How does a community of ordinary people become a vicious mob, ready to humiliate and sacrifice a scapegoat? Panique presents a chillingly credible answer. A French film shot in Nice and released in 1946, a year after the end of World War II, it does seem intended as a critique of wartime collaborators, despite the fact that it's based on a novel from 1933. Yet the film thankfully avoids speaking only in the generalities necessary to make it just a coded message, telling instead a specific story about singular individuals. Director Julien Duvivier creates powerful compositions of editing and framing. The stars of the film, Viviane Romance and Michel Simon, seal the deal with incredible performances, particularly Simon.
He plays Monsieur Hire, a big, peculiar gentleman living alone in a little apartment. The first shot is him in silhouette getting off a train, his big black hat and curly beard giving him the look of a Hasidic Jew. He's identified as Jewish in the novel but I don't think the film ever mentions his religion.
He likes to take voyeuristic pictures of unhappy human subjects and his brusque manner makes him unpopular at the shops and cafes. In one scene, he tries to ride a bumper car and everyone else in the rink seems to zero in on him without even thinking about it.
Meanwhile, a beautiful young woman called Alice (Romance) comes to town. She's recently been released from prison where she took the rap for her boyfriend Albert's (Paul Bernard) robbery. To play it safe, she and Albert arrange to pretend to meet for the first time at a cafe and begin their happy lives anew. Unfortunately, that weird voyeur Hire has been peeping at Alice from his apartment across the street and he has some very dangerous information about Alfred.
One might say it's hardly Hire's fault if Alice decides to stand by her window wearing only a slip when he happens look outside--maybe he's more culpable for allowing his gaze to linger. He is a lonely man, after all, and one, we later learn, with an unlucky romantic history.
It's very wise of the film not to make him a saint--this is a movie about human beings and is more powerful for it. Alice is also an interesting character. When Hire hints to her the extent of possible crimes Alfred has committed, she tests Alfred and then triumphantly embraces Alfred in view of Hire when her test seems to prove him innocent. And yet, when suddenly it's clear her test yielded an inaccurate result, her loyalty to Alfred increases. Perhaps because she'd slept with him. In for a penny, in for a pound.
And there's a murder. Hire probably doesn't help his case when he describes the crowd around the body as flies attracted by carrion. But he's a very clever man, as we can see by how deftly he avoids playing his hand. He's also physically strong but uses his strength prudently. Contrasted with this is an intriguingly refined sensibility--despite falling head over heels for Alice, he positively refuses to allow her to see his apartment when it's messy. Both of these things add to the enormous horror when the mob decides to hurt him.
Panique is available on The Criterion Channel.