The Blunderer (1954) was Highsmith’s third novel but only the second to be published under her real name. Like her debut Strangers on a Train and indeed several later books, it focuses on the intertwining destinies of two very different male protagonists. Melchior Kimmel is a bookseller who, in the first few pages of the novel brutally murders his wife and in doing so becomes ‘aware only of pure joy, of a glorious sense of justice, of injuries avenged, years of insult and injury, boredom, stupidity, most of all stupidity, paid back to her.’ Young lawyer Walter Stackhouse comes to hear about the murder and is intrigued by how, despite suspicions, Kimmel himself has evaded the law. Stackhouse, who is slogging through his own marriage and is desperate for a divorce, starts to wonder whether Kimmel’s might be an example to follow.
Coming three years after René Clément’s Plein Soleil – a French adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley – Claude Autant-Lara’s far lesser known picture takes on The Blunderer with real brio, beginning with the five minute dialogue-free pre-credits sequence that follows fairly closely the grisly murder that opens the book. We follow a hulking, trenchcoated Kimmel (a pre-Goldfinger Gert Fröbe) as he leads his wife to a violent demise. Much of this sequence’s power comes from the high drama of René Cloërec’s score and Autant-Lara allows the music to drive the action in a way that’s reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s use of cues by Bernard Herrmann. Plein Soleil’s Maurice Ronet plays Walter Saccard, the hen-pecked husband who is also having a far-from-secret affair. After paying a visit to an increasingly wary Kimmel, he replays their conversation in his mind, imagining how the bookseller might have disposed of his wife. But before he can execute his copycat crime, events take an unexpected turn, bringing both Saccard and Kimmel to the attention of tenacious police inspector Corby (Robert Hossein).