In post-war Paris, an elderly woman is murdered apparently without motive. As the locals puzzle over the identity of the culprit, bafflement soon turns to panic as their unfounded suspicions turn to the eccentric Jewish man, Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), who lives in an apartment near the scene of the crime.
An exemplary film noir, Julien Duvivier’s Panique is as much about the city itself as its occupants. American noir is often set in the ultra-modern, sprawling Los Angeles or among the towering art-deco skyscrapers of New York, dwarfing their inhabitants and shrouding them in darkness. There are shadows in Paris, too, but here they are cast not by modernist architecture but by the crumbling ruins of the pre-war period, as if the city is caught between the rehabilitation of modernity and the trauma of the recent past.
Panique has no urban sprawl into which the guilty can escape – instead, the action is confined to the claustrophobia of a small neighbourhood where anonymity is impossible. As the neighbourhood becomes a stand-in for the city – itself a microcosm of post-war French national conscious – Duvivier employs a sort of visual synecdoche, dividing up the separate parts of the city to reveal the whole – a sleeping homeless man moved on from a bench, a stray dog barking at passers-by, a lone man piled on in a seemingly innocent game of dodgems – all these in some way tell us something about the nature of the city, and of the trauma it is still living through.
In this post-collaboration Paris, no one is innocent, but some are more guilty than others. After the murder, the hunt for the culprit is less about justice for the victim and more the exoneration of the community’s shared guilt. For the audience, it’s clear from the start who the real killer is – the career criminal Capoulade (Max Dalbin), whose girlfriend has just been released from jail for taking the rap for one of his crimes. However, as one of the community, Capoulade is above suspicion, especially after he spots a patsy in Hire, whose voyeuristic attraction to Alice (Viviane Romance) makes him an easy target.
Hire’s strength of character in the face of Capoulade’s petty threats make his naivety with Alice all the more pathetic. Yet it is not just her erotic power to emasculate – the primary weapon of the classic femme fatale – that disarms Hire, but the humanity she shows him as one of society’s others. Crucially, in their crimes Capoulade and Alice are not aberrant – there are no monsters here who need only to be vanquished for the world to revert to normality. Rather, they are the catalysts who light a collective monstrosity in the community, one in which all are guilty but no individual is to blame. The neighbourhood’s hysterical, mindless attack on Hire is a pure act of scapegoating, giving figure to its own sense of aberration so that it may be symbolically erased.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell