Julien Duvivier, one of the godfathers of French poetic realism, announced his return home from his World War II Hollywood sojourn with the dark, savage French noir Panique (France, 1947).
Based on the novel “Monsieur Hire’s Engagement” by the prolific George Simenon, Panique stars Michel Simon as the eccentric Hire, an aloof misanthrope eyed with suspicion by his gossipy neighbors. As he stalks his beautiful new neighbor Alice (Viviane Romance), peeping through windows and spying around corners, we figure they may have a point. Alice, meanwhile, is under the thumb of the charmingly ruthless small-time crook Freddie (Paul Bernard). It all plays out in the shadow of the murder of an elderly woman in the vacant lot near the town square and Freddie hatches a plan to use Hire’s obsession with Alice for his own purposes.
Duvivier and co-screenwriter Charles Spaak make significant changes to Simenon’s story, giving Hire sympathetic backstory as a somewhat tragic misanthrope. Simon, one of France’s greatest actors, plays Hire as impersonal and direct under a neat, trim beard. He’s brusque and cynical and carries around a camera, taking pictures of folks surreptitiously, something everyone finds a little unnerving and suspicious.
Duvivier shoots Hire through windows to emphasize his distance from the rest of the townsfolk, nosy neighbors with poisonous personalities who enjoy scapegoating their odd neighbor. They are all too willing to turn on him in the face of unfounded gossip.
The novel was more faithfully remade by Patrice Leconte as Monsieur Hire. This version, made just after the war in 1946, is a striking and dramatically satisfying noir-tinged portrait of ordinary people roused to a veritable lynch mob through prejudice and suspicion. It became an indictment of Vichy France and Nazi collaborators and a metaphor for France’s treatment of Jewish citizens. It didn’t endear Duvivier to those who stayed behind when he fled for America but it sure carries a sting.
It won the international critics award at the Venice Film Festival
Black and white, in French with English subtitles
The Criterion Blu-ray and DVD is mastered from a 2K restoration and presents a new, more accurate subtitle translation by Lenny Borger. There’s a featurette with French critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot discussing Duvivier (in French with subtitles), an interview with Pierre Simenon (son of novelist Georges Simenon) in English, and the illuminating featurette “The Art of Subtitling” produced and hosted by Bruce Goldstein.