Thursday, May 4, 2017

PANIQUE (PANIC), a Timely French Noir from Julien Duvivier




During TCM’s 8th annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood last month more than 75 films were presented, all of them classics and almost all of them appealing to me. But there were two that I was absolutely determined to see: the Powell/Pressburger masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947), presented on nitrate-based film stock, and a less well known, newly restored French film, Panique (1946), from director Julien Duvivier.
Panique might not have caught my eye on the intensely packed festival schedule had I not, thanks to Don Malcolm and his Mid-Century Productions, been recently introduced to French film noir. Last November I attended Malcolm/MCP’s 3rd French noir fest in San Francisco. That illuminating event featured 15 “black” French films, including Le Dernier Tournant (1939), director Pierre Chenal’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. In the role of Cora’s husband Nick (played by Cecil Kellaway in MGM’s 1946 version) was Michel Simon, one of the most celebrated character actors in French cinema.
Julien Duvivier
When I discovered Panique on the TCM program I was intrigued: French noir under the direction of Duvivier, a pillar of French Classical Cinema, admired by Welles, Renoir, Bergman and others. He's best known today for his Pepe le Moko (1937), the film that made an international star of Jean Gabin and that Hollywood remade a year later as Algiers with Charles Boyer (Gabin-lite) and Hedy Lamarr. That Panique’s cast was headed by Michel Simon added interest; his portrayal of Nick in Le Dernier Tournant was delectable.

My friend and fellow blogger/writer Christian Esquevin and I planned to have lunch together and then make our way to the Panique screening at the Chinese Multiplex 6. Lucky Christian, who was born in France and is fluent in the language, would not have to bother with subtitles. What we didn’t anticipate was that by the time we arrived the theater would be nearly full and, though we would be able to find seats, we wouldn’t be sitting together.

Before the film began an onstage interview took place with Pierre Simenon, son of prolific best-selling crime novelist Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, and author of the novel Panique was based on. The younger Simenon is an entertainment lawyer with an insider’s understanding of filmmaking and filmmakers, and a captivating raconteur. Among many anecdotes, tales of his father’s friendships with the likes of Chaplin, Renoir and Fellini were told. By the time the credits rolled, the entire audience was beguiled.

Paul Bernard with Viviane Romance, who listens to her future
Panique tells a tale of murder, blind passion, betrayal and mob hysteria. An eccentric loner, Monsieur Hire (Simon), becomes smitten with a new neighbor (Viviane Romance), a young woman just out of prison for a crime her lover (Paul Bernard) committed but for which she willingly took the fall. Meanwhile, a neighborhood woman has been found murdered and robbed. The eccentric’s head is so turned by the girl he adores that he fails to see that he’s being framed for the murder and set up to become a victim of vigilante justice. Julien Duvivier acknowledged that he was drawn to “harsh, dark and bitter material,” and Panique doesn’t blink in its observation of human nature’s capacity for cunning and cruelty.

Simon delivers a powerful performance as a proud, reclusive outsider singled out and targeted because he is different. Viviane Romance and Paul Bernard are strong as femme fatale and petty criminal. Also well (and colorfully) cast are the supporting roles of butcher, tax collector, prostitute and other petit-bourgeois neighborhood denizens.
In his eulogy of Duvivier, Jean Renoir said, “If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of Duvivier above the entrance." Hailed by critics as diverse as Bosley Crowther, Pauline Kael and Leonard Maltin, Panique begins its run at Laemmle's Royal in West Los Angeles on Friday, May 5. Click here for details.


  1. This is a great film, and you do it justice here Lady Eve. I enjoyed viewing this film with you, albeit rows apart, and now reliving the experience in your descriptive and informative review. Movie-goers in Los Angeles are fortunate to have the opportunity to see this dark drama. Dystopian movies are everywhere nowadays, but this caustic noir is much closer to reality.

    1. It is always a pleasure to be able to spend time with you, Christian. PANIQUE was, for me, one of the highlights of the TCM festival and I'm so glad we were able to share the experience if only from a distance. "Caustic noir" is a perfect description for this film, which speaks volumes to today's social environment.