Panique: Panic Attack

Half a century before Julien Duvivier made his 1946 film Panique, the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon published his influential study of mob behavior, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, in which he argued that recent upheavals in scientific and religious belief and increasing urbanization made individuals more susceptible to a contagion of “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason.” He could have been describing Duvivier’s caustic portrait of his postwar compatriots, driven to collective barbarity by intolerance, suspicion, and rumor. Le Bon compared the state of the person under the excitable spell of the throng to that of “the hypnotized in the hands of the hypnotist,” though, ironically, in Panique it is Monsieur Hire the astrologist and mesmerist who is the victim of the murderous mob, the mechanism to spellbind clients that is found in his office used as evidence of the dark, perhaps demonic arts that he is reported to practice. 

Panique was the first film Duvivier made upon his return from self-exile in Hollywood during World War II, an expatriation that was criticized at home as a form of cultural treason, especially when other directors, such as Robert Bresson and Marcel Carné, remained to make films during the occupation. (Henri-Georges Clouzot also stayed, and was later accused of collaboration and temporarily banned from filmmaking, in part because his poison-pen classic, Le Corbeau, had portrayed la France profonde as equally prone to mass irrationality.) The thorny, volatile Duvivier compounded this alleged betrayal of his nation by fashioning Panique as an admonition about neighborly fascism that exploited the immediate postwar aura in France of guilt, recrimination, and distrust. The director, who since emerging during the silent period had established a reputation for harsh appraisals of humanity—the studio compelled him to replace the pessimistic finale of La belle équipe (1936) with an upbeat one, much to his distress—claimed that he was merely reacting against the enforced happy endings of Hollywood, but the corrosiveness of Panique suggests a more perilous, perhaps punitive motive, especially when compared with the film’s source, Georges Simenon’s 1933 novel Mr. Hire’s Engagement. 

Inspired by the Belgian author’s memory of witnessing, as a young journalist in Liège, a group of surly inebriates turn on a man they accused of being a German spy and chase the innocent onto a rooftop, baying for a “summary judgment,” Simenon’s slim novel serves as little more than an armature for Duvivier, and the many departures the director and his cowriter, Charles Spaak, make from the book in almost every case turn the tone from the merely mordant into the insistently acidulous. (Patrice Leconte’s later adaptation of the novel, 1989’s Monsieur Hire—with an ashen Michel Blanc living up to his last name as the eponymous voyeur—proved much more faithful to the tone and details of the Simenon.) A catalog of the divergences between page and screen might note that Simenon’s Hire is an erstwhile pornographer who landed in prison for six months, and his current vocation is as a mail scammer, as opposed to the film’s sham spiritualist—Hire as “Dr. Varga”—the latter deception more insidious in its implications, as his clients place great importance on his fraudulent advice. The novel’s Hire also appears more pathetic in his yearnings because the object of his spying and amour fou is the slovenly redheaded salesgirl at the dairy next door, rather than Viviane Romance’s glamorous jailbird, Alice. (Her boyfriend, Alfred, played by Paul Bernard, seems to compete with her allure, wearing as much lipstick in his close-ups as Romance, and performing his mechanic’s tasks in a natty ensemble complete with foulard.) Duvivier’s murder victim is a middle-aged, unmarried, “bighearted woman who gave to charities,” compared with the book’s anonymous young prostitute, and the filmmaker revels in the eradication of virtue, continually reciting a litany of Mademoiselle Noblet’s good deeds—even her surname signals her spinster’s dignity. 

“For all the vehicular motion, back and forth, round and round, up and down, the prevailing aura in Panique is one of stasis and inexorability.”

Duvivier also expands the cast of Hire’s pursuers from Simenon’s couple of ineffective police inspectors into a teeming assembly of French types, including the elaborately mustachioed and aptly named tax collector Monsieur Sauvage, a hard-bitten hooker, and a butcher whose glowering dominion over his wraithlike wife and brood of eight children might derive from the director’s own authoritarian père, who insisted upon silence at table. Though the novel trumps the film’s oppressiveness in its description of a season of bone-rattling cold and incessant rain that intensifies “everything: whites grew whiter, grays lighter, blacks blacker,” the film’s setting of Villejuif—which translates literally as “Jewish city” but actually has a different, less charged etymology—appears much more enclosed and cloistral in Duvivier’s darker vision. In contrast, Simenon sends Hire on frequent forays into the bustling center of the city, where he sips café crème, goes to a nightclub, wins a turkey in a bowling tournament, and visits a house of prostitution. 

