Blu-ray Review: Panique

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Julien Duvivier | CAST: Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Paul Bernard, Max Dalban, Émile Drain, Guy Favières, Louis Florencie
RELEASE DATE: 12/18/18 | PRICE: DVD $21.37, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: “The Art of Subtitling” featurette, interview with Pierre Simenon, conversation between critics Guilletmette Odicino and Eric Libiot, essays by film scholars James Quandt and Lenny Borger
SPECS: NR | 98 min. | Foreign language thriller | 1.37:1 fullscreen | mono | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video | Overall

“I’m always alone,” proclaims the mysterious lead character in the excellent 1946 French thriller Panique. The gentleman says this with no small amount of pride and, while his defiant “outsider” attitude” causes him to be persecuted later on in the film, it also makes him a distinctly modern hero.

Director Julien Duvivier and Charles Spaak scripted from a novel by George Simenon (adapted more faithfully in 1989 by filmmaker Patrice Leconte as Monsieur Hire). Here our oddball protagonist, Mr. Hire (Michel Simon, Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Two of Us), is a photographer and astrologer, and not the sleazy voyeur he was in the Simenon novel.

Hire is a big, bearded man obsessed by his daily rituals, who is attracted to his new neighbor, Alice (Viviane Romance). Alice went to prison to protect her sleazy boyfriend, Fred (Paul Bernard) who, just before Alice arrived in town, killed a local woman in order to steal her money. Hire, an exceptionally observant gent, knows Fred is the culprit and hopes to win Alice for himself; Alice, meanwhile, pretends to love Hire to she can set him up as the murderer.

The film’s last third leaves the noir aspect behind and becomes instead a tale of mob justice, quite like Fritz Lang’s 1936 “wrong man” drama Fury. It’s at this point that the film’s truly dark side appears, as Hire’s neighbors decide he must be arrested — in the creepiest scene, the local butcher tries to get a little girl to say that Hire took her inside his apartment.

Dramatically, this transition is something of a liability, since Hire is the only likeable character in the picture. On the other hand, it establishes the film’s true purpose, namely serving as an allegory for the way that the innocent are unjustly accused of crimes simply because they are “different” from the public at large.

This is clearly a reflection of what occurred during the war, when Jews and other groups were imprisoned and killed, and then after the Liberation of France, when collaborationists (real ones and individuals perceived to be traitorous) were persecuted and arrested.

Before the film turns into a more straightforward parable, Duvivier and cinematographer Nicolas Hayer (Orpheus) craft impressively noir visuals, with menace lurking in every corner of the apartments and stores we see, and darkness hanging over even a local carnival that is used as a cover for Fred’s crooked activities.

Simon, who was by ’46 a cornerstone of French cinema, is terrific throughout, as his character is fleshed out from an antisocial weirdo into a sympathetic loner. One can’t help but think that Hire sports an unfashionable (for the time) beard to make him look Jewish, and the tour de force scene in which he delivers a touching monologue about his past is Simon at his best, playing an oddball who is eccentric yet lovable (as he did in Renoir’s Boudu and Jean Vigo’s perfect L’Atalante).

Michel Simon and Viviane Romance in Panique.

Three visual supplements are included in the package, with a featurette recorded for a French home-video release of the film offering the most insights about the film (other great insights are supplied in a print essay by historian James Quandt). Critics Guilletmette Odicino and Eric Libiot discuss how Duvivier and Spaak “turned [Simenon’s novel] upside down” and retained only the lead character from the source material.

Odicino notes that Duvivier, “a misanthrope” and “disillusioned romantic,” demonstrated a “fear of women” in his films, with depictions of the lead female characters as “bitches.” Here Alice is “even more of a bitch” than the usual Duvivier female, according to Odicino.

The two critics label Panique “a masterpiece” and trace its influences, among them Italian Neo-realism and, of course, film noir. Libiot cites the film as a possible influence on Hitchcock, due to its memorable scenes set in a carnival (Strangers on a Train), showing a man spying on a woman across a courtyard (Rear Window), and a character hanging from a gutter hanging off a roof (Vertigo).

In a supplement made for Criterion, Pierre Simenon, Georges’ son, talks about his father’s works and the way that filmmakers had to carefully “betray” his plots in order to make them cinematic.

The most important thing Simenon discusses is how his father was accused of collaboration with the Germans, since he continued to write and publish his novels throughout the war. Simenon defends his father, noting that Georges never cooperated or worked for the occupying forces, he simply continued to ply his trade.

Simenon also notes that the two stars of the film, Simon and Romance, were accused as well of being collaborators and were indeed just professionals who kept on working during the Occupation.

An entertaining visual supplement made for this release finds Bruce Goldstein, the founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures (an arthouse distributor that specializes in classic French cinema) discussing the art of subtitling. He provides a capsule history of the process from the silent era onward and discusses the preferred length of subs (two lines per title, 40 characters per line).

Goldstein singles out for praise film historian and subtitler Lenny Borger, who contributed a fascinating essay on Duvivier for the booklet in this release and wrote the new titles for Panique. He also notes the single best failure of English subtitling — a wonderful moment in New Yorker’s version of The Mother and the Whore where all that is written onscreen as the characters speak in French is “A series of untranslatable French puns.”

A list of rules for subtitles is included in the featurette, each one spelled out by film clips. Among them: Don’t use anachronisms; Don’t use words people would have to look up (unless the words are essential to or contextualized in the dialogue); and, most importantly, Don’t censor the language used in the dialogue.

To illustrate this last point Goldstein includes the Criterion version of a scene from Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, in which a woman’s virginity is discussed. We then see the original U.S. version of the scene, in which the subtitles cease for a few minutes as the “offensive” dialogue is spoken.

Buy or Rent Panique

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”