He is often called “Inspector,” but Jules Maigret was in fact the Commissioner of the Paris Major Crimes Division. He is a sleuth, but also a bureaucrat. Some of the least dashing actors in history have played Maigret. In 1958, Jean Gabin still exuded plenty of screen presence, but it had a jaded world-weary edge that still suited Georges Simenon’s famous detective. When a serial killer starts goading him, the Commissioner goads him right back in Jean Delannoy’s nifty film noir, Maigret Sets a Trap (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
A ripper-style killer stalking full-figured brunettes has half the Parisian force on the streets, but when they still do not reach his latest body quickly enough, he leaves a message for “Monsieur” Maigret via a police call box. That “Mr.” business really sticks in the Commissioner’s craw. Recognizing his quarry’s arrogance, Maigret recruits a small-time informer to play it up big when he is arrested for the killer’s murders. He then floods the Fourth Arrondissement with decoys drawn from the police clerical pool to draw out the real killer under the watchful eyes of their back-up units.
It very nearly works, but the killer manages to slip away. Yet, the circumstances of his escape may yet give him away. However, their biggest break comes through chance. Ordered to follow anyone suspicious watching Maigret’s media circus, Det. Lagrume tails a very out-of-place and well-to-do housewife to an assignation with a gigolo that she seems weirdly disinterested in. It is not much to go on, but when Maigret pays a visit to Madame Yvonne Maurin and her squirrely husband Jean, Marcel, he immediately starts giving the couple the Columbo treatment.
During the course of Maigret, viewers learn all about the 1950s network of police call boxes in Paris and get a tutoring in criminal psychology and the dangers of over-indulgent parenting. Like many great film noirs, it has a real vintage modern feel, as well as a bountiful helping of nocturnal Parisian ambiance. In fact, Maigret would pair up nicely with other classic French noirs, even including the granddaddy of them all, Rififi.
Gabin is a terrific Maigret pitching his flinty interpretation of the Commissioner somewhere between the larger-than-life Charles Laughton in The Man on the Eiffel Tower and the down-trodden Harry Baur in A Man’s Neck. For extra-added steeliness, Lino Ventura appears in the relatively minor role as Inspector Torrence, one of Maigret’s “Faithful Four.” Again, like the best noir crime dramas, Maigret is fully stocked with colorful supporting performances, including Olivier Hussenot as the nebbish Lagrume and Gérard Séty as the sleazy ladies’ man, Jojo Vacher.