Most significantly, Panique transforms Hire’s character—explicitly Jewish in the novel, ambiguously so in the film—from a rather hapless, flabby interloper wandering the world in a fog of apology, muttering “sorry, sorry” for social infractions both actual and imagined, into a lean, arrogant misanthrope who prefers the bloodiest cuts of meat and the runniest cheeses, receives no mail, refuses small talk, and brusquely admits to a police inspector, “I don’t like men, and policemen even less.” When Villejuif’s citizens are seized with morbid excitement, rushing to the site of Mademoiselle Noblet’s murder to inspect the corpse, Hire dryly observes that “carrion always attracts flies.” Michel Simon, with his soft mouth and near-lisp, embodies his haughty Hire with a trenchant disdain missing from the novel’s equivocal protagonist, son of a tailor and occasional usurer. Panique retains the novel’s atmosphere of intensifying cruelty as Hire is methodically scapegoated by neighbors suspicious of his alien nature—Vichy France’s collaboration in the mass persecution and extermination of Jews surely hovers in the film’s offing, given the year of production, even as its historical setting is left unspecified—but renders Hire’s death more brutal, somehow more final, than his sad, gradual expiry from a heart attack in the arms of a would-be rescuer after falling from a roof in the novel, whose final page features a fireman’s moving account of the accident: “He just melted in my arms, up there—it was as if, bit by bit, he died of fright. I knew it was over.”

By transforming the novel’s evildoers from a two-bit hood and his submissive girlfriend into the suave, noir-hearted conspirators played by Romance and Bernard—the top-billed actress continuing her decades-long run as bad girl, sale garce, femme fatale, fallen woman—Duvivier and Spaak reveal a lingering debt to poetic realism, that spate of romantic-fatalistic, often studio-bound French films of the thirties, which included Duvivier among its key purveyors but by this time had considerably ebbed in influence. Though commentators have frequently noted the affinities between Panique and Carné’s Le jour se lève, Duvivier’s film looks back even more intently to another of the signal works of poetic realism, Carné’s Port of Shadows. Both Port and Panique flaunt their studio artifice. Both feature Simon as a bearded, homely, and cynical outsider with a foreign name (Zabel in Carné, Hirovitch in Duvivier) who is obsessed with a younger woman—Michèle Morgan rather improbably playing his seventeen-year-old goddaughter in Port; Zabel’s passion for religious music also oddly anticipates Alice’s love of church music in the latter film. Both films contain a sequence in which the slick villain threatens the protagonist (Jean Gabin in Port) and gets his face mercilessly slapped in return, and include oddly parallel sequences at fairgrounds, where the criminals aggressively take to a bumper-car ride. It is one measure of Panique’s bleaker vision, Port’s fatalism seeming rather rote, that this interlude should turn out to prefigure the mob’s hounding of Hire at film’s end, as the young couples in the other bumper cars unleash a mass attack on the solitary elder’s vehicle—his very age and aloneness incitements to their escalating malice—crashing into him until Hire finds himself hemmed in and immobilized by his tormentors. An onlooker compares this ferocious ritual of humiliation to a big-game hunt with dogs, one of many such animal metaphors in the film. (Speaking of canines, where Carné equips Gabin with the cute, resolute mutt Kiki in Port of Shadows, Duvivier opens his film with a dog battling a clochard for some scraps in a garbage can, equating man and beast in their feral pursuit of food.)

