Panique - 1946

Story of a mob and two crooks and one misanthropic astrologist.


Panique - 1946 - Directed by Julien Duvivier

Though you don't get to really see it in vicious, physical action until near the end, mob violence is what Panique meditates upon. As a subject it was probably far enough, but also close enough, to events of the French collaboration with the Nazi occupiers during World War II just a scant couple of years before the film's making that the actions of mobs and the half-baked accusations of obvious unreliable witnesses was a disturbingly real phenomenon for a cinema audience in France, where Panique was released and promptly bombed.

The story has a traditional love triangle, but that's not the focus. We get the sheer stupid criminal mind-set of a pair of lovers named Alice and Alfred (Viviane Romance and Paul Bernard) and the intelligent and self-assured Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) who is a sucker for Alice's (Romance's) pretty face. Hire is as close to a "sympathetic hero" as this movie gets as events converge and the fever of the crowd builds towards doom, finally becoming a sort of serious parody of Boris Karloff's demise in the windmill at the end of Frankenstein (1931), with the rooftops of Paris the place Hire goes to escape while the mob below bellows it's homicidal unrighteousness at the monster they've invented in their minds.

Hire's predicament begins when an older woman ("a kind-hearted lady," "she did a great deal for charities") of their neighborhood turns up strangled in a vacant lot, and the locals speculate on who the culprit might be. The thief Alfred (Bernard) helpfully starts turning everyone's thoughts and attention toward the mysterious and misanthropic Monsieur Hire who lives in a small apartment above the streets. Though they all think him merely odd, his being an actual threat is given a starting place with Alfred's words, a young man apparently wearing lip rouge and dressed like a dandy, slippery and calculating. In a pivotal moment he later confesses enough information to Alice (and to us, the audience) that we see him as not just a petty street crook, but also a petty psychopath.

But why is Monsieur Hire such an easy target for Alfred's misdirection? Hire doesn't care much for interaction with people, spending his energies instead upon what looks like random street photography and the making of astrology charts where he pseudonymously conducts a horoscope business as "Doctor Varga" in a nearby book-lined office, a place he reaches by slipping through the streets like a phantom. He doesn't suffer fools and people wasting his time with pleasantries, but in his business, and in his attention toward Alice, who has just returned to the area after a term in prison, he's friendly and kind (he's also apparently dead-on with his horoscope predictions).

Hire's infatuation with Alice starts by merely spotting her while gazing out of his apartment window and observing her in a rented room across the alley, and this plants the seed that makes his association with her the key element in his tragedy. She initially rebuffs his awkward but guileless attempts to try and introduce himself to her down in the streets, but when her criminal boyfriend Alfred sees a way to manipulate the situation, she begins to lure Hire into a closer relationship until director (and script co-writer) Julien Duvivier has used Alice to open up to us Hire's rich and detailed inner-world.

Viviane Romance's portrayal of Alice is fascinating in that it seems like a stand-in for a corrosive vision of France itself. We see her returning to Paris the night of the murder after 233 days in jail, and Alfred asks if she escaped somehow since that's shorter than her actual prison sentence, and she says that she was released early for good behavior and because:

"...everything comes with a price. They made me promise to help them. I did, because I wanted to be with you."

At first Alice is hopeful that Alfred has reformed in her absence, and she is delighted to learn he has a job. When it looks like the recent murder might be related to him, she sets up a secret verbal trap to determine whether he was involved or not, and she's happy when he gives answers that, though he doesn't realize it, indicates to her he wasn't.

Carnival music is frequently blasting away in the background as the story in Panique unfolds, and the presence of a visiting carnival in the streets gives us a parallel presence to the "carnival" of characters that make up the neighborhood, in particular a prostitute (Lita Recio), local tax collector Monsieur Sauvage (Guy Favieres) and the butcher Monsieur Capoulade (Max Dalban playing a dominating, lunk-headed character who collects scraps for cats but doesn't notice a homeless man digging in the garbage by his storefront). That Monsieur Hire clearly states he is not one of the customers of the local prostitute isn't the only way he isn't spiritually in league with the rest of the neighborhood, and once the brains of the paranoid locals start working, Hire's every little action gets interpreted in a way that sets him up as a villain.

The early workings of Panique might make it seem like we're diving into Hitchcockian mystery territory with Hire a voyeuristic presence at a window and behind a camera like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, or we're witnessing something in the scope of the lynch mob of The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) that, though the film ends with a wrongful hanging, it still has the virtue of Henry Fonda's cowboy character Gil Carter baying against vigilante "justice."

But Panique is far darker. Though director Duvivier goes to the trouble of twice having a singer present the music and lyrics of "One day, all around the world, uniting hand in hand, love, the beauty of the world," we're also given a disgusted shopwoman looking out the window at the street and saying "There's no morality or religion anywhere!" when the locals all crowd into the vacant lot to look at the dead woman, and Monsieur Hire tells her "carrion always attracts flies, dear madam."

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Original Page June 19, 2017