A small boy in a yellow raincoat happily gathering clams on a foggy beach. A speeding black car with radio blasting. These two opening images, and the way they are intercut with each other create an uneasy feeling within the viewer. Something bad is going to happen here, and it doesn’t take long. The child wanders onto the street and is cut down by the car. The car contains a man and woman, and she reacts with horror. The man angrily tells her to shut up, and keeps driving. Claude Chabrol thus puts the pieces into play for his 1969 revenge-driven thriller This Man Must Die.
The story skips ahead 3 months, and we meet the boy’s father Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussay). Thenier is on a train, returning to the site of his son’s death for the first time since the accident. Outwardly, he seems stoic, but a visit to his house reveals cracks in his facade. He tells his housekeeper that she is never to speak of his son, and if she must, then she is to use the present tense. A visit to the boy’s room reveals how much sorrow and anger this man is holding inside.
The police visit to discuss the investigation into the accident. They don’t know anything yet, but the striking thing about this meeting is how involved Charles is. He throws out scenarios about the killer, and it becomes plain that he has thought an awful lot about this man, and who he might be. His theory is that the car must be damaged, and since the killer would be taking a great chance in having it repaired, perhaps he has done the work himself. Charles thus reasons that the killer may own a garage. We start to get an idea of the obsession that he is carrying around. We repeatedly see him entering his thoughts into a diary, including his ideas of how the man’s death will play out.
The problem is, however, that there were no witnesses to the accident, so he has no idea where to start looking. He sits on hills and muses about how vast his search is. “I have all my life”, and says he needs chance to intercede. “Chance is wonderful. And it exists.” Chance does indeed exist, and it comes in the form of an innocent detour in the road that leads to his car being stuck, and a farmer with a tale of a previous stuck car. “The guy was angry because the car was damaged. I remember it well – It was January the 3rd”
This meeting leads him to the woman in the car, an actress named Helen Lanson (Caroline Cellier). Thenier begins an affair with her as a cover for getting more information about the driver. At this stage, Thenier’s obsession begins to take on darker overtones. We know that Helen was in the car, but is not the villain here. Thenier’s using her seems somewhat cruel and selfish. There’s a marvelous scene in Charles apartment where she finally confronts him about why he wants her, and he takes her to bed in order to continue the charade. The most visible item in the apartment is a large chess set, and the parallel is subtle. He is playing a chess game of his own, and using her as one of the pieces. It’s also notable that when they wake up, the chess pieces are scattered everywhere, as if to suggest that the “game” has been disrupted.
The identity of the driver has been discovered by now – It’s Helen’s brother-in-law Paul (Jean Yanne), and Charles arranges for he and Helen to go and visit them. Paul, however, isn’t home when Thenier arrives, and one of the joys of this film is watching Charles make forced small talk with Paul’s family as they wait for him to arrive. Charles must be jumping out of his skin for wanting to finally confront this man, but he has to pass the time talking about the weather and the pollution in Paris.
When we finally meet Paul Descourt, he is what we might have expected based on his reaction to the accident. He humiliates his wife at the dinner table and berates his son mercilessly – Simply put, the man is a monster. This dinner scene is perhaps taken too far over the top – Paul is such an ogre that it begs the question of why anyone would marry him or associate with him, but to Chabrol’s credit, he pulls back and makes the character a bit more realistic from then on.
Chabrol sets up an interesting dynamic between Charles and Pauls’ son Phillippe (Marc Di Napoli). The boy tells Charles straight away that he wishes his father were dead, and a bond begins to develop. Charles is a writer, and young Phillippe is a quiet, sensitive soul with artistic leanings, and during an informal tutoring session, Phillippe admits that he wished that Charles were his father. This adds other things to the mix – Does Charles also want to liberate Phillippe from his father’s tyranny? Is Phillippe is filling some of the void left by his own son’s death?
Thenier gets a good chance to kill Paul early on. As the two men walk along a seaside cliff, Paul loses his balance, and hangs from a precipice. Charles even goes so far as to get a big rock, ostensibly to smash his skull with, but changes his mind when Helen arrives on the scene.
The relationship between Charles and Helen is a little hard to get a real handle on. Although he hasn’t really said so, at some point his feelings for her have become real, and one night as they lay in bed together she asks him why he didn’t let Paul fall from the cliff when he had the chance. Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier arrange this scene in a really interesting way. Her face is half hidden by his, and his is half hidden by something in the foreground. The resulting composition makes it look as if they have one pair of eyes – That they are one being. Even so, he doesn’t let Helen in on his plans for Paul.
The chance for the murder finally comes in the form of a sailing trip that Charles and Paul are to go on. Charles will sail out and cause Paul (who can’t swim) to fall overboard, drowning him. As the weather worsens, Charles clearly enjoys watching Paul’s unease at being in the boat. He gets satisfaction in seeing the fear from his son’s killer. Paul, however, throws a delicious little twist involving the diary into the story. Charles has to spare his life, but he is not deterred. He tells Paul “I want your bastard skin – And I’ll get it.”
Charles and Helen are on the road the next day when the story takes another twist – Paul has been poisoned in his home. We have a pretty good idea what has happened, and Chabrol slyly confirms it for us in a little scene where Charles talks to a police captain back at the house. Just check out how Charles and the cop are standing and who is framed in the space between them.
The cops have the diary in their possession, and in it Charles’ plans to kill Paul. Charles points out that he would have to be pretty foolish to write down a plot to kill and then go ahead and do it when he knew the cops had the diary. The cop – no fool – acknowledges this, but also adds that he may have allowed the diary to be discovered for this very reason. It all becomes moot when someone else comes forward to confess to Paul’s murder.
This Man Must Die is a parable about revenge and its destructive consequences for the human soul. Charles, bathed in sorrow and hatred, dedicates his life to finding and destroying the person who killed his son. When the man actually dies, it comes at a huge price – The destruction of the life of someone who Charles has grown to love, and who has become a surrogate son. It likely occurs to Charles that he has it in his power to save this second “son”, but it will take an enormous sacrifice on his part. In a farewell letter to Helen, Charles quotes a verse from Ecclesiastes:
“The beast must die, but the man, too”
When the film started, we were at the ocean and one young man was about to have his life taken away. At its conclusion, we’re back there and another young man has gotten his life back. And a small white sailboat quietly becomes a speck on the sea.