Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) is an eccentric presence in this small community in immediately Post-War France, not courting any friendships, gruff and sardonic in what conversation he is persuaded into participating with, and keeping himself very much to himself. The reason for that may be his Jewishness, which he has also not broadcast, aware that humanity has fallen very far in recent years and finding solace in the morbid, taking as his hobby photographs of the downtrodden and even dead. But a woman has been found strangled to death just off the main town square, and the locals start looking around for a possible culprit. What if the real murderer used Hire as a patsy?
We know from near the beginning that Hire is not the killer, yet we can also see why the townsfolk would believe him to be capable of all sorts of terrible acts, not only murder but theft and even child molestation. Not because he would ever do those things, but because he has been stung by trying to get along with other folks and as a result has a dim view of them when he is well aware how they can turn on you; it is as if pre-emptively he is almost unconsciously embracing the status of outsider to keep them at arm's length in the hope that they will stay away and leave him be to get on with his life in peace and quiet. No such luck when the poison of suspicion is dripped in their ears.
And who is administering that poison? A genuine villain, the lowlife Alfred Chartier (regular heel in French films of the era Paul Bernard) who gives the appearance of sophistication and decency, when in fact he has worked out a scheme to set the police and locals alike on a track away from himself after he tried to steal the dead maid's money and strangled her in the process. Yet he is not acting alone, as he has a besotted fiancée, Alice (popular glamourpuss Viviane Romance - or at least she was until accused of collaboration), and he places her as his stooge to make Hire fall in love with her, getting close to him to plant evidence and frame him for his own despicable crimes. But he's not the only despicable one.
What starts out as a black comedy of sorts grew grimmer and grimmer, not merely thanks to Hire's emotions getting toyed with for evil motives, but because director and co-writer Julien Duvivier was slamming his fellow Frenchmen and women, and by extension anyone who indulges in scapegoating and victimisation through nothing more than blind idiocy. This was his first film back in France after spending the Second World War in Hollywood, which had bred resentment in his homeland, and he wasn't having it. This was the place he had grown up in, established himself and become a success, yet he saw it corrupted by the Nazis that turned the entire nation during the Occupation into a population of the grudgeful and paranoid, topped off with a willingness of many to save their skins by sacrificing innocents to the foreign forces then turning round to accuse others of doing that self same thing once the conflict ended.
There is a reason the Occupation is a sore point even in the century following, and Duvivier pulled no punches in making it clear precisely why that was. Hire was Jewish, yes, but he could have been anyone who did not fit into an increasingly narrow set of parameters of acceptability in the community, and what happened to him, while dramatically predictable, was no less disturbing, especially as the film depicted the townsfolk in a near-humorous manner for much of the film, that was until we realised their true colours. This was based on a Georges Simenon novel, one of the many he wrote outside of his hit Maigret series and one of his most cynical; on the page, Hire's main flaw was his perversion, he was a Peeping Tom, something Alice uses to entice him like a spider waiting in her web. Yet she begins to have doubts, doubts regularly dispelled by her love for Alfred where she gets a look of adoration on her face as she looks up at him, with a hint of savagery to unsettle us. Yet the doubts return, suggesting even the most obtuse victimiser has some awareness of the immorality of their actions. A very powerful work, its warnings remain valid, sadly. Music by Jean Wiener.
[Panique has been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, looking and sounding miles better. Those features in full:
New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
The Art of Subtitling, a new short documentary by Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures, about the history of subtitles
New interview with the very articulate author Pierre Simenon, the son of novelist Georges Simenon
Amusing conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about director Julien Duvivier and the film's production history
Rialto Pictures re-release trailer
New English subtitle translation by Duvivier expert Lenny Borger
PLUS: Essays by film scholar James Quandt and Borger.]