Playing this week at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, “Panique” is a French classic where romanticism and existentialism collide like bumper cars, leaving various victims in its wake. A new digital restoration, coupled with the film’s nuanced storytelling, are just several reasons to check out this unforgettable cinematic experience.
Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) lives at the top floor of a hotel and only socializes with the locals when the need suits. Whether it’s buying the bloodiest loin chop from the butcher or being way too specific about his choice of camembert, Hire is subtly ostracized from his neighborhood. Even a stroke of kindness (giving an apple to a girl by the hotel stairwell) is seen as objective by the girl’s mother, as the eccentric Hire, a man who loves taking photographs of people on the fly, is not to be trusted.
When the corpse of a fortysomething woman is discovered in broad daylight, Hire is one of the prime suspects. Alfred (Paul Bernard), a nattily dressed denizen, helps keep the crime scene stabilized before the police arrive, and though he seems like the town’s pillar of virtue (he arranges a collection to buy the dead woman flowers at her funeral), there is definitely something rotten in Denmark.
Alice (Viviane Romance), Alfred’s lover, has spent several months in prison taking the fall for her petty criminal boyfriend. The couple’s attempts to lay low from their respective wrongdoings may be uncovered by Monsieur Hire after he’s immediately smitten by Alice (in a Rear Window-esque sequence, Hire unabashedly gazes into Alice’s window from his domicile).
Director Julien Duvivier, who’s best known for “Pepe le Moko.” brings a seamless blend of Hitchcockian suspense and social commentary to the proceedings (the film, as well as 1989’s equally potent “Monsieur Hire,” is based on the Georges Simenon novel “Mr. Hire’s Engagement”). Though the killer’s identity as well as Hire’s motivations are revealed quite early in the story, there’s a ton of wonderfully executed sequences that should leave you hanging on the edge of your seat (the climax, as well as a terrifying sequence dealing with bumper cars, are absolutely sublime).
Due to Monsieur Hire’s desire for solitude and his contempt for his fellow man, he initially comes off a bit too unlikable for his own good. A deeper sense of his being comes to light after his infatuation with Alice takes form, and we finally understand why Hire’s gruff exterior is merely a self-survival tactic.
A woman’s murder is not the only tragedy/travesty that poisons the well, as Monsieur Hire’s neighbors, with their pack-like abuse of the protagonist, is downright unforgivable. Though “Panique” is blessed with Duvivier’s confidently agile storytelling and seminal work from Simon, it’s the picture’s unsparing look at humanity (or lack thereof) which places this film on a supreme pedestal.
Much apologies for this midnight hour review of “Panique,” but if you live in Los Angeles and are in the mood for a French noir classic, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre is serving exactly what the doctor ordered.