sex worker with a powerful will to live, an entire posse of women comes to her aid, narrowly saving her from strangulation. Dangret, Émile, and Anna may cast a striking trio, but these women reign supreme, donning patent leather and blue eyeshadow as they take the law into their own hands. Vecchiali’s love of kitsch was clearly pure, as evidenced by his sensitive depiction of a failed actress (Hélène Surgère) who spends her days powdering her nose in a glamorous kimono. But as wild or bizarre as his characters may be, he treats them with significant care, even as they wilt into death. And while it’s true that The Strangler does have much in common with the Italian giallo, it steps beyond any single genre, proving Vecchiali to be a filmmaker worthy of great notice. 🩸


is the host of “No Pussyfooting,” an online radio show on She is the editor of Paul Verhoeven: Interviews (UPM) and has contributed to Film Comment since 2006.

X: @MarBarFu

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