Panic (Panique, 1947)
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Produced by Pierre O’Connell
Screenplay by Julien Duvivier and Charles Spaak
Based on the novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire by Georges Simenon
Cinematography by Nicolas Hayer
Edited by Marthe Poncin
Music by Jean Wiener, Jacques Ibert
(1:31) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
“You don’t need a fortune teller to know the future.”
Panic, based on a short novel by Georges Simenon titled Les Fiançailles de M. Hire (Mr. Hire’s Engagement), was Julien Duvivier’s first film made in his home country after the liberation of France and his self-imposed exile in Hollywood. He considered it his finest film, yet it sparked much controversy.
Our first scene in this provincial French town shows us the feet of a bum sleeping on a bench. In a moment, the bum fights with a stray dog over some food scraps. Not exactly picturesque moments, but Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon, sometimes referred to as the French Edward G. Robinson) thinks they’re worthy of capturing with his camera. Also we see that a carnival is coming to town, attracting hordes of locals. “Carrion always attracts flies,” observes a disinterested M. Hire.
He’s right. After the discovery of a murdered young woman during the carnival set-up, the entire town works itself into a frenzy. Who could do such a thing? Are we living with a murderer in our midst?
They’re living among criminals for sure. Just released from prison, Alfred (Paul Bernard) meets his lover Alice (Viviane Romance) under the cover of shadows. Is there a reason he’s being secretive? (Well, of course there is.)
When Hire spies Alice in her room from his apartment across the way, she notices and informs Alfred that she can lure him into her confidence, planting evidence that Hire is the murderer everyone’s looking for. It’s a fairly easy job, since the locals think Hire is a weirdo anyway.
As Alice woos Hire, setting him up as the fall guy, the police inspectors begin their investigations, and the locals are quick to point to Hire. After all, the butcher says Hire orders bloody meat, so isn’t that evidence enough to make him guilty of murder? Others have their own gripes against Hire, so the mostly ridiculous accusations continue to mount as Alice’s plan unfolds.
You might be able to see where this is going, but Duvivier does nothing predictable or conventional in getting us there. The pacing, lighting, music, visual composition, and acting are all first-rate and absorbing. I’ve never seen a bumper car scene that conveyed so much hatred and venom toward a character who seems so unprepared for it.
Duvivier’s biting criticism of French collaborationists in WWII brought him much scorn and ire. I don’t know enough about Duvivier to know how this affected him and his work after Panic, but I’m eager to read more about him and his career.
The film also shows Viviane Romance at age 35. You can also see her 16 years later in Any Number Can Win (1963) playing the wife of Jean Gabin, also playing at Noir City International.
Although I didn’t see them this way, it would be interesting to watch all the French films from this year’s Noir City International in the order of their release: Panic (1946), Razzia (1955), Le doulos (1962), and Any Number Can Win (1963). Regardless of the order you choose, do yourself a favor and see them all.
Panic is also available on a Criterion Blu-ray.