Top French director Julien Duvivier spent World War II in Hollywood, and though the experience did not make him happy, it led directly to 1946's "Panique," a dark and compelling film, chilling to the bone, long little-seen but now widely accepted as a neglected classic.
"For five years I had seen optimistic films with the predictable happy ending," the director, best known for pre-war gems "Pepe le Moko" and "Poil de Carotte," said once back in France. "I know it's easier to make poetic films full of sweetness and charm, with lovely photography, but by nature I am more inclined to themes that are harsh, dark and bitter."
Playing at Laemmle's Royal in West Los Angeles in a crisp new restoration, "Panique" is all that and more. Taken from a novel by the mordant George Simenon (also the basis for 1989's Patrice Leconte-directed "Monsieur Hire"), it is part shadowy film noir, part compelling character study and, most surprising of all, part powerful indictment of mob violence in general and the French character in particular.
For "Panique" very much plays like Duvivier returned to a bleak postwar France and did not like what he saw, especially the remnants of wartime collaboration with the Germans and the betrayal of Jews that went with it. The result was a picture that did without the milk of human kindness, a quietly unnerving film that refuses to go where you expect it.
Also unexpected is the delicate work of Swiss-born Michel Simon, a pillar of French cinema in the 1930s, who gives an unsettling, multifaceted performance as protagonist Monsieur Hire. His real name turns out to be Hirovitch, and when that information is added to a shot of the Paris suburban trolley destination of Villejuif, Hire's Jewish identity is revealed without anyone having to say it.
What's fascinating about the way this character functions in "Panique" is that our frame of reference for who he is constantly changes. First we see him the way his neighborhood views him, then the way one particular woman sees him, before then the reality of who he actually is sets in.
Nattily dressed with a thick full beard, Hire is something of a standoffish fussbudget. An amateur photographer who documents human misery and orders the bloodiest meat possible from the local butcher, he gives the neighborhood the creeps, and it is easy to see why.
Almost immediately people have something else to gossip about when the corpse of a brutally strangled local woman is discovered by a traveling carnival setting up shop on a vacant lot. Sharp dresser Alfred (Paul Bernard) takes charge of the scene until the police arrive.
Also arriving, for no apparent reason, is the beautiful Alice (Viviane Romance). Though she doesn't want the locals to know, Alice is there to rendezvous with Alfred, who turns out to be a petty criminal she is so in love with she just spent months in prison taking the rap for a crime he committed.
Because Hire's room at the local hotel overlooks hers, Alice views him as a creepy voyeur, and as we see him shadow her and Alfred at the carnival, we tend to agree.
Then comes one of "Panique's" numerous turning points. When Hire follows the young couple to the carnival's bumper car ride, the entire neighborhood brutally gangs up on him in a beautifully done visualization of what total loneliness and isolation can feel like. And more is yet to come.
For it soon develops that Hire is simply a man who has fallen sincerely in love with Alice. Both smarter and more sophisticated than those around him, Hire is also completely naive about love and about people, including the neighbors he has contempt for.
Those neighbors are unsparingly depicted by Duvivier as small-minded busybodies and self-important fools who think they know more than they do, with ruinous results. In its portrayal of the effects of the fear of strangers, the rejection of the other, "Panique" could not be more unnerving or more timely.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
Playing Laemmle's Royal, West L.A.