Friday, 13 November 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (34) - As sand needs water - Alan Fish reviews Panique

p  Pierre O’Connell  d  Julien Duvivier  w  Julien Duvivier, Charles Spaak  novel  Georges Simenon  ph  Nicholas Hayer  ed  Marthe Poncin  m  Jean Wiener  art  Serge Piménoff 
Cast: Michel Simon (Mons.Hire), Viviane Romance (Alice), Paul Bernard (Alfred), Max Dalban (Capoulard), Emile Drain (Mons.Breteuil), Guy Favières (Mons.Sauvage), Louis Florencie (Insp.Marcelin), Charles Dorat (Insp.Michelet), Lucas Gridoux (Mons.Fortin), (France 1946 99m) To be released in France on Blu-ray, specifications unknown, 2 December 2015

Writing in the early seventies, that most difficult to please of American critics, Pauline Kael, observed of Julien Duvivier’s Simenon adaptation, “whether you like it or not, you may be forced to agree it’s a near-perfect movie.”  Praise indeed, and accurate, too, and yet when I think of this film, it’s another Kael comment, about a totally unrelated film – Richard Brooks’ western The Professionals, if memory serves – that rings even truer; “it has the expertise of a cold old whore with practiced hands and no thoughts of love.”  It’s a comment which would be doubly true here, partly because there is no room for love in the cryogenic world of Simenon, and equally in contemplation of the director at that point in his career.  Duvivier was no longer the toast of critics as he had been a decade earlier when he made Pépé le Moko.  His wartime sojourn in Hollywood had been disappointing, and Panique was the film that re-established him in the upper echelons of appreciation after the war. 
Monsieur Hire is a psychiatrist who lives in a lonely upstairs garret overlooking a Parisian square.  Though we don’t know it at the time, he has witnessed a murder, committed by a local villain, Alfred.  At this time, a young woman, Alice, has just got out of prison for taking the rap for a robbery which Alfred committed, and they renew their affair.  However, Hire has become enamoured of her and tries to win her away from Alfred, by mentioning his latest capital crime.  Alice still loves her criminal lover, and reports back to him at Hire’s news, and they decide to pin the blame on him by placing the murdered woman’s handbag in Hire’s apartment and then arranging its being found. 
In some ways the atmosphere and Simon’s character recall an earlier masterpiece for Renoir, La Chienne.  Duvivier’s film, though perhaps lacking the seediness and sex of Renoir’s, is altogether colder and even more cynical.  Hire is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and yet it’s difficult in some ways to feel that sorry for him, as he’s not really what one could call a nice man.  All of which is not to say that we aren’t pleased at the fadeout when the police have the evidence in their hands that will convict the true criminal, just that this film isn’t really about sympathies.  Duvivier dares us to dislike the characters, even his film, but as Kael said, one cannot admire it any the less for that.  Its ice cold heart reminds one not only of the earlier Renoir, but there are even essences of the Boultings’ concurrently shot Brighton Rock, right down to the twist ending.  The finale meanwhile, as police usher away the angry mob of spectators who have gathered to see the wrong man meet his death is pure Barbrady, all but coming out with his immortal “move along, people, nothing to see.”

Michel Simon in Panique
The Simenon tale is, of course, familiar from a modern and far more frequently seen remake, Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire, an exceptional film in its own right with an immaculate performance from Michel Blanc and music from Michael Nyman.  Yet I’d give the edge to the earlier film, much of the greatness of which must rest on the shoulders of Michel Simon, magnificent in another of his despised outsider portrayals.  He was a truly unique actor, often compared to Charles Laughton in English language circles, but though there are similarities, it’s easier to see Simon in Laughton’s parts (Ruggles the butler, Rembrandt, Claudius, in particular) than vice versa.  Hire was probably his last leading role in a great film, and he seized upon it with glee, pursued to his death like a deer by hounds, seemingly predicted by an earlier memorable scene in which he is crashed into by everyone while on the dodgems.  Mark this one up in the ‘needs to be better known’ category, as an English friendly DVD is long overdue.

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