Gallic murder mystery "Crime Is Our Business" is a playfully harmless whodunit sparkled with dandyish humor and freewheeling ensemble thesping.

Gallic murder mystery “Crime Is Our Business” is a playfully harmless whodunit sparkled with dandyish humor and freewheeling ensemble thesping. Helmer Pascal Thomas’ third Agatha Christie adaptation in three years resurrects the adorable, culprit-seeking Beresfords — returning vets Catherine Frot and Andre Dussollier — who this time try to nab the killer among a clan of wicked siblings visiting their family’s snow-filled chateau for Christmas. Pic opened strong locally on Oct. 15, and should tempt overseas fans of the indefatigable, old-school genre.

Bringing back most of the cast and crew from his two previous Christie yarns, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs” and “Towards Zero,” writer-director Thomas adds another installment to a consistently entertaining series that, although it may not change the course of modern cinema, will surely make for an enticing DVD boxed set.

Based primarily on the short story “The House of Lurking Death,” which appeared in the author’s 1929 collection “Partners in Crime,” but also including shades of “4:50 From Paddington,” pic encores uncanny duo Prudence (Frot) and Belisaire Beresford (Dussollier), last seen Sherlocking together in “Thumbs.” With Belisaire now retired from the secret service and the couple living tranquilly in the Rhone-Alpes region, bored Prudence is just dying for a new crime to solve.

Her wish is soon granted when visiting Auntie Babette (Annie Cordy, brilliant) arrives on a train, on which she claims to have witnessed a murder. The killing itself, seen through a rain-strewn window on a neighboring passenger car, is a cleverly staged sequence that’s one of the rare aesthetic pleasures in a film composed primarily of witty dialogue and fun-filled performances.

When Belisaire leaves town for the weekend, Prudence attempts to locate the alleged murder victim, and her path leads to a spooky, forest-set mansion. She gets herself hired as the family cook, taking commands from eccentric widower Roderick Charpentier (an unleashed Claude Rich) and his gloomy daughter, Emma (Chiara Mastroianni).

Before long, the body turns up, as do Roderick’s three rude and suspicious sons (Melvil Poupaud, Christian Vadim, Alexandre Lafaurie), along with the obligatory country doctor (Hippolyte Girardot). When local detective Blache (Yves Afonso) arrives on the scene, he informs Belisaire of his wife’s recent career move. After some light bickering, the couple sets off for a new round of snooping and finger-pointing.

Script, co-written with usual suspects Clemence de Bieville and Francois Caviglioni, is less interested in the crime and its culprits than in the way they tend to excite — both intellectually and, yes, sexually — the thrill-seeking Beresfords, a scenario better described by the pic’s French-language title, with its play on the word “affair.”

Tone becomes a little over-the-top in the final reels, and the moderately surprising denouement is hustled in like a round of high-speed “Clue.” But an ingenious coda, highlighting Prudence’s and Belisaire’s opposing investigatory methods, works like a warm digestif to make the whole meal go down smoothly.

Performances are first-rate, though the numerous co-stars are there more to provide a backdrop to Frot and Dussollier, who steal the show. As with the two prior pics, tech package is solid but uninspired, with d.p. Renan Polles employing the usual frosted lighting effects. Reinhardt Wagner’s score is a throwback to the classic caper music of Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin.

Crime Is Our Business

France

Production

A StudioCanal release of a Les Films Francais, StudioCanal, France 2 Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Ah! Victoria! Films production, with participation of Canal Plus, France 2, TPS Star, La Region Rhone-Alpes, CNC. (International sales: StudioCanal, Paris.) Produced by Nathalie Lafaurie. Directed by Pascal Thomas. Screenplay, Thomas, Clemence de Bieville, Francois Caviglioni, based on Agatha Christie's short-story collection "Partners in Crime."

Crew

Camera (color), Renan Polles; editor, Catherine Dubeau; music, Reinhardt Wagner; production designer, Katia Wyszkop; costume designer, Catherine Bouchard; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Pierre Lenoir, Claude Villand, Reine Wekstein; assistant director, Olivier Bouffard. Reviewed at Gaumont Champs Elysees Ambassade 4, Paris, Oct. 15, 2008. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Catherine Frot, Andre Dussollier, Claude Rich, Annie Cordy, Chiara Mastroianni, Hippolyte Girardot, Melvil Poupaud, Christian Vadim, Alexandre Lafaurie, Yves Afonso, Laura Benson, Marie Lorna, Valerianne de Villeneuve, Florence Maury, Agathe Hazard, Ornella Bes, Barbara Jaquaniello.
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