The Cry of the Owl (Le cri du hibou) (1987)

Given the similarly obsessive nature of their central characters, Highsmith’s eighth novel The Cry of the Owl (1962) could be seen as a companion piece to her previous book This Sweet Sickness. Early on in the former, we find Robert Forester spying on a young woman, Jenny Thierolf, through the window of her home as she cooks dinner. Highsmith writes: ‘He hated acting like a criminal […] The ignominy of being caught as a prowler was too unpleasant for him to try to imagine. Prowlers usually watched women undressing. They had other unsavoury habits, Robert had heard. What he felt, what he had was like a terrible thirst that had to be quenched’. Jenny finds out that Robert has been watching her but rather than call the police she invites him into her home – the start of another of Highsmith’s complex, unconventional relationships.

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‘Reading the book can be likened to taking a hallucinogenic drug’ argues Highsmith biographer Andrew Wilson, ‘one that alters one’s perceptions and uncomfortably shifts the basis of reality.’ The Cry of the Owl attracted interest from filmmakers soon after its publication but it would take twenty-five years for a feature-length film version to materialise.

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Most famous for small-town Hitchcockian thrillers such as This Man Must Die (1969) or Le Boucher (1970), prolific French critic-turned-director Claude Chabrol seemed ideally suited to Highsmith’s world. All the more surprising then, that among his many literary adaptations (Nicholas Blake, Ed McBain, Georges Simenon, Ruth Rendell and more) there is only one of Highsmith. His 1987 big screen version of The Cry of the Owl stars Christophe Malavoy as Robert and Mathilda May as Jenny but it’s Virginie Thévenet’s Véronique – Robert’s knife-twisting femme fatale of an ex-wife – that regularly threatens to steal the show. Chabrol and regular cinematographer Jean Rabier give the film a suitably dark, lugubrious feel in keeping with Robert’s melancholic air. ‘Forestier is indeed a bird of evil omen […]’ notes Chabrol scholar Guy Austin, ‘The gaze of the voyeur, apparently detached and innocent, is nothing of the sort […]’

Pasquale Iannone