A Tepid Thriller

The Night Caller directed by Jean Verneuil at the Pi Alley through Thursday

THE NIGHT CALLER is billed as the best psychological thriller since psycho. It is certainly not that, but there are just enough psychological loose ends to prevent the film from succeeding as a straightforward action-crime flick. Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as Inspector Le Tellier, a Gallic Dirty Harry--the unorthodox cop obsessed with getting, and preferably killing, his man.

Le Tellier has no personal life that we know about. Without a past or future, he seems to be on duty at all hours of the day and night. He is impatient with the routine background work involved in tracking criminals, thriving mainly on the physical excitement of the chase. And he does chase--the movie contains far too much footage of Belmondo riding on the roofs of subway trains, dangling from helicopters, and hanging by his little finger from the rainpipes of Paris. When he is congratulated by a superior for bringing in a killer, he answers modestly, "It doesn't take brains, just brawn." The director, Jean Verneuil, goes to unsubtle extremes to establish that his hero is no Hercule Poirot, fascinated by the workings of the criminal mind, but a man of action.

This is a perfectly acceptable kind of hero, and Belmondo plays his character straight and tough, but if this is the way we are supposed to see Le Tellier, certain long sequences in the film become irrelevant and distracting. The main plot line involves Le Tellier's search for a maniacal killer who thinks it his duty to punish women of "loose moral." Another, unrelated, killer keeps popping up at odd moments; we learn that he had repeatedly outsmarted Le Tellier in the past and that he had almost cost the cop his job because of uncertainty concerning the death of a bystander during one of their shoot-outs. Verneuil gives us a flashback of those events as well as a good deal of footage of the killer's return, when Le Tellier abandons his current assignment to settle that old score.

The material on killer number two does absolutely nothing to further the real plot of The Night Caller. It would still be useful if it gave us additional insights into the character of Le Tellier, but all it does is emphasize the already established fact that the cop is tough, singleminded and unorthodox. Verneuil pretends to offer psychological amplification, but draws back and gives the same superficial information about his hero. The director does not seem to know what makes Le Tellier tick, or at any rate, he is not sharing his information with us.

The material on the secondary killer does provide an excuse for additional chase sequences and shoot-outs, but it would have been easy enough to incorporate them into the main plot. Action thrillers need not be as sophisticated or insightful as psychological thrillers, but they must be tightly structured to keep us in suspense about the outcome of the primary plot. The extraneous sequences on the killer from the past break the tension of the main manhunt. As a result, we lose most of our interest in the denouement.


Verneuil is unable to decide what is important in the film, and he communicates his confusion. There are many tantalizing themes in the movie, but none are developed. The night caller, for example, is not just any homicidal maniac: he has class. He calls himself "Minos" after the character in The Divine Comedy who metes out punishments to sinners entering hell. He makes creepy nocturnal phone calls to his prospective victims, then goes to their apartments posing as a police investigator and strangles them. He teases the police by sending them a notice of each murder, with a picture of one part of his body cut from a full-length photograph of himself. Minos has a glass eye and sees only half of what most people see, an idea with a potentially interesting connection to the sending of one scrap of his picture at a time or to the imposition of a strict moral standard on victims of only one sex. He also daylights as a nurse, another fact with possible relevance to half-vision and schizophrenia. Verneuil just lets these ideas dangle; as a result, his killer seems more silly than scary.

Superb camera work is the film's redeeming feature, and is responsible for what little suspense Verneuil projects. A rooftop shoot-out in which Minos loses his glass eye is particularly effective. Belmondo does most of his own stunt work; seeing him in close-up action sequences contributes some sense of involvement with the hero.

Certain other technical aspects of the film are annoying and combine with Verneuil's confusion to undermine the impact of the camera-work. The score, whose recurring theme features a plodding bass line supposed to convey a sense of impending doom overlaid by a piercing electronic whistle intended to raise us to a pitch of terror, is grating rather than eerie. The actors' voices seem to be dubbed; even though they are mouthing English words, the soundtrack is not synchronized.

The director has no sense of priorities in his film, so we view each unrelated event with equal boredom; his distractions and digressions preclude any sense of urgency about the outcome of Le Tellier's search. Verneuil suffers from the same perceptual malady as the killer Minos; the suspense of his thriller disintegrates because he is only capable of focusing on one isolated idea at a time.

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