Subtext | European Murder Mysteries, Old and New

The classic murder mystery has been making a resurgence in recent years, with Rian Johnson’s Knives Out one of the most prominent examples. This hasn’t been confined to just English-speaking movies, and today we’d like to look at a couple of European contributions to the genre. First though we’d like to go back to a more classic era with one last look at a film from the golden age of Swedish mysteries.

Sture Lagerwall and Gerd Hagman in A Guest Is Coming

A Guest Is Coming (1947)

A Guest Is Coming (“Det kom en gäst”) is a fitting closer to our time with the restored catalogue of the Swedish Film Institute, as it features several familiar faces (and a director we know very well.) The guest of the title is the author Georg Essman, played by Sture Lagerwall. We last saw him as the odious husband and apparent murder victim of Eva Henning in In The Mist. He has come to stay for Christmas with the noble af Ernstram family on their country estate. If this setup seems familiar, it’s because it’s similar to When Darkness Falls, and in fact the films share a director – our old friend Arne Mattson. He’s brought some other familiar faces too – Karl-Arne Holmsten as the son of the manor’s lord and Anita Bjork as his love interest, both about ten years younger than when we saw them in the Hillman movies. One other familiar face is Erik Berglund as the lord of the manor, who played the chief superintendent in in The Mist.

This is the oldest of the Swedish mysteries we’ve looked at, and sadly that shows a little in the quality of the picture even with the restoration efforts of the Swedish Film Institute. The writing more than makes up for it, though. Stieg Trenter creates a story that relies not on one major mystery but rather on several small ones, developing a sense of intrigue that leads to a nicely foreshadowed ending. Trenter is best known in Sweden for his long-running series about the crime-solving photographer, Harry Friberg. He wrote 23 books starring Friberg from 1944 to 1967, and after his death his widow and collaborator Ulla Trenter went on to write 26 more. Several of them have been adapted as TV movies, so maybe we’ll get the chance to look at them some day.

The cast of 7 Women And A Murder

7 Women and a Murder (2021)

Our next film is more modern, but does have links back to the “golden age” of mystery movies. 7 Women and a Murder is an Italian remake of a 2002 French film based on a French play from 1958. The play, and the original adaptation, were called Eight Women. This version drops one of the women (and makes some other changes). The play was written by Robert Thomas, who specialised in “comedy thrillers”. It was his first play staged and was not initially a success. Two years later in 1960 his Trap for a Single Man was a hit, and the following year a rewritten version of Eight Women finally found an audience. Despite being a prolific playwright (and TV and movie writer), and despite interest from Hitchcock, the only English adaptation of his plays has been a 1986 movie called Vanishing Act (which was based on Trap for a Single Man). The 2002 movie musical version of Eight Women is probably the most high profile big screen version of his work, at least up until now.


The 2002 version was notable for starring some big name actresses, like Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert. Similarly 7 Women and a Murder stars some very famous Italian actresses, though many of them may not be as recognisable to us. The film opens in the 1950s with Susanna (Diana Del Bufalo) arriving to the mansion she grew up in on Christmas Eve. She is greeted by a newly hired maid, Maria (Luisa Ranieri). Also in the house are Susanna’s mother, Margherita (played by Margherita Buy), and her grandmother Rachele (played by Ornella Vanoni, who is better known as a singer and has a song on the soundtrack of Ocean’s Twelve). They are joined by Susanna’s younger sister Caterina (played by Benedetta Porcaroli, a rising star who has been in, among other things, Netflix drama series Baby) and her maiden aunt Agostina (Sabrina Impacciatore, who you might recognize from last year’s The White Lotus). Notably absent is her father Marcello. When the maid goes to wake him she finds out there’s a good reason for that – he’s lying dead face down in bed, with a knife in his back. The phones are out, the house is isolated by a blizzard, and someone is lurking outside the house – the seventh woman (Micaela Ramazzotti).

I guessed, when watching 7 Women and a Murder, that it was based on a play. It has that quality of dialog as action, and takes place almost entirely in one room (the enormous downstairs sitting room and open stairway of the mansion). This is not a bad thing. The dialog is witty, the acting is top notch, and Italian is well suited to the dramatic declarations of the cast. The humour is mostly subtle, though it’s not above a physical gag now and then, and is based in the reality that family members know exactly how to push each other’s buttons. My only disappointment with the film is that it removes most of the social commentary of the original play, though it’s still better than the over-the-top musical semi-parodies the 2002 version added. 7 Women and a Murder also has probably the funniest end-credits scene I’ve encountered in a while, too, so I did finish watching it with a smile.

Anna Smolowik and Pawel Domogala in In For A Murder

In For A Murder (2021)

A similar fraught family dynamic is on show in Polish film In For A Murder (“W Jak Morderstwo” – “W For Murder”), where housewife Magda Borowska (Anna Smolowik) suffers through the passive aggression of her husband Tomasz (Przemyslaw Stippa). When she finds a receipt for an expensive bottle of perfume she goes for a walk to phone her friend Elka (Olga Sarzynska) to tell her “Tomasz bought me a present”. Elka (and most of the audience) don’t think Tomasz bought the perfume for her, but the conversation is derailed when her dog discovers the body of a murdered young woman. At first Magda’s interest in the case is driven by boredom (and a love of Agatha Christie novels), but when she finds a photo of the murdered woman wearing a W necklace things become a lot more personal. It’s a match for the M necklace she wears – and it belonged to her friend Weronika, who vanished fifteen years ago.

In For A Murder is that type of comfortable film that coasts along the edge of being funny without being a comedy, where a bunch of charismatic actors compensate for a slightly predictable story. A lot of that charisma comes from leading lady Anna Smolowik, who infuses Magda with character. Prior to this film she was best know for her theatrical success (with most of her film and TV roles being as support), though the following year she took the female lead role in sitcom Rodzina na Maxa (“Max’s Family”). Her primary foil is Pawel Domagala as policeman Jacek Sikora. Domagala is best known in Poland for starring in long-running sitcom O mnie sie nie martw (“Don’t Worry About Me”), and like Smolowik he brings a lot of humanity to what could be a very flat role.

In For A Murder is far from a perfect film (as mentioned, the mystery is weak and the conclusion feels pretty contrived) but it’s still a lot of fun and Anna Smolowik’s charisma does a lot to carry the story. It’s based on a novel by Katarzyna Gacek (who also co-wrote the adaptation with director Piotr Mularek), and she’s written two sequels about Magda’s further adventures. I know I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if the cast reunite to adapt them.

Images via IMDB