Technically, the Parisian commune of Villejuif has never been a historically Jewish enclave. However, it is the end of the tram line, which still makes it all too fitting for the ill-fated Desire Hirovitch, better known a Monsieur Hire. He is so anti-social, we might speculate he is “on the spectrum” in today’s parlance. Yet, he will be tragically shocked by his neighbors’ hostility and suspicion in Julien Duvivier’s long unseen Panique (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum in a fresh new DCP restoration.
If old Hire sounds familiar, then you might know him through Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire, another adaptation of the same Georges Simenon novel. Whereas Michel Blanc was a more nebbish, bloodlessly fastidious sort in Leconte’s take, Michel Simon’s original Hire is conspicuously husky, hirsute, and you know . . . foreign-looking. Each seems to cry out to be shunned, which in their own contempt for the ignorant proletariat, a fate both Hires have probably accepted too readily.
Although Duvivier plays down the voyeuristic aspects of Simenon’s story, Hire does indeed first encounter Alice (as she now calls herself) through peeping. At first, she reacts with disgust, but when Hire persistently precipitates “offline” meetings, she and her lover Alfred Chartier decide to frame him up as their fall guy. It is soon revealed Chartier recently bumped off Villejuif’s resident old maid, while waiting for his lover to be released from prison. The murder has the working-class district on edge, but they will be only too willing to pin the crime on Hire. When Alice starts stringing along the awkward lug, she is rather surprised to find she somewhat likes him, but Chartier maintains such a tight Svengali hold over her, she is incapable of backing out.
The plan is simple. Set-up Hire and let the angry mob do the rest. As schemes go, it is pretty elegant in its simplicity and psychologically insightful. This was Duvivier’s French homecoming film after his wartime Hollywood interlude, so it is easy to interpret it as an allegorical indictment of France’s anti-Semitic collaboration. Perhaps to soften the blow, the milieu feels distinctly pre-war, but that ultimately emphasizes how deeply rooted such xenophobic attitudes were within the French social fabric.
It is just painful to watch Simon’s Hire barrel along unaware of the resentments and betrayal simmering around him. He is a tragic figure, sort of the equal opposite of the free-spirited tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning (the original Down and Out in Beverly Hills), arguably his most recognizable role. Viviane Romance was already an experienced femme fatale, but she makes Alice’s conscience pangs completely convincing, yet hopelessly too little, too late. She has the advantage over Leconte’s Sandrine Bonnaire, in every way. Still, the sly André Wilms certainly distinguishes the later film as the intrepid inspector, whereas all the coppers in Panique are rather colorless government functionaries.