Monday, April 24, 2017

Panique (1946) with Pierre Simenon at #TCMFF

Pierre Simenon and Bruce Golstein at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival
Pierre Simenon and Bruce Golstein at TCMFF

Based on Georges Simenon's novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, Panique (1946) is a thrilling French Noir directed by the great Julien Duvivier. This rarely seen film was screened at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival . Last year I had attended the screening of the Argentine Noir Los Tallos Amargos (1956) and followed it up this year with an equally dark film. One could say that Panique, like Los Tallos Amargos, puts the Noir in Film Noir.

Panique stars Michel Simon as Monsieur Hire, a lonely voyeur. When murder of a local woman rocks a small town community, Hire has a hunch who did it. He tries to warn Alice (Viviane Romance) about her boyfriend Alfred (Paul Bernard) whom he suspects as the killer. Hire doesn't know that Alfred has already confessed the crime to Alice and fully intends to get away with it. Smitten with her beau, she battles internal conflicts then decides to lure Hire into a trap. The film is relentlessly dark with an ending that is an emotional punch to the gut.

Rialto teamed up with TCM to host a rare screening of Panique, kicking off a tour of the newly restored print. Rialto's Bruce Goldstein was on hand to interview special guest Pierre Simenon, the youngest son of Georges Simenon. Goldstein made it a point that although the novel is in French, Simenon was Belgian. He went on to give the following intro to elder Simenon:

"Simenon is best known for his 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring detective Jules Maigret. But he wrote nearly five times as many books making him a towering figure in French language literature. Simenon was the most translated French language author of the 20th century. And the 17th most translated author of all time according to UNESCO. He died in 1989 at the age of 86."

Both Goldstein and Pierre Simenon shared some interesting facts about Georges Simenon's writing career. He was the most prolific French-language Belgian author of the 20th century. 70 film adaptations and 350 TV adaptations have been made from his novels. Estimates say that Simenon's books have sold 750 million copies, in 55 languages across 44 countries. He wrote his first book at the age of 16 and the last at age 80. It would only take him 7 days to finish one novel.

Georges Simenon
Georges Simenon


Simenon had a love-hate relationship with the movies, with an emphasis on hate. As Pierre Simenon explains, "at the time he was a young writer. [He said,] 'I'm going to write the screenplay, I'm going to give my insight.' He was full of ideas. But of course as we know in Hollywood that's the last thing a producer wants. He wants to do it his own way. So the results were mixed."

The early adaptations included Jean Tarride's The Yellow Dog (1932), Night at the Crossroads (1932) and La tĂȘte d'un homme (1933) directed by Julien Duvivier who was also the director for Panique. Pierre Simenon explained, "my father was not happy with the industry. He quickly discovered that there was a lot of meddlers in the project. When you're a writer, you are just alone with the page. When you dabble in movies, there are hundreds of people with something to say and my dad didn't like that."

At one point Simenon refused to sell film rights to his books and this embargo lasted six years. Pierre Simenon joked that his father was as prolific a writer as we was a spender. There were two things Simenon wanted: money and artistic control. During the 1930s, authors made quite a bit of money with newspaper serializations. Sometimes these papers would trim the novels so sections would fit perfectly on the last page. In essence they were editing down the book; something Simenon despised. He knew there was a lot of money to be made in film and he picked the lesser of two evils by abandoning serialization altogether.

Georges Simenon with son Pierre
Georges Simenon with son Pierre, circa 1980. Photo source: Film Forum

Simenon struck up friendships with many key film industry figures including Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin, Frederico Fellini and others. Pierre Simenon shared a potentially apocryphal story of when the great Alfred Hitchcock called up his father. The secretary told Hitchcock that Simenon was too busy to come to the phone because he had just started a new novel. Hitchcock's reply, "It's okay, I'll wait."

Then there was the time Georges Simenon was the president of the Cannes Film Festival jury. His buddy author Henry Miller was on the jury and according to Pierre Simenon pleaded with Georges, "I'm here to see you, to see friends, to see the ladies and to drink a lot. Just tell me who you want me to vote for." Frederico Fellini's La Dolce Vita was up against a lot of other amazing films including L'Avventura which was the favorite to win the Palme D'or. Simenon lobbied for La Dolce Vita and it won. According to Pierre, his father was met with many boos and whistles in opposition. Pierre Simenon reflected, "[my father] was trashed by the critics and he became friends with Fellini. And if you watch the movie now it hasn't aged a bit. It's a masterpiece." Simenon had a life long friendship with Jean Renoir and Pierre remembers sitting on Charlie Chaplin's lap. At this point in the conversation, Bruce Goldstein points out that Norman Lloyd, who worked with both Renoir and Chaplin, was in the audience.  Lloyd stood up for his usual standing ovation. I was so glad to see him again!

Panique (1946)


Goldstein called Panique one of the best adaptations of a Simenon novel and asked Pierre if his father ever saw it. Pierre's response, "nobody knows. And if he did nobody knows if he liked it or not." Panique opened on Thanksgiving day 1947 at the Rialto theatre in New York. According to Goldstein, it got rave reviews in the states but got trashed by French critics. Pierre Simenon noted that in post-WWII Europe, many artists were under serious scrutiny. You were either seen as a collaborator with the Nazis or if you fled you were considered a coward. There was some push back against both stars Michel Simon and Viviane Romance. I'm not sure if Pierre meant it was because of their possible connections to the Nazi regime or not.

The original novel, translated into English as Monsieur Hire's Engagement, is very different from the film. Pierre Simenon explained that in the book there is a lack of intense action and that the lead character was very ambiguous. His voyeuristic tendencies were more pathological. Duvivier and screenwriter Charles Spaak added "social commentary about mob justice and prejudice" according to Pierre. The book was published in 1933 but the film adaptation speaks more to the post-WWII era.

Rialto continues it's nation-wide tour of Panique starting next month. Check out the full schedule here. I hope a North American Blu-Ray/DVD release is in store for this title so a wider audience can have the pleasure of seeing the film.

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