Criterion Review: PANIQUE (1946)

Duvivier’s post-war film noir about rumors and fear in a French town

Monsieur Hire likes to watch. A large, lumbering figure (played by Michel Simon), Hire becomes infatuated with a new woman in town and peeps at her bedtime routine through his window across the way. He’s a photographer — and a sort of astrologer— preferring not to engage with townsfolk, remaining a bystander. The murder of a woman, and his witnessing of the act, makes his existence more precarious and leads to fatal consequences.

With Panique, his 1946 adaptation of a Georges Simenon thriller, director Julien Duvivier may aim for the viewer to sympathize with Hire, but Simon plays the character as such a creeper that I found this difficult. Hire’s stalking and instalove for Alice (the luminous Viviane Romance) add a sinister edge. Alice, recently released from jail, aims to seduce Hire, manipulating the older man as she is manipulated by her dubious boyfriend, Alfred (Paul Bernard).

Furthering a feeling of discomfort are Duvivier’s use of jarring close-up shots, discombobulating camera angles, and the interplay of light and shadow throughout. We know that Hire didn’t commit the murder, but his neighbors remain suspicious. The crowd scenes used by the director exacerbate the unease, with unnamed residents eager to think the worst of their strange neighbor.

There’s a thirst for mob justice, and the townspeople who don’t go after their suspect will stand by and watch. The violence of the ending is presented as a form of entertainment for the crowd, who leave wrestling matches or rollercoaster rides so they can participate. The carnival in town (whose creepy tunes pervade the work) isn’t enough of a distraction from the people’s daily lives.

Panique is a morally ambiguous work — perhaps more so now than upon its initial release. There’s no hero to this story, only characters who make questionable decisions. This doesn’t keep the film from serving as an indictment of society, a challenge to small-minded prejudice.

Panique is now available on Blu-Ray from Criterion. The package includes special features such as:

  • a 2K digital restoration of the work (with new subtitles by Rialto Pictures translator Lenny Borger)
  • The Art of Subtitling: a short documentary celebrating the history of subtitles
  • an interview with Pierre Simenon, son of author Georges Simenon
  • a 2015 conversation between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot analyzing Duvivier’s style and adaptation decisions in Panique
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