GFF16 #8: Panique (France 1946)

M. Hire (Michel Simon) in a noir composition

M. Hire (Michel Simon) in a noir composition

Julien Duvivier was an established director from the 1920s onwards perhaps best known in the UK for the proto-noir Pépé le Moko (1937) with Jean Gabin, although he ranged successfully across several genres. Like Jean Renoir, Duvivier spent the war years in the US and on his return he struggled to re-establish himself in the climate of mistrust surrounding those who had left France under Vichy and the Occupation. By the late 1950s his kind of cinema was going out of fashion as the New Wave came in. He died in a road accident in 1967. Duvivier’s earlier films from the 1930s had often been highly praised and GFF16 mounted a mini-retrospective of three films.

Panique was scripted by Brussels born Charles Spaak and based on a novel by the great Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon. The same novel was adapted again as Monsieur Hire in 1989 directed by Patrice Leconte. Spaak was a former colleague of Duvivier as was Michel Simon who played the mysterious M. Hire in the 1946 version. The simple story sees a small town (a Parisian suburb?) community in which M. Hire is a man of independent means who roams the town with his camera and fusses over his shopping. He clearly isn’t ‘one of us’ to use Margaret Thatcher’s unpleasant phrase. The disruption which kicks off the narrative is the arrival of an attractive woman, Alice played by Vivian Romance. She has just been released from prison and threatens to be the femme fatale who will provoke both Hire and the man for whom she ‘took the rap’ (and who in the same period in the UK would be called a ‘spiv’ – marked as a criminal type by his dress and demeanour). At the same time, a fair comes to town and the body of an older woman is found when the fair sets up. Murder and robbery are suspected.

The narrative is constructed around an extensive studio set in which M. Hire has a room which overlooks the hotel where Alice is staying. Apart from a brief excursion the whole plot is worked out on the set – a familiar approach from 1930s French cinema. Duvivier uses every possible narrative device to drive M. Hire to his doom. We will find out a little more about his background and why he is the way he is but mainly we are transfixed by how he is set up for the murder and the way in which the townspeople are whipped up into a frenzy about his presumed guilt. In one memorable scene he ‘escapes’ onto a dodgem car in the fairground only to find that every other couple on the rink ‘bumps’ into him deliberately. The use of these devices and the close control over mise en scène creates exactly the kind of social commentary about collective self-deception that must have been very uncomfortable for French audiences when everyone is likely to be identified as being in the résistance or a collaborator. The final scenes are a tour de force with a final tragic revelation. I’m certainly up for more Duvivier films if I can find them. The other two titles in the GFF retrospective were La belle épique (1936) and La fin du jour (1939). Although it was in the smallest auditorium at GFT, this screening was packed – an encouraging sign that a foreign language film can still generate an audience on the big screen.

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