Back in spring 2017, I participated in a series of podcasts exploring Julien Duvivier’s films from the 1930s. I love French films from the 1930s, and those seven films we discussed were fantastic. However, largely because the films are relatively difficult to procure (but also because I can be lazy), I never ventured further into Duvivier’s later work. During World War II, Duvivier moved to the United States and made five films, none of which I’ve seen. After the War, he returned to France and worked for another two decades, though most consider his work of the 1930s to be peak Duvivier.
That’s not to say there aren’t some gems in his later work. The first film he made when he resumed his career in France was 1946’s Panique, an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s 1933 novel Mr. Hire’s Engagement. This is a gem, indeed! A dark gem! The Criterion Collection recently released a great edition (with two particularly great supplements — an interview with Georges Simenon’s son Pierre and Simenon’s work, and an interview with Bruce Goldstein about the art of subtitling, which is particularly fun and fascinating). I recommend you pick it up the next time you have the chance.
In Panique, the great Michel Simon plays M. Hire, a man most in the little Parisian neighborhood of Villejuif don’t know and don’t trust. Hire doesn’t do much to encourage trust. He’s a misanthrope who spends much of the time quietly observing, which can often resembler lurking. The adults are not shy to let Hire know their feelings either. Here one of the tenants in Hire’s building tells her daughter to keep away from the man, and that’s his shadow coming up the stairs.
We can tell Hire is used this such things. He’s unloved and alone and often the object of offensive behavior. But he’s also pretty secure in his intellectual and physical superiority. His large frame is intimidating, and he’s not afraid to intimidate someone weaker than he. He seems okay being an individual who doesn’t fit in, even if it means he’s targeted.
Things do change for the worse, though, when an elderly woman from the neighborhood is found murdered. It isn’t immediately a frenzy, but we know most people think Hire is the likely perpetrator.
And let’s acknowledge this: Hire is a creepy man. He may not be a criminal (we learn quickly who it is and that it is not him) but he’s so uninterested in society he cares not a bit about communal norms that dictate what is and is not decent behavior. For example, when a woman moves into the apartment across the way, Hire barely tries to conceal the fact that he’s watching her from his window. She can see him. He can see that she sees him. He keeps looking anyway.
The woman is Alice (played by Viviane Romance). She’s just been released from prison where she paid for a crime she did not commit. She did it willingly. She did it to protect the man she loves, the real criminal, Alfred (played by Paul Bernard).
Alfred and Alice don’t want anyone to find out they had a past together. Though they locked her up, the police know she’s innocent and hope she’ll lead them to the real crook, soo Alfred and Alice pretend to have just met. But they are not afraid to show Hire across the way that they actually know each other intimately.
As it turns out, Hire is genuinely concerned for Alice. He knows who Alfred is and he wants to protect Alice from all he’s capable of.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Hire’s not a perfect Savior. And that’s one thing that is so great about Panique (and about Simenon’s own willingness to have repulsive heroes). Hire is a sympathetic man who begins to play a game he is not equipped to play. He is not as bad as everyone imagines him to be, and he certainly doesn’t deserve communal disdain and suspicion. At the same time, he is a voyeur who believes his intellectual superiority will always prevail.
Panique is, like many of Duvivier’s films, unpredictable. It’s a solid thriller with constant twists and turns that enforce rather than detract from the compelling and clear story of individual and communal ugliness. No character is particularly likable, yet as we watch we cannot help but get caught up in their world. As unsavory as they are, none quite deserves the bitter, brutal world each inhabits, and its a world Duvivier portrays beautifully.
I cannot end without mentioning the acting. Michel Simon is one of my favorite actors of all time. His work with Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, and Marcel Carné, in particular, is perfect, to the point his embodiment of his characters can be downright unsettling. As Hire he plays a man who is confident in his isolation but who is also a bit of a sucker for a woman he loves — or, at least, a woman for whom he lusts. For her part, Viviane Romance plays Alice as a hard-edged woman with a soft, foolish heart. She can be conniving, if she wants. But she can also be terrified, of Alfred or of Hire, while trying to appear calm and collected. Together, they create an intense, complex, believable, and rather terrifying relationship.
And Duvivier knows just how to spin it all, relaying all sorts of anxieties to his willing audience.