I love the Maigret films; they offer the double satisfaction of thrilling you with some of the worst humanity has to offer – though usefully shown tastefully – and then restoring order; moreover, that rebalancing is itself done in an orderly and systematic manner; one we’ve learned to know and enjoy playing along with.
In this one, Gabin’s first outing in the role, (he would inhabit it twice more, reunited with director Jean Delannoy in Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre / Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (1959) and Maigret voit rouge/ Maigret Sees Red, (Gilles Grangier, 1963), the first images we see are a knife being thrown right into the heart of Paris, then we’re shown the shadow of a pipe in close-up (see below). It seems to me that those images, which start the film, embody the appeal of this type of detective film: violence at the heart of a community and threatening to rip it apart and then the cozy comfort of a pipe, with its suggestions of pensiveness, its indication that brains will win over brawn, that reason will transform chaos into order, that homeliness will be restored. These films do not disown the animal, the emotional and sexual impulses, but they’re always the source of the crime. Intelligence and thought are the way to remove such unruly impulses from social structures: the films are a paean to reason. If Maigret sets his traps correctly, the killer will be caught.
Maigret tend un piège starts at Place des Voges, in the Marais district. It’s set in the film’s present but it already has a nostalgic tone. The Place des Voges has a butcher shop, ladies knit and chat with their neighbours outside their flats, everyone seems to know each other. Then, we’re introduced to a young woman returning from work, a violinist, husband at the café, child asleep upstairs. Of course, she’s murdered. Typically, we’re not shown who’s done it. We see only a gesture of gloved hands re-arranging a belt: a gesture that will prove telling. Then, again, in typical fashion, Maigret is called for (anonymously), we’re introduced to the basics of the case (a serial killer on the loose in the Marais, one who’s already committed four crimes, and is after the same type of woman), and then we’re introduced to the main character (Maigret is longing to retire, we’re made to think he’s alone but then a wife is introduced; he’s got a whole corner display case on top of a cabinet to hold his many pipes, they’ve built a house in the country in the village his wife’s from – this is a film that assumes Parisians have strong links to rural areas); lastly the suspects are introduced one by one, as one by one suspicion is removed until the real killer is found.
One of the wonderful things about the Simenon films, and true also of this adaptation is how tightly plotted they are. So here for example, the first suspect is Barbereau (Alfred Adam). He’s married to Louise (Jean Boitel) who had an affair with the previous owner of the butcher shop and is thus resented by his widow Adèle (Lucienne Bogaert), and the son Marcel (Jean Desailly). Marcel is married to Yvonne (Annie Girardot), just the type the serial killer’s been murdered. Marcel will be a suspect; Yvonne will be both a suspect and a potential victim. But who has access to Barbereau’s butcher shop? Everything is neatly tied together.
The film offers many pleasures: the depiction of milieu, the tight plotting, the way the narrative is constantly interspersed by comic bits (I particularly love Guy Decomble, whom you might remember as the exasperated schoolteacher in Les quatre cent coups/ The Four Hundred Blows (François Truffaut, 1959), ‘performing’ a phony suspect for the waiting press) , Lino Ventura as Maigret’s sidekick, Annie Girardot. But above all there’s Jean Gabin. I don’t know if it’s due to his training in the music hall but he makes everything interesting. He’s on, never overdoes it, but every little gesture, every response, even the act of listening is rendered worth watching. There’s a lovely moment, where he’s at home, tired and wiggles his pudgy middle-aged toes that I think his symptomatic. He conveys the character’s feeling but also gives the audience a flourish; he knows we’re watching and wants to give us something extra. It’s expressive and endearing.
Maigret tend un piège is a well-paced film. Delannoy keeps the camera in constant motion in a way that is unobstrusive yet creates a flow. On the other hand, everything seems to be shot with the camera at eye-level, which I can’t quite figure out as I suspect some of the scenes might have been more dramatic with more variation in angles.
What bothers me most about the film is that what initially seems the casual sexism of the period turns into something more vicious by the end. There’s a scene when one of the suspects, a cabaret entertainer, is at home drinking tea and his girlfriend appears from the shower to show her breasts to the audience and one thinks ‘oh French cinema was so advanced!’ But later we learn how the killer is coded as being homosexual (he’s never had sex with his wife in all the years they’ve been married. It’s what drove her into the arms of the dancer and later to murder; moreover, it’s all the fault of his mother. If she hadn’t driven him to paint and play sonatas, he might have ended up a normal boy, who didn’t kill women because he couldn’t get it up for them. These films, striving, as they do to reassert social order are also quick at removing any kind of otherness. They’re inherently conservative. I don’t generally mind. But I did here.