Duvivier was dismissed by the nouvelle vague directors, especially Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, for what they viewed as his bland prolificacy, his lack of an individual style or personality. Even the director’s recent champions have resorted to such ambiguous terms as “demi-auteur” or “impure auteur” to describe the pro whose mind was always on his next project and whose vast output ranged across countless genres. But surely Panique—which Duvivier quite rightly believed was his best film, even if critics largely disparaged it—testifies to a long-standing authorial vision, an asperity evident in such films as David Golder (1931), La bandera (1935), and La belle équipe (with its original downbeat ending, that is), and intensified here. As well, the film’s complex deployment of repetition and doubling and its sometimes showy camera work—with an abundance of crane shots—contradict the oft-repeated characterization of Duvivier as master of invisible editing and anonymous images. (Panique’s reliance on lap dissolves may contrast with the rapid montage that opens David Golder, for example, but its tracking shots readily recall Duvivier’s previous mastery of camera movement.) From such simple visual ploys as associating Hire with windows—his first entry into the hotel is traced through a series of panes, and the casement through which he spies on Alice figures prominently, while she in turn is associated with mirrors—to the film’s elaborate scaffolding of recurrent motifs, Panique displays great formal authority. Everywhere one finds paired objects, events, characters, and spaces: Hire’s second incarnation as Dr. Varga; the two sets of feet shot in unseemly close-up, those of the tramp in the film’s first image and those that first identify the corpse of Mademoiselle Noblet a few minutes later; the congested den of the carnival’s fortune-teller recalled in the clutter of the astrologer’s office; the two taxi rides, one that takes Hire and Alice to his island paradise, the other that delivers him to his violent fate; the two mortuary vans, ferrying first the cadaver of Mademoiselle Noblet, then the corpse of the man falsely accused of her murder; the twin visits of the amorous criminals, Alice, then Alfred, to Dr. Varga’s bureau. And in the twice-repeated song that declares universal love near the film’s beginning and, most bitterly, in its finale, one finds another auteurist touch, in that Duvivier loved to insert chansons whenever he could, for instance coaxing Gabin to explore his music-hall pedigree in both La belle équipe and Pépé le moko (1937). 

The many crane shots in Panique, which was filmed on the soundstages of the Victorine studios in Nice, emphasize the setting’s enclosure, immuring its inhabitants in an isolated world of intolerance and innuendo—Duvivier mocks the nation’s foundational ideals, repeatedly fixing the camera on a signboard that reads “Lavoir de la Fraternité,” on the building where Hire perishes. The director, even when shooting on location in rural Quebec or an African desert, accentuated spatial confinement, most memorably in the Algerian medina of Pépé le moko, and from the outset of Panique, Duvivier clogs his already constricted frames with conveyances: the tram that takes Hire from Villejuif to Paris, the convoy of fairground vans, the mortuary van (its funeral cortege tellingly shot with a dolly from the vantage point of the dodgem quad), the little boat that ferries Hire and Alice to Wolves’ Island, the aforementioned taxis (plus the one that brings Alice back from prison), the fire trucks, the fair rides whose circular journeys send light raking over the nocturnal ceiling of Hire’s garret, and which include Le Bobsleigh, a whirligig that affords Alfred and Alice a giddy but spurious escape in the film’s finale. For all the vehicular motion, back and forth, round and round, up and down, the prevailing aura in Panique is one of stasis and inexorability, which Duvivier accentuates by inserting into the soundtrack three times the whistle and clatter of an unseen train—as the children descend upon the scene to see the corpse of Mademoiselle Noblet; during the funeral procession; and, most markedly, as Hire is chased across the rooftop. Traditionally promising escape or adventure, the train instead becomes a harbinger of death. 

In a last, crucial departure from the Simenon novel, Duvivier turns Hire’s exculpatory testament from a letter dispatched to the authorities informing on the murderer to a photograph of Alfred strangling Mademoiselle Noblet, cached in the camera with which Hire documented human misery for his misanthropic delectation. Though the photograph strains credibility—how did Hire shoot the evidence that, given the time of the crime on a winter evening, would have required a flash, without Alfred’s noticing?—Duvivier’s transference of Hire’s testimony from word to image recalls a similar strategy in an earlier work about mob violence, Fritz Lang’s Fury, in which the members of a lynching gang are identified when a newsreel film of their attack is screened in the courtroom. Both directors emphasize the indisputable veracity of the image over the devious ways of the word, though Duvivier outdoes the pessimistic Lang by making the photographic disclosure posthumous, too late to save his Monsieur Hire, who surely would have responded to the director’s contention that Panique portrayed a world in which “we are far from people who love each other” by asking if any other kind ever existed.