25th Jan2019

‘Panique’ Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Viviane Romance, Michel Simon, Paul Bernard, Lita Recio | Written by Julien Duvivier, Charles Spaak | Directed by Julien Duvivier


The setting for this 1946 gem is a small French town, and the fast-moving plot concerns the murder of a local woman, Aurore Noblet. While the police are baffled by the killing, the locals are quick to assume the culprit: Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), a reclusive and friendless man who’s too smart for his own good.

When the beautiful Lili (Vivian Romance) – AKA “Alice” – comes to town, she runs straight into the arms of her lover, Alfred (Paul Bernard). Alfred is, of course, the killer – and now the beneficiary of a purse containing 7,000 francs. However, Hire apparently has proof of Alfred’s guilt, so it is imperative that the scheming couple get him out of the way, and they will do so by blaming him for the murder of Noblet. Helpfully for them, Hire has fallen in love with Lili, which makes him treacherously malleable. Will Lili sacrifice the gentle Hire for the sake of a small fortune?

It’s a classic, tragic love triangle. Hire’s love for Lili is matched only by Lili’s for Alfred. Except these loves are different. His is innocent and borne of loneliness; hers is borne of infatuation.

The three main performances are excellent. There’s a great moment when Alfred admits his guilt, and we see Lili’s smile fade, and she seems to go blank and cold, as if dying before him. Similarly, when Hire delivers a withering speech to a knife-wielding Alfred, we see the power in the former wax as it wanes wordlessly in the latter.

Writer-director Julien Duvivier delivers a richly realised small town community. It has the feel of a real, functioning place. Amongst the colourful residents, tensions and rivalries are implied not through bland exposition but through utterances and glances.

The mob is set to action by two outspoken locals: a bawdy barwoman and a growling, jowly butcher. Not everyone in the town is onboard with the theory of Hire’s guilt. But what the screenplay (adapted from Georges Simenon’s novella Les Fiançailles de M. Hire) brilliantly portrays is the way that the mob, once at critical mass, can sweep aside dissenters and swallow them into the pack.

Duvivier was prolific in the silent era, and his technique has greatly evolved from those more stagey times. Panique is gorgeously shot (and beautifully remastered by Criterion, it must be said), with some excellent matte paintwork to deepen the wide shots.

More impressive still is Duvivier’s movement of the camera. The film is almost Max Ophuls-like in its combined use of pans, tilts and cranes – and that constant sense of motion mirrors the characters’ sense of never being allowed to settle, of constantly dodging the crosshairs of guilt.

The visual ideas are relentless. During a bumper cars scene, Duvivier doesn’t simply shoot from the sidelines; instead, he attaches cameras to the cars, front- and forward-facing, and cuts rapidly, creating a strangely intense action sequence.

That the story is set during a town carnival is crucial: it’s a moment when the town comes together under the guise of community, of togetherness. This (false) sense of unity is what ultimately drives the mob. But unity and the mob are not synonymous. Never does the town consider inviting Hire in; never do they seek to understand his exclusion, which is largely self-made but entirely harmless.

Ending on a sadly ironic note, Panique is a simple story exploring a complex moral issue, and it does so in a very entertaining and often humorous way. Like Fritz Lang’s M before it, Panique is a moving and powerful condemnation of mob rule in all its forms, and with this timely reissue, it will hopefully garner similar recognition.


  • 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 author Pierre Simenon, the son of novelist Georges Simenon
  • Conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about director Jliien 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

Panique is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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