Deep Focus: Panique
Monsieur Hire’s Engagement, Georges Simenon’s double-edged 1933 novel about sexual duplicity and scapegoating, generated Patrice Leconte’s lovesick reverie Monsieur Hire (1989) and Julien Duvivier’s newly restored suspense classic Panique (1946). It’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar movies extracted from the same material: a murder committed in the close-knit, petit bourgeois Paris neighborhood of Villejuif. In both films, Monsieur Hire becomes a suspect because he’s an oddball and a misanthrope. At the same time, he falls in love with a new gal in town—who’s actually the mistress of the real killer. Monsieur Hire has long had the higher profile (it made Roger Ebert’s Great Movies), and it sticks closer to the letter of the novel. Leconte, an admirer of Duvivier, has said that watching Panique, “a very good movie,” inspired him to do a variation on the book rather than a remake of the film. I found Monsieur Hire just one more art movie about voyeurism leading to romance, a notion that probably makes more sense to directors than to anyone else. (I vastly prefer Leconte’s Man on a Train and even his My Best Friend.)
Panique is something altogether more bracing and terrifying: a tingling, compact, kaleidoscopic thriller that conveys a potent and sardonic worldview. Seeing it today in a beautifully modulated print, with Lenny Borger’s lucid and colloquial subtitles, should send shivers through audiences already worried about mob rule, enforced conformity, and a willingness to pin blame on anyone different. In his return to French filmmaking after Hollywood exile during World War II, Duvivier turns Simenon’s story into an exciting succession of psychological cliffhangers. The climactic sequence of lower-middle-class citoyens—and citoyennes—launching a hue and cry and devolving into rabble ranks with the best of Fritz Lang, David Lean, William Wellman, and Clarence Brown. Duvivier threads alert explorations of humanity into a surging set piece that keeps topping itself in irony and dread.
The strong characterizations are never as simple as they seem. Michel Simon is robust and proud as Hire, who in co-writer Charles Spaak’s and Duvivier’s adaptation is neither a tailor (as in Leconte) nor a direct-mail scammer (as in Simenon) but an astrologer and spiritual adviser who goes by “Doctor Varga” and appears to have developed a following among unhappy older women. Duvivier began his creative career as an actor, and when he came into his own as a film director, he charged his movies with a livewire sensitivity to the talents and personalities of giants like Jean Gabin (Pepe le Moko) and Harry Baur. (Baur’s roles for Duvivier include the title character in David Golder, the distracted father in Poil de carotte, and Inspector Maigret in the filmmaker’s first Simenon adaptation, La Tête d’un homme.) In Panique Simon triumphantly joins their company. In his and Duvivier’s take on Hire, the man towers over his neighbors, intellectually as well as physically. His cerebral air may mark him as an educated man, and his bearded appearance may suggest that he’s a Jew (his real name is Hirovitch), but he brags about being “solid as an oak” and he’s confident in both his muscular power and his powers of observation. In this version, Hire is an amateur photographer, dedicated to chronicling society’s discards.
We first see him when he’s snapping a shot of a dog and a homeless man scouring the same garbage can for food. We can tell the exact moment Hire clicks his shutter, without the cliché of cutting to the finished picture. Simon imbues Hire with surprisingly quick reflexes and a kind of curdled vitality. Although he’s resigned to being unloved and friendless, and he’s disillusioned about society to the point of indifference, his hyper-awareness of the people surrounding him keeps him sparked and on his toes. When he lowers his guard with Alice (Viviane Romance) and dares to be hopeful again, we’re alternately moved and distressed. With Alice, Hire can admit that his isolation is partly his own fault: “I’ve never told them who I am,” he says, referring to the others who shun him. (What a difference a translation makes! A previous one rendered that line, “How I have tried to explain to them who I am!”) Unfortunately, Alice rarely wavers in her devotion to Alfred (Patrick Bernard), a small-time crook who’s been working in a Villejuif garage and establishing himself as a regular guy while she took a rap for him and spent two years in the slammer.
Romance brings some feathery touches to her hard-edged jailbird. When she enters the picture, she cannily makes it seem as if she and Alfred have never been acquainted; she knows the cops are watching her, hoping she turns informer. She disdains Hire as a Peeping Tom when he peers at her across the courtyard of their residential hotel and then clumsily tries to apologize. But when he tells her that Alfred is a murderer, she gets rattled. The movie reaches an early emotional crescendo as Alfred callously confesses to romancing, robbing, then killing the middle-aged woman who was found strangled in a vacant lot when the carnival came to town. Duvivier keeps his camera trained on Romance’s face: she holds us in a vise as her limpid passion for Alfred suddenly freezes and becomes inscrutable. The beauty of a restoration like this one is that it allows us to savor every detail of Simon’s and Romance’s performances. The pressure Alice exerts not to betray her alarm comes out in the tremors that shake her chest and shoulders. Romance’s Alice is a fool for love. With everyone else she’s shrewd, but with Alfred, she’s a goner. Astonishingly, she even says she wishes prison had been tougher on her so she’d have greater proof of her devotion to her man. Any time he declares his love she tamps down her conscience or compassion for M. Hire. Will her better angels win out? Alice rarely frees herself enough from Alfred to become genuinely sympathetic, but she’s troubled when Hire becomes enthralled with her. What’s fascinating—or nearly tragic—about a woman like Alice is that she’s not as heartless as she thinks or puts on.
