Recently released from prison, an attractive young woman Alice meets up with her lover Alfred. The latter, a vicious crook, has murdered an old woman at a fairground. The only witness was a reclusive old man named Monsieur Hire, who is secretly in love with Alice. Alfred and Alice contrive to divert suspicion on to Monsieur Hire…
After his largely lacklustre stint in Hollywood during World War II, Julien Duvivier returned to France a changed man, and this is clearly reflected in his first French film after the war, Panique. Disillusioned with the mawkish tendency of American cinema, with its obligatory “Happy End”, Divivier set out to make a film that better reflected the times he lived in. To that end, he adapted a novel by the popular Belgian writer Georges Simenon, a story of unrequited love and cruel betrayal.
Darker in tone and more pessimistic than even the director’s poetic realist films of the late 1930s, the film makes some shocking statements about the less honorable side of human nature. The lead female character (played by Viviane Romance) is portrayed both as a beautiful ingenue and as a heartless schemer with a sickening talent for guilt-free duplicity – a combination that a contemporary cinema audience would have had some difficulty accepting. More significantly, the film shows how human beings can become unthinking animals when the pack mentality asserts itself – a reference perhaps to the conflict which had almost ravaged the planet over the past six years. The ease with which seemingly rational individuals allow themselves to be duped and then degenerate into a destructive anonymous mob is brilliantly captured in the film’s harrowing climax.
Nicolas Hayer’s noir photography adds to the film’s unceasing bleakness, but somehow the film lacks the emotional force, raw humanity and conviction of Duvivier’s earlier masterpieces, despite a moving performance from iconic actor Michel Simon. It is interesting to compare this film with Patrice Leconte’s stylish 1989 adaptation of the same Simenon novel, Monsieur Hire, which places greater emphasis on the voyeuristic and sensual aspects of the story.