Director: Julien Duvivier
Screenplay: Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier
Based on a Novel by: Georges Simenon
Starring: Viviane Romance, Michel Simon, Paul Bernard
Running Time: 98 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Film noir is often thought to be a strictly American genre, but this style of dark urban thriller (or however else you want to describe noir) can be seen in films from all around the world, not the least from France. In fact, the country was producing crime movies and thrillers now often seen as noir back in the late 30s, before Hollywood’s classic noir period kicked into gear in the early 40s. Pépé le Moko (1937), directed by Julien Duvivier, and Le Jour se lève (1939), directed by Marcel Carné, are two well respected examples. Many are not well known though, such as Criterion’s latest UK release, Panique (a.k.a. Panic). Also directed by Duvivier, the film has long been unavailable (which might explain its obscurity) but thankfully has been rediscovered and polished up here. Being a fan of film noir, it looked like something I might enjoy, so I gave it a try and I’m certainly glad I did.
Panique opens with the discovery of the dead body of Ms Noblet, a kind-hearted old maid who lived in the suburbs of Paris. This is intercut with scenes of the lonely Mr. Hire (Michel Simon) doing his daily shopping. A rather particular and unsociable individual, he’s not well liked among his busybody neighbours. We’re also soon introduced to the beautiful Alice (Viviane Romance), who, unbeknownst to the rest of the locals, has just been released from prison. She took the fall for her boyfriend Alfred (Paul Bernard) and rushes back to meet him in this same part of town. Alfred wants her to pretend they’ve never met before though as the police know she didn’t really do the crime and are keeping an eye on her. He stills wants them to stay together, but act like a couple that have only just fallen for each other as strangers.
Hire takes a liking to Alice though, which initially bothers her. He’s hardly her usual type (a slightly portly, older man with a thick beard) and seems to be stalking her. However, one night he approaches her and tells her to ask Alfred where he left Ms Noblet’s purse. Alice angrily dismisses this at first, but mentions it to her boyfriend out of curiosity and indeed it turns out that he was the killer. This leads her closer to Hire, but she’s torn between his honesty and her love of Alfred, who is glad of Hire’s infatuation with Alice. He wants her to use it to get close to Hire, find out what he knows and plant evidence to point the finger at him. Meanwhile, Alfred stirs up gossip among his neighbours about Hire’s guilt to trigger the titular panic, as a mob forms to bring the innocent man to ‘justice’.
I was mightily impressed with Panique. From the offset you’re treated to beautifully executed dolly and crane shots, and there are plenty scattered throughout, alongside other graceful camera moves. The composition and lighting is gorgeous too. Like many good noirs, there’s a great use of shadows and here the lights and movement of the visiting carnival also add a bit of extra interest. The music of the carnival adds a twisted farcical touch to the symbolic final shot too.
Away from the visual aspects though, and probably more importantly, it has a wonderfully taut and well constructed story. Quite a few elements are swiftly introduced in the opening 15 minutes to create intrigue, then the pace steadies to let tension build to the thrilling finale. The question of who Alice will eventually support or betray provides an ever-present question to sustain the film’s grip too. The script was adapted from a novel titled ‘Les Fiançailles de M. Hire’ by the incredibly prolific and popular author Georges Simenon, who was also responsible for the Maigret series of novels. The film certainly has the compulsiveness of a good page-turner. Hitchcock was a fan and friend of Simenon in fact. Supposedly one day the director rang the author and was told he was busy writing a novel. Hitchcock stayed on the line and said “Let him finish. I’ll hang on”, as was the pace at which Simenon wrote and churned out hits.
The film also has strong characters, aided by great performances. The main characters are layered and interesting (at least Alice and Hire are. Alfred is a little less three-dimensional). The neighbouring locals are more stereotypically written, but enjoyably larger than life in their portrayals and provide the film’s lighter moments among all the backstabbing and criminal acts. These characters become dangerous towards the end though, of course, as the mob grows.
I also appreciated the not-so-guarded sexuality of the film. It’s hardly graphic, but doesn’t shy away from less than subtle hints of what characters are thinking or have been up to, especially when compared with Hollywood films of the era. Not being under the rule of the Hays Code across the pond in France will have helped of course.
On the whole, it’s a wonderfully gripping and taut noir. Classily produced to boot, it’s hard to fault the film. As such it comes highly recommended and deserves much better recognition. I’d put it on a level with many of Hollywood’s finest noirs in fact. Seek it out.
Panique is out on 21st January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The audio and visual transfer is excellent, particularly for a film of its age that has long been unavailable.
There are a few special features included too:
- New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– The Art of Subtitling, a new short documentary by Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures, about the history of subtitles
– New interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of novelist Georges Simenon
– Conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about director Jliien Duvivier and the film’s production history
– Rialto Pictures re-release trailer
– New English subtitle translation by Duvivier expert Lenny Borger
– PLUS: Essays by film scholar James Quandt and Borger
In terms of running time, there’s not a huge amount of extra material here when compared to some Criterion releases. However, two of the pieces in particular were far better than I expected. First and foremost I must praise the ‘Art of Subtitling’ featurette. It’s a wonderful piece on the history of subtitles, a subject rarely examined but vitally important in the history of world cinema. The interview with Pierre Simenon is also excellent. I often find pieces featuring family members of the intended subject rarely dig into their work, as the interviewee wasn’t involved themselves. However, Pierre has certainly done his research and provides a fascinating overview of his father’s career and how ‘Les Fiançailles de M. Hire’ and its film adaptation fit into this. The more straightforward discussion of Panique is valuable too, but felt less unique than these other two gems. So it’s a great package as well as an excellent film.