It goes without saying that many scoptophiles—those who have the morbid urge to gaze, and who derive erotic pleasure from it—lack the capacity to have satisfying sexual relationships. If a man is obsessed with photographing the discomfort or pain of others, it’s a reasonable bet that the lack is physical, or at least psychosomatic, whether it’s temporary or chronic.
Alfred Hitchcock made a dirty joke of this absence, equipping L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart)—whose broken leg prevents him from making love to his girlfriend (Grace Kelly)—with a huge telephoto lens in Rear Window (1954). Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) in Panique (1947) and Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom (1960) also compensate for their apparent impotence by wielding cameras. Panique is also about an impotent society.
Handsomely restored and screened at Film Forum earlier this year, Panique‘s screening on a double bill with Peeping Tom at the same theater (Sunday, September 3, at 12:30pm, 4:20pm, and 8:10pm) is salutary. Mark, a camera focus-puller by day and serial director of home-made snuff movies by night, is a psychopath—the boyhood victim of his father’s sadistic pseudo-psychological experiments to induce fear.
In contrast, Panique‘s Monsieur Hire is a sardonic social critic of other people’s squalor and cruelty. He’s a stalker, and neurotic and threatening therefore, but not evil. Though physically strong—”solid as an oak,” he says—he’s vulnerable to a femme fatale’s charms. Any kind of vulnerability is dangerous at a time of mob-think and post-war retribution. The pall of collaborationism has not been blown away, and Monsieur Hire, a Jew, is a predictable target.
Panique was adapted by Duvivier and Charles Spaak from a Georges Simenon novel, though less faithfully than was Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire (1989). Duvivier’s film was less a contribution to the misty, melancholy French poetic realism school than a Parisian film noir. Brisk, ominous, and unsentimental, it features dark, expressionistically lit interiors and low-angle shots that always place one character in power over another.
The gaudy, cacophonous carnival—where bumper car riders round on Monsieur Hire like jackals—possibly influenced Hitchcock’s funfair in Strangers on a Train (1951). The cliff-hanging climax of Panique meanwhile affirms the American influence by echoing William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), itself the story of a Parisian outcast.
Eyes on Alice
Monsieur Hire, bearded and burly, is a friendless astrologer and spiritual guru who rents rooms in Villejuif, a petit bourgeois southern Paris suburb (reconstructed and filmed by Duvivier in the Victorine Studios in Nice).
He has a taste for bloody lamb chops and enjoys snapping society’s rejects and people in distress—for example, a homeless man competing with a dog for scraps in a trash can. At night, he peers through his window at the young woman, Alice (Vivian Romance), who has taken a flat on a lower level in the house opposite Monsieur Hire’s.
Alice has returned to the neighborhood after spending two years in prison. She took a rap for the punk she irrationally adores: weaselly small-time crook Alfred (Paul Bernard), who affects the dandified looks of an American mobster when he’s not working as an auto mechanic.
Initially resentful at being spied on, Alice nastily taunts Monsieur Hire by letting him see her go to bed with Alfred. She experiences a chill when the latter confesses to wooing and strangling a well-off middle-aged woman for her money. But she agrees to cozy up to the smitten Monsieur Hire with a view to getting access to his apartment and planting the dead woman’s purse there.
Monsieur Hire’s social disaffection is partly attributable to his wife having run off with his friend years before. During a brief idyll at this lonely man’s well-maintained house in the country, he reveals to Alice his kindness and gentility. Despite his surliness and his dubious hobby, he is morally and intellectually superior to everyone else in the film.
Because Monsieur Hire is Jewish, the locals—who include a rumor-mongering butcher, an officious but cowardly middle-class tax inspector, and a blowsy, disgruntled prostitute—are all too ready to assume that he is the killer.
Shadow of the Terror
In a terrifying set-piece in the town square, etched by Duvivier’s cinematographer Nicolas Hayer in vivid tracking shots, gleeful vilification turns to a lynch-mob mentality as the crowd waits for Monsieur Hire to appear. His showing up in a taxi is reminiscent of a condemned man arriving in a tumbril to face the guillotine during the Revolution.
Alice’s guilty conscience kicks in as she realizes what her duplicity has wrought. Neither she nor her fellow citizens are redeemed. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” have still to return in the France of 1946, if ever they existed in the first place.
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