Bernard plays Alfred with a scary comic edge: he’s not particularly powerful or intelligent, but he’s slippery and capable of anything. He can’t intimidate Hire when he enters “Doctor Varga’s” chambers. He can, though, emerge with enough details of strange books and astrological symbols to spread rumors that Hire possesses voodoo-like skills to mesmerize or kill innocent men and women. We can see why the residents of Villejuif lap it up; it’s like a tabloid nightmare come to life. Whether the action takes place in a seedy hotel room or a pack of bumper cars, Duvivier gears it to express the horror of his central idea: conformists can be swayed by anything from juicy gossip to bone-rattling carnival rides.
What makes the movie richer and more disquieting than a mere virtuosic genre piece is the specificity of the supporting characters—the prattling old tax collector who yearns to live up to his bold self-image, the bombastic butcher who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes because he remembers Hire asking for “bloody” cuts of meat, the spurned prostitute who responds with malice to Hire’s disinterest. They merge into a single entity that dislodges Hire as an alien organism. But even that group portrait might be too clinical to bear were it not for fleeting signs of hope, like the little girl who can’t be prodded into saying that Hire acted like a dirty old man. Flashes of transcendent yet dark poetry permeate the movie from the start. Duvivier and Spaak depict both Doctor Varga and a carnie fortune-teller as flawed bearers of partial truths, while conventional authorities of religion and the state have become ineffectual and corrupt. Alice may like to listen to church music, but she hasn’t taken any hymns to heart. The police might suspect Alfred, but mainly they want to close the case. Astrology gives Hire a pristine vantage point from which to view this damaged world.
With his camera, Duvivier plots out the whorls of action and diagrams the intersections of his characters as deftly as Hire works out his clients’ destinies with his zodiac and compass. The director honors Simenon even as he frees himself from slavish devotion to the text. In the afterword to NYRB Classics’ edition of the novel, political philosopher John Gray tells us that when Simenon was still a novice journalist, he observed a gang of inebriated brawlers coalescing into a lynch mob and chasing an innocent bystander onto a roof. They accused him of being a German spy and insisted that he be handed over for “summary judgment.” Gray writes, “As a result of the incident Simenon had a lifelong fear of mobs. But the view of human beings the incident suggested to him went far beyond crowd psychology . . . Throughout his romans durs [hard novels], he shows the meaning of any human life to be a matter of habit, easily destroyed and soon forgotten.”
Simenon, Gray goes on to say, “combines remorseless dissection of human disintegration with brilliant impressions of the texture of things.” That’s what Duvivier does, too. In a set we can’t believe is just a set (created in the Victorine Studios in Nice), he moves his camera and blocks the actors with a precision, élan, and instinct that should be the envy of any engineer or choreographer (or, of course, director). From the beginning, the carnival’s big trucks create unsettling sights and sounds, and as the traveling show takes shape, its crowds and rides grow more nerve-wracking and ultimately menacing, the lights and clatter invading Hire’s hotel room late at night. Duvivier wrings the full metaphoric value out of everything, thanks to his fluid, incisive camera and elegant or staccato editing.
Deep focus, dynamic cutting—Duvivier deploys these tools with the expressiveness of a master. When Alice, in the foreground, is having a drink in her hotel bar, we see, through the windows, the dead woman’s funeral procession march around the square with bogus pomp. When Hire follows her and Alfred to the bumper-cars at the carnival, we see them lead the first group assault on him. In a series of jolting subjective cuts and head-on views of Hire, the other riders bash his car and crowd him to a stand-still.
Throughout the movie, Duvivier’s use of the carnival is distinctive and chilling. Could it be mere coincidence that peers like Carol Reed in The Third Man and Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train and Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) would soon fashion major suspense scenes packed with anxiety and moral resonance around sideshows and carnival rides? In the powerhouse climax of Panique, townspeople jeer and gawk at the prime suspect as the police chase him from the town square to the rooftops. Duvivier conjures a visceral and existential vertigo, including shots that prefigure the pivotal scene in Vertigo. The rituals of police mopping up a crime scene merge with the routines of carnival rides as the townspeople move from the thrill of witnessing an accidental death to the thrill of riding on a rollercoaster, whirligig, or carousel. It’s a big-bang ending—a vision of men and women hopping mindlessly from one stimulant to another.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He also curates “The Moviegoer” at the Library of America website.