Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sometimes The Remake Is Better: Panique vs. Monsieur Hire

Michel Simon in Panique (1946).

Note: The following contains spoilers for Panique (1946) and Monsieur Hire (1989).

TIFF Bell Lightbox, the Toronto International Film Festival’s year-round screening centre, is presenting French classic cinema this summer in Toronto, as it often does during the warm months. One highlight -- or, at least, they think it is --  in their series Panique: French Crime Classics, is the revival of Julien Duvivier’s 1946 Panique (Panic), a dramatic film starring Michel Simon as Monsieur Hire, an unpopular man who is suspected of murdering an elderly woman and whose presumed innocence is quickly thrown by the wayside as his neighbours hound him to a tragic fate. Usually these neglected films, revived for audiences who may not know of them, turn out to be worth your time but Panique, though not entirely devoid of interest, isn’t one of them. It’s a movie whose lofty ambitions aren’t quite reached. But you can catch a variation on the same film in Patrice Leconte’s 1989 Monsieur Hire, also based on Georges Simenon’s 1933 short novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire (Monsieur Hire's Engagement), a movie that is Panique’s superior in virtually every way. (Any number of other films in the French crime series, including The Wages of Fear [1953], Rififi [1955] and Touchez pas au grisbi (Don't Touch the Loot, 1954] as well as in the related film series centered on filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville [Army of Shadows, 1969] can make that claim, too.)

Set in what seems to be a small French village but is said to be part of Paris (it doesn’t look it), Panique slowly gets to its main point, the murder and the suspicions about Hire’s involvement in it, by setting him up as a contrary man not liked by his fellows; he’s not talkative, usually unhappy with the cuts of meat the local butcher proffers – they’re too bloody – and, creepily, prone to being a peeping Tom. Clearly, he’s not a nice guy. Or is he?

Panique bears a thematic comparison to the American classic western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), where a trio of strangers is accused of murder without any real proof, and only a handful of men stand in the way of their possible lynching. But the plotting in Panique is too obvious by half – it pretty much telegraphs its tragic conclusion. (By contrast, The Ox-Bow Incident plays with its possibilities, leaving its dramatic options open, and ends on a powerfully disturbing note.) Part of that has to do with Panique’s screenplay, by Duvivier and Charles Spaak, which presents such a detailed and, I’d say, unnecessary sympathetic back story for Hire that you don’t doubt for a minute that he can’t possibly be a killer. Does Duvivier not trust the audience to, perhaps, intuit Hire’s innocence? I’ve not read Simenon’s novel but I am familiar with his work and I’d wager that the doubts about Hire’s decency are more discreet in the novel.

Some of the acting is weak, too. As the couple who have a varying degree of involvement in the murder, and attempt to set Hire up for the murder, Paul Bernard is too oily as Alfred – he practically is twirling a mustache as a villain – and Vivian Romance too bland as Alice. It’s difficult to fathom why Monsieur Hire, lonely as he is, would fall for her, so opaque is Romance’s performance. As for the subtle reference to Hire's originally being named Hirovitch, an obvious allusion to his being a hidden Jew – Hire’s feelings about too-bloody meat might be a clue, as well, as blood is not kosher – it’s wasted, since it only comes up when he volunteers that information during an interview by a police inspector. The villagers who dislike, even hate him, never utter any anti-Semitic comments, which they would if that were another factor in their disdain for the man; and if they’re not privy to his name change (which seems likely as he also has a secret life they know nothing about), then his being Jewish is more of a red herring than anything else. (I suspect Simenon wouldn’t have pussyfooted around this in his book.)

Despite Simon’s sympathetic lead performance -- which, while not on a par with the great actor’s work in seminal French movies like Boudu Saved From Drowning, L’Atalante and The Two of Us (it’s not written well enough to aspire to those heights), is still often gripping -- ultimately Panique mostly fails to get at the dread and fear that a movie about a lynch mob in the making should have. This French film is not the buried treasure it’s being bruited as, not by a long shot.

 Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire in Monsieur Hire (1989).

Despite its sticking to the outline of Panique’s story, Monsieur Hire is practically an entirely different beast, with an emphasis less on the human nature of Hire (Michel Blanc) and how he is perceived by others and more on his erotic and emotional fixation on Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), a country girl who has moved to Paris and across from his apartment, where he watches her every night. That makes Monsieur Hire a tad less original – sexually charged relationships are not exactly rare in French cinema – but, in Leconte’s skilled hands, more riveting. In this case, Hire’s being driven to destruction is more about chance and wrong decisions and less about fate and foregone conclusions. (His changing of his name is thus even less relevant since Hire's neighbours are barely given any characters to play, much less prejudices to carry. They don’t like him but that’s all, unlike in Panique where they are obsessed with Hire’s doings and offered up as a rogues’ gallery of suspicious townsfolk, cast in some depth.)

That fraught relationship between Hire and Alice is pretty much the fulcrum of the film and, as played by Blanc and Bonnaire, is quite touching. In Alice’s unexpected response to Hire’s voyeurism – she gets off on it and encourages it – we get a touch of Brian De Palma (Dressed to Kill) laced with typical French adult open-mindedness. (Her boyfriend, played by Luc Thullier, is almost an afterthought here; he was a co-conspirator in Panique.) Michael Nyman’s score is a bit insistent but still effective in creating a mood of suspense and disquiet. Strangely, though the reveal of the dead body of a young female victim (not elderly, as in Panique) begins the movie and the suspicious cop (André Wilms) fixates on Hire immediately as a suspect, that aspect of the film is abandoned often and almost forgotten about until the end when it falls into place and concludes Monsieur Hire more or less as Panique did. (The cop in Monsieur Hire is the film’s weakest link as, unlike the investigator in Panique who comes upon the scene of the crime afterwards and keeps an open mind as to who might be guilty, Wilms, whose longish hair makes him seem more suited to undercover police work, goes from taunting Hire about his sexual habits to declaring he never thought the man guilty of anything. It’s an inconsistent, unprofessional portrait of an accuser that stretches credibility.) But I like that Hire, frequenter of prostitutes, and prone to sudden rages, isn’t as sympathetic as he was in Panique; his interest in Alice is thus more plausible and believable, albeit disturbed. All of this adds up to a far less schematic film

Leconte, in a brief DVD interview, says he doesn’t consider Monsieur Hire to be a remake of Panique, a film he admires, but views his own movie as a ‘new’ adaptation of Simenon’s novel. Whatever designation he gives it, it’s his poignant film that lingers in the mind and not its failed predecessor.

Panique plays at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox one time only, at 6:30 pm on Thursday July 20. Monsieur Hire is available on DVD.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on October 6 he will be starting to teach a course on fact based movies and why they often take liberties with history. He’ll also be lecturing on Israeli cinema in London, Ontario, beginning on Sept. 5.

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