This French Noir Emphasizes 'Real Detective Work'
The character of Maigret is not as well known in the United States as Hercule Poirot, or certainly Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade (this writer Googled Maigret when the Blu-rays crossed his desk), but the detective has enjoyed portrayals from actors as diverse as Charles Laughton to Rowan Atkinson in a current run of films, television shows and more. Maigret comes to us from a series of novels by Belgian author Georges Simenon; “Maigret Sets a Trap” (1958) is not the first and far from the last live action portrayal of the Parisian detective.
It may be the Atkinson show that cued Kino Lorber(love these guys) to release two films from the late 1950’s starring Jean Gabin as the eponymous detective of “Maigret Sets a Trap” and “Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case.”
Viewers expecting a polite detective story featuring a BBC-esque charming and harmless detective solving a murder like a game at a garden party may be in for a surprise. Each film provides a police procedural and a thriller, and for American audiences used to the coded language and soft-peddling of atrocity and adult sexuality from the Hays Code era, the frank portrayal of these themes weighs in equally as startling and revelatory for a film from the era.
While far from the first movie to portray a detective in pursuit of a “mad killer” - what we would later term a serial killer - we come into the action as the anonymous villain takes out his fourth victim in a senseless crime, ruthlessly stabbing a violinist on the way to work. This time the killer sends Maigret a message to come to the scene.
Detective fiction fans will find a lot to love in Maigret’s persona as portrayed by Gabin, a sort of avuncular bloodhound, driven to the hunt, but with the years of experience weighing on him. In a supremely humanizing touch, after a night of interrogating suspects, Maigret returns home to his wife where we learn he was set to go on vacation and dreams of retirement (he may be the original “getting too old for this @#$%” movie police officer). But with a push from his wife, who’s really a match and a foil for our detective, Maigret is back on the case.
Set in the streets of urban Paris (but most assuredly shot primarily on a soundstage), the film uses the winding alleys and old walk-ups as the backdrop for murder. While the cinematography is not particularly inspired, it is also far from listless, and restored for this Blu-ray release, the detail in the crowded apartments, the nuance of expression on the faces of characters in a movie not adorned with glamorous characters, is well presented.
While there is some barrier to those of us reading subtitles against the film’s native French, nothing is lost in the translation and while Gabin commands the screen. Other strong performances abound in the variety of characters, from local butchers to career criminals and cagey gigolos.
The movie does seem like it tips its hand early in identifying the suspect, but Maigret must still establish method, motive and opportunity, and all of this feels like real detective work that American films too often ignore for the shock reveal. Instead, the film builds to its climax as those pieces of the puzzle snap into place. There’s genuine, enjoyable mystery to the film, and a respect for the audience and what it can handle that American crime aficionados may have seen in their dime store novels going back to the 1920s, but couldn’t find at the cinema until a decade later as Hollywood began to shake off the restrictions of the Code.
There’s so much to like in this film and in the excellent presentation, it’s a fascinating movie for mystery and detective fans. Add in the cultural differences for flavor, and you have a movie that feels utterly modern created sixty years ago made all the more interesting for its period and context.