Panique is a French noir made during the height of Stateside noir. The seeds of film noir came out of three specific sources: poetic realist cinema in France, German expressionism and the pulp crime fiction films of the 20s and ’30s, which lasted well into the early ’60s. The term, of course, was coined by French critics, and the French have always thrown genre films back at dumb yanks who scowled at them.
French directors, including Panique‘s Julien Duvivier, often fled France during World War II—although only a few years after the war, American directors would be fleeing to France due to Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. Panique is very much a product of this time, and comments on French society’s rule during occupation by the Nazis. It’s primarily a film about mob mentality, but that’s all wrapped up in a murder mystery story. Michael Simon plays Monsieur Hire, who is an eccentric outsider in a Paris suburb and is also, of course, Jewish, to connect it to Occupied France. He meets a young lady and feels connected to her, but there is a soon a murder. And would do you think the inhabitants of this small suburb want to blame? The outsider, of course!
It’s based on a novel by famous Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon, whose work Duvivier had first adapted back in the early 1930s. Simenon’s writing has been adapted by many French directors, and also by Americans, Brits and others. Two of the more oft-kilter directors to tackle his work include Serge Gainsbourg (yes, the famous French singer) and Hungarian slowcore director Béla Tarr. Duvivier had only just returned to France when Panique was made, after having a stab at Hollywood and with uncredited work on Destiny—he didn’t direct any noirs while in the US, sadly. It’s clear that his heart was in the crime film, hence why he jumped right into making Panique after his return. Duvivier seems to have infused aspects of how Americans were doing it with some more expressionist use of lighting in the night sequences.
Over the years Panique has been incredibly hard to track down, but due to a restoration in France in recent years and now this Criterion edition, it’s more widely available for connoisseurs of noir to check out. It’s beautifully shot, the performances are all solid, it offers up an important message about mob mentality that is sadly as relevant as ever, and it even boasts a femme fatale! Duvivier and Marcel Carné were soon eclipsed by younger filmmakers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville in the French crime genre, but both were masters in their own right. Hopefully more Duvivier may be on the cards from Criterion, as they also released his most famous film, Pépé le Moko, on DVD in the States years ago, and even put out an Eclipse set of some of his ’30s films.
The disc includes a short documentary on subtitles, an interview with Georges Simenon’s son Pierre, and a conversation with French critics on the film. The trailer and a booklet with an essay on the film complete the package.