Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 19, 2017 8:33 am 
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An old woman has been found murdered. A flirty young one has just been released from prison. She meets a slimy accomplice. An oddball is scorned by the local public. The action begins.

The 1946 black and white film Panique, being reissued by Rialto PIctures in a restored version, the under-appreciated French filmmaker Julien Duvivier considered his most personal and fully realized film, and some have thought it the most appropriate of the myriad adaptations from Georges Simenon's writing - though if so truer to the spirit than the letter of its particular source. In Patrice Leconnte's 1989 version the short bald Michel Blanc, in the eponymous lead of Monsieur Hire, better fits Simenon's protagonist than Duvivier's tall, bearded lead, Michel Simon, though the latter may be easier to set off visually from the crowd that excludes and dislikes him. Simon is famous for roles in La Chienne and Boudu Saved from Drowning, as well as Jean Vigo's L’Atalante. In the novella, M. Hire is specified as Jewish, but here his original name is simply shown to be Hirovitch, suggesting he's Polish or Russian. Simon's HIre is defiant, strong-willed, misanthropic man.


Ranking this so high in Duvivier's oeuvre is no small matter. He was admired by Ingmar Bergman and Jean Renoir (as well as Graham Greene and Orson Welles), made 71 films, and counts as the most neglected of the "Big Five" classic French directors, with Renoir, René Clair, Jacques Feyder and Marcel Carné.

Panique, aka Monsieur Hire, is based on Simenon's novella Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, Monsieur Hire's Engagement, from 1933, and one of the earliest of his "hard novels" (romans durs) published between 1931 and 1972, which reflect a deeply dark view of human nature, starkly different from the relatively easygoing and more numerous Maigret mysteries. Though the source novel is pre-war, anticipating Nazism, the film adds a post-Occupation French mood of suspicion and readiness to exact collective revenge.

In the foreground of the action are two very unpleasant people, Alice (Viviane Romance), the woman who just got out of jail, and Alfred (Paul Bernard) the boyfriend/accomplice she took the rap for. He has just performed an even worse deed, as he reveals to Alice, and they set out to pin it on Monsieur Hire, a lonely oddball bachelor nobody likes. Despite his standoffishness, M. Hire is revealed as a perfectly nice guy who has done nothing wrong, but Alice and Alfred pick him as the desirable scapegoat, the more so when they learn he knows Alfred's guilty.


The action is set at the south-end-of-the-Métro-line Paris commune-suburb Villejuif, a Paris that feels as gossipy and intimate as a village. Though the traveling carnival that pops up early on is too big not to be urban, people all know each other; there's no privacy. They're suspicious of Hire because he holds aloof from everyone else's enthusiasms and grievances. He's an unsmiling outsider, a voyeur who spies into the flirty Alice's window from his, and outdoors is always with a camera snapping photos for a personal gallery of "horrors." Alice and Alfred try to hide their preexisting relationship from him at first, but he sees through that. M. Hire is a lonely man disappointed in love whom Alice deceives into thinking that he has a chance with her in order to draw him in and incriminate him.

Duvivier moves back and forth from public to private, neatly balancing collective scenes of the local society with intimate ones. The former are set outside or in a bar restaurant; the latter framed by Alice and Alfred's hiding places, M. hire's cozy second-floor hotel room, his office, where he provides services as a seer, or his long-abandoned house in the suburbs. Later in the film, the carnival is used to create the feeling of a mob.


Blending naturalism and the surreal through the chiaroscuro of dp Nicolas Hayer, the film achieves a mounting tension, leading up to a finale that's been compared to Fritz Lang’s Fury and also recalls early silent period Hitchcock. This was Duvivier's first postwar film after a Hollywood stint. His famous 1930's films include Maria Chapdelaine (which made Jean Gabin a star), La Bandera, La Belle Équipe,Pépé le Moko, and Un Carnet de Bal.

There is an excellent discussion of the film and the novella in the French blog Newstrum - Notes sur le cinéma. Strum knows far more than I do. He brings out the contrasts between book and film and makes them significant. The new rerelease press kit cites a glowing thumbnail rave from Pauline Kael: "Duvivier's psychological thriller is a devastatingly effective job of visual storytelling... in terms of how the sequences are planned, and how they build, it’s an unusual, near-perfect piece of film craftsmanship."

Panique, known in English previously as Panic, 91 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 1946, opening in France 15 Jan. 1947, US 26 Nov.; eight other countries. This restoration debuted 21 Jan. 2015 at a Angers European First Film Festival; French re-release 30 Mar. 2015 2016 (AlloCiné "Spectateurs" rating 4.2). Digitally restored version debuted at the New York Film Festival's Revivals series 14 Oct. 2016; US rerelease by Rialto 20 Jan. 2017; showing at Film Forum, NYC, 20 Jan.-2 Feb. 2017.

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