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There’s precious little “panique” in Julien Duvivier’s 1947 masterpiece Panique. Rather, it’s more of a gleeful hysteria, as the film traces the cloud of suspicion that gathers around a lonely, eccentric man until it explodes in a frenzy of surreal mob violence. Based on Georges Simenon’s 1933 novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, Duvivier’s film kicks off in a realist register, then gradually transforms into a noirish romance of deception until finally settling into a tragic allegory of wartime collaborationism and the cruel madness of rumor, fear and and spite.
Playing Monsieur Hire, the great Michel Simon starts off Panique as an engaging oddball, a bearded introvert who carries a camera with him at all times and is very particular about his tastes. His neighbors distrust him, and nobody seems to be friends with the guy. The movie’s most heartbreaking and stylistically wild scene comes about halfway through, as we see Hire riding a bumper car by himself, assailed remorselessly by cackling, sneering couples who ram their cars into his, over and over again.
Hire is a shy, haunted man, but he chooses to open up to the alluring Alice (Viviane Romance), who has recently been released from prison after taking the rap for her sociopathic beau Alfred (Paul Bernard). Alfred, however, has just killed a local woman, and he needs to make sure that the cops trailing Alice don’t catch wind of his guilt. Complicating all this is the fact that Hire, the loner/voyeur who sees everything, has witnessed Alfred’s crime, and may have proof of it. Alice is at least as heartless as her murderous paramour, and she decides to string the older man along, so the evil lovers can either buy his silence or frame him for the murder.
You might get an ulcer watching Panique, as Duvivier portrays how the good-looking Alfred and Alice’s ruthlessness and duplicity find purchase in the community’s preconceptions about Hire, who we learn is Jewish. (The significance would not have been lost on audiences in 1947 France; this was Duvivier’s first film back after a wartime sojourn in Hollywood.) The tenderness with which Hire opens up to the girl, making him vulnerable to her betrayals; the callous, offhand manner in which Alfred plans to sow suspicion about the man; the ease with which the smallest hint of innuendo is immediately seized upon by a populace already marinated in contempt … well, let’s just say it’s not an easy watch.
Except, of course, it is. It’s a joy to watch, because Duvivier is a master of shadows, of movement, of blocking. His film has the deep blacks and dark impulses of film noir but also the expansive, sociological sweep of a Western, with its portrait of a community on edge. His camera moves with purpose and power, exploring the full geography of a space — a geography that, we suspect, will later become crucial. He goes to town on the material’s visual potential, and a visiting carnival adds an extra sense of delirium.
As he builds this world, Duvivier also takes care to build the people in it. The supporting characters — the cops, butchers, florists, mechanics, prostitutes and hotel managers of this neighborhood — all get their distinct personalities. That sense of realism pays dividends when we see how the crooked Alfred’s lies about Hire spread like wildfire through this community. It’s almost like these people want to wallow in their hatred, that the collective hatred and malevolence revealed in the final act is welcome. Their eyes glow with giddy delight at being able to torment and hound the other. Again, it’s not panic; it’s a kind of monstrous ecstasy. And it’s this unsettling quality that renders Panique unforgettable.
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Opens January 20, Film Forum