Another adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire), a great film, Duvivier´s first upon returning to France from Hollywood after the war, a noir, and a huge big flop at the time of its release. And one can understand why.
The film begins with a close-up of a pair of feet, pans past a hobo´s body, and rests momentarily on his face. No that´s not the Boudou who was saved from drowning in Renoir´s 1932 film. But as the camera pans back we see the actor who played him, Michel Simon, snatching a picture of this. In Panique Simon plays Monsieur Hire, a man who keeps to himself, is abrupt and without small talk, and a bit mysterious. Patrice Leconte remade Panique in 1986 as Monsieur Hire. I haven´t seen it but I´d be very surprised if it were any better than this.
The film has a characteristic camera move: a dollying back to demonstrate context or a dollying in to move the public sphere into the personal and private. And context,; the neighbourhood, the mob, the French, their narrowness, smugness, hypocrisy and murderousness is the theme of Panique. It´s no surprise the French didn´t like it. They´re not very well reflected in it.
At the beginning of the film, after the neighbours and neighbourhood have been introduced, we get shown a pair of shoes. When they see them, the binmen react as if they´ve won the lottery. But the shoes are attached to a body. Who killed Mme Noblet. Was it Monsiur Hire? He certainly seems more preoccupied with the ripeness of his camembert than with the death of a person when he hears the news.
As all this is taking place, a woman comes to the hotel Monsieur Hire lives in. We soon learn that it´s Alice (Viviane Romance), who´s just come out of jail after taking the rap for her lover Alfred (Paul Bernard). They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but their first and secret re-union by the side of the church, in large, looming closeups, intensely lit, as rather funereal music wafts in from the Church, indicates the depth and intensity of their passion. They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but will meet as if for the first time the next day.
Alice goes to stay at the same hotel as Hire. His room is one floor up and overlooking hers. She finds this creepy. Indeed the whole neighbourhood finds this solitary man so. Even his being nice to children in the neighbourhood is interpreted as the predatory grooming of a child molester.
Hire has two problems. Firstly, he is hiding many things: His real name is Desirée Hirovitch, a jew who doesn´t want others to know his identity or his past (and for good reason: The film is set in 46). He also works as Dr. Vargas, though he seems to be only a doctor of horoscopes; lastly he used to be a lawyer with a comfortable house in the country he left abruptly the day his wife ran off with his best friend. Though I´m sure family breakups and abrupt departures for people named Hrovitch had other connotations in 1946. The second problem Hire has is that he´s fallen for Alice, opens himself up completely to her, and she uses this knowledge to get the man she loves off the hook for the murder he´s committed.
Things heat up, get out of control and murderous, when the Carnival takes over the neighbourhood.
And the lighting in some of the shots could be taken straight out of an American noir of the period:
What begins as a whodunnit ends as social commentary. There are some scenes that are just extraordinary. Hire alone in the bumper-cars at the carnival, being crashed into by everyone. All these crude, smug couples, laughing at the violence they´re doing to a lonely old man. And then the extraordinary ending where Alice plants Mme Noblet´s purse in Hire´s room, and manoeuvres with her killer lover to turns the whole neighbourhood, — all to willing to believe the worst — against him, thus turning herself into a defacto killer….for Love. . The fat butcher, the smug tax man, the local hooker, the gossipy neighbours, all collaborate in killing this poor lonely jew who somehow managed to survive the Occupation. It´s a condemnation of collaboration, of social hypocrisy, of petit bourgeois culture, of intolerance.
It´s an incredible film with a soft, quite, knowing, sad and all too human performance, a truly great one, from Michel Simon as a man who closes himself off due to having suffered too much from love only open himself up to it once more and be killed for it.
It´s out now in a newly sub-titled and great looking version from Criterion.