Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Maigret, Season One (BBC 1960)

Inspector Jules Maigret was a rumpled, middle-aged detective and the unswervingly faithful husband of Madame Maigret, but don’t compare him to Columbo. He might be unassuming, but any dumb crook can tell the Inspector is nobody’s fool. British actor Rupert Davies made that vividly clear with his portrayal of Georges Simenon’s perennially popular detective in the early 1960s BBC series. It was a hit at the time, but many episodes have been virtually unseen since their original broadcast, due to the poor quality of the tapes. Happily, the series has been restored to viewable condition (not perfect, but never headache-inducing), with the first season releasing today on BluRay.

The pipe-chomping Maigret is known for his compassion towards victims and criminals alike. He understands only too well how human weaknesses and frailties can lead to crime, even murder. However, he never plays it fast-and-loose with the law, but he is happy to grant frequent breaks for a quick nip at the nearest bar. That is why Sgt. Lucas is so loyal to his “patron” (or boss)—and why Lapointe, the newest rookie in his department quickly shares his devotion.

Poor Lapointe will be the focus of the first episode, “Murder in Montmartre,” when a stripper he had carried a torch for turns up murdered. It is rather a conventional procedural story, but the exterior location shots document the Paris of the early 1960s that [probably] largely no longer exists.

The second installment, “Unscheduled Departure,” based on the novel
Maigret Has Scruples, represents the sort of psychological gamesmanship, especially that within families and marriages, that really distinguishes the series’ best episodes. In this case, a man visits Maigret claiming his wife is trying to kill, based on highly dubious and circumstantial evidence. Maigret is next visited by the man’s wife, who claims he is going mad. With each subsequent visit, the stakes and potential for murder rises, but technically, no crime exists for Maigret to investigate.

“The Old Lady,” “Liberty Bar,” “A Man of Quality,” and “The Mistake,” are all highlights for similar reasons. They are not necessarily baffling mysteries to solve, but rather it is Maigret’s ability to perceive, empathize, and back-of-the-envelop-psychoanalyze that so compellingly drives the stories. Each episode is based on a Simenon novel, so Giles Cooper and a battery of other screenwriters always stay rather faithful to the source material.

“The Burglar’s Wife” and “The Cactus” are also particularly amusing for the way Davies embraces Maigret’s Maigret-isms. This is a surprisingly boozy show. It is also very noir, especially compared to other British series of the era. Stylistically, it bears some comparison to the iconic
Peter Gunn. There is no real jazz in in the 1960 series, but Ron Grainer’s melancholy French café-style theme is distinctively catchy, almost becoming an ear-worm.

It is a shame it took so long to clean up the tapes, because if this
Maigret had been available to PBS stations in the 1970s and 1980s, Davies’ Maigret would have been as familiar to viewers as Leo McKern’s Rumpole or Roy Marsden’s Adam Dalgliesh. Dozens of actors have taken their turn playing Maigret, but Davies’ take really inspires confidence. He is less flamboyant than Charles Laughton in The Man on the Eiffel Tower (seriously, who wouldn’t be?) and less hardnosed Jean Gabin in Maigret Sets a Trap, but “fatherlier” and somewhat more “lubricated.”

Ewen Solon (who played Stapleton in Hammer’s
Hound of the Baskervilles) is a wonderfully hardboiled as Lucas. There are not a lot of future superstars to be found in guest-star roles, but the character actors all fit their roles. They all look and sound French, albeit in a rather British kind of way. However, April Olrich definitely stands out as the ill-fated victim in the first episode. She would go on to have small roles in The Skull (also starring Peter Cushing) and the pre-Emma Peel The Avengers, but there is a striking sadness to her performance in Maigret that should make viewers wonder why she never attracted wider attention.

It is so frustrated to see how little the BBC valued its own programming. This should have been a series mystery fans grew up watching. Seeing it now should spur a major reevaluation of Davies, who was definitely one of the great Maigrets. At least its here now. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys vintage television and the work of Simenon,
Maigret Season One (1960) releases today (12/20) on BluRay.