Panique

It’s 1947 in a suburban village outside of Paris, and a lonely Jewish photographer named Monsieur Hire (shortened from Hirovitch) patiently endures the gossip and pettiness around him, not seeming to mind his pariah status too much. It’s more a matter of broken-heartedness about his ruined marriage than grief over any recent mass deportation that might have happened, but that implication is certainly in the air too.

Mr. Hire starts taking a special interest in a younger woman who’s recently out of jail, but when a 40-some-year-old neighbor turns up dead in a vacant lot with her purse missing, guess who gets blamed for it?

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That’s Panique, directed by Julien Duvivier, who’s better known for Pépé le Moko, co-written by the Belgian screenwriter Charles Spaak, based on the novel by Georges Simenon.

It’s tempting to compare it to M, or to see some contemporary parallel to literal panic in it, and I’m sure that’s what most critics are seeing when they come across this re-discovered work. As a hunk of nostalgia, though – and who doesn’t want to walk through an old village before Parisian sprawl overhelmed it, and while a carnival is in town no less – it sticks in your craw because it damns the villagers themselves. One of the great themes of post-war literature, the passive wickedness of the upright citizen, was already being written about.

It also clocks in at a spartan 91 minutes, one of the things that makes the scripts of this period so elegant, and still so pleasurable to watch.

You can see the twist at the end coming a kilometer away, and yet that’s beside the point. Duvivier seems to have returned to France after a World War II period spent in Hollywood, with a bit of pith for the simple villagers. He wasn’t humming “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” that’s for sure.