A small Parisian neighborhood. A carnival. A dead body. A local outcast. A young hustler. A conflicted femme fatale. Nosy neighbors.
These are the essential ingredients of Julien Duvivier’s 1946 French noir Panique. Season with romantic intentions, double-crosses, and even a little mystical mumbo jumbo, and you have the sort of emotional potboiler Fritz Lang liked to make with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. Here instead we have the great Michel Simon (L’Atalante [review], The Two of Us [review]) and Viviane Romance (Any Number Can Win) as, respectively, the older man who lives a life of intellectual isolation and the woman too loyal to her criminal boyfriend (Paul Bernard, Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne) for her own good. It’s a great set up, taken from a novel by Georges Simenon, and one Duvivier plans to milk for all the drama and intrigue he can.
Simon leads the picture as Monsieur Hire, a strange character, dismissive of his neighbors, but nice to children and awkward in courtship. His early contact with Alice (Romance) is borderline stalkerish. Hire is a man of many lives: he works under a different name, peddling astrology as if it were a science, and he has a past he abandoned when his wife ditched him for his best friend. Yet, the more we learn, the less shady he becomes, our suspicions replaced by sadness and even sympathy.
Alice is similarly charmed by Hire--though, initially, she only indulges him because he claims to have evidence implicating Alfred (Bernard) in the killing. Alice just spent three years in jail taking the rap for a robbery Alfred committed, and she’s not prepared to lose her lover just yet. Caught between these two unsavories, the unspoken question becomes: whose affection is more genuine? What does each man stand to gain from maintaining her love?
That nothing comes totally clear, that Duvivier allows for such gray motivations, is what keeps Panique so intriguing from start to finish. Viviane Romance plays Alice as sincerely conflicted all the way to the end, despite Alfred showing himself as having no nuance whatsoever. And how are we not to be drawn in by Michel Simon’s natural charisma, even as he does his best to tamp it down? There is no distinct moment in Panique when M. Hire is shown as being entirely good or sympathetic. When he confesses his greatest pain, he follows it by showing his guiltiest pleasure, the photos he takes of the downtrodden and indigent, a spectator in other people’s misery. In classic Beauty and the Beast fashion, he only presents his nobler intentions after making the basest of threats. Simon’s performance is like one long dare being leveled at the audience. Will you have the guts to side with a man who we know can be a real creep?
Panique is like a melding of American suspense pictures and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s morality plays, particularly the small-town poison-pen drama Le Corbeau. At times, you might also think of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (Hire taking Alice to his old house) or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Panique’s desperate climax). Duvivier’s only true genre is melodrama, even if he sharpens it on crime-fiction tropes or winks at gothic traditions. His construction is artful, relying on shadowy actions and voyeuristic impulses--both ours and that of the extended cast--to keep the plot energized. There are even some visceral action scenes. You’ve never seen as savage a bumper car ride as you’ll see in Panique. And it’s no throwaway scene, either; the memory of these dangerous amusements will come flooding back in the final act when the mob leaps from the carnival rides and takes to the streets.
So Panique has a little bit of everything while always feeling like just one thing. There are no unnecessary digressions, no excess fat. Rather, the film is fine-tuned for maximum effect, ceaselessly entertaining and always surprising. That it comes immediately after the end of World War II, and was the first film that Duvivier made upon returning from Hollywood, it must have also had many personal overtones for the director, a parable of groupthink, collaboration, and individuality vs. the mob. In that, it is also like Le Corbeau in how it despises petty small-town gossip, but even more challenging for pushing us to root for a man who, under many other circumstances, might not deserve it. As with any good story, it’s as relevant as ever, though now the controversy and drama would never spill into the public square, it would just remain online--which, even after seeing how wrong things go in Panique, seems all the more barbaric